Islamic Cairo, not for the faint of heart or flat-footed

January brought us our first houseguest! Haitham, Ron’s friend from the Met in New York, came for a few weeks, and it is for him and him alone that I saved Islamic Cairo (other than the Citadel). The reason for this is simple, there is no one more knowledgeable or better versed in Islamic art than Haitham (which is good since he teaches it at three universities in NYC).

So, after resting up from his travels, we ventured out for our first adventure starting at Ibn Tulun Mosque. Actually it started earlier than that as it took us three attempts to find a taxi driver who knew where it was. The irony is that the mosque and accompanying Gayer-Anderson Museum are in the top five tourist sites for Cairo. And the mosque itself covers 6.5 acres of land in central Cairo, so it’s no hidden gem. It’s a gargantuan gem.

The Mosque of Ibn Tulun is the third largest mosque in the world and is the largest and oldest mosque in Cairo (completed 879 AD) boasting its original structure. Ahmad ibn Tulun himself was born in Baghdad, the son of a Turkish slave. He rose to become the governor of Egypt in 870 AD and ruled through 905 AD. There are many legends surrounding the location of this mosque, including it being the landing spot for Noah’s Ark, or the location where God spoke with Moses and Moses confronted Pharaoh’s magicians (I’m not familiar with that one…), or that close by was where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son. Suffice it to say, there is great religious significance to this locale.

The mosque is designed with a large open inner courtyard surrounded by covered halls on four sides, with the deepest hall on the qibla side, or side indicating the direction of Mecca. Also on this side is the mihrab (niche in the wall to indicate the qibla wall) and minbar (platform or stairs from which the Imam gives his sermons or lectures). The domed ablution fountain in the middle of the courtyard is not from the 879 plans. The original ablution fountain was apparently changed to this present location at the end of the 13th century (and currently remains a waterless, albeit impressive, fount).

Haitham and I, after dutifully removing our shoes (I’m getting better at remembering to wear heavy non-white socks, as most of these mosques have concrete or dirt floors), I donned a headscarf to be respectful (though I hear it’s not as expected of Westerners), began to wander and explore. We carried an Islamic Cairo guidebook and read through the descriptions, which included indicating that three of the 128 plaster stucco windows were original. Following the book’s instructions, we counted off from one corner to find these windows, however by the time we got to the third one we were thoroughly confused and completely uncertain as to whether we had actually found the first two. So much for two brains being better than one.

The 13 arches on each side surrounding the courtyard are pointed at the top; a design style that didn’t appear in Europe for another 200 years. The stucco designs decorating the inside of the arches are stunning in their intricacy and variations. Running along the top of the wall, under the ceiling is a band of sycamore wood stretching 1.2 miles around the mosque, inscribed with the beginning of the Qur’an. It’s said that some of these boards were salvaged from Noah’s Ark.

There is an outside wall, separating the mosque from the secular world or shops and apartments that press in on all sides. It’s topped with crenellations that give the impression of paper dolls linking arms. One guidebook states that while most likely unintentional, it gives a sign of solidarity, as well as a distinctive cut-out in the skyline.

The minaret on this mosque is unique in its spiral design, however it’s uncertain what is still original on it. After paying the requisite bakshish, primary to get rid of the insistent guide, we clambered up the minaret. The top of the base rests on the roof of the halls surrounding the courtyard, so you’re able to walk around the top of the mosque. We continued up to the top of the minaret which, on a clear day, affords an amazing 365 degree view of Cairo, from the Citadel and Moqattam Hills, to down town and beyond. (No, Cairo is not "beautiful" but there is an awe-inspiring quality that cannot be denied.)

The mosque has a significant history of restorations and other-uses, including being used as a wool factory, hospice and caravanserai, or hotel of sorts for North African pilgrims heading to Mecca. The first recorded restoration was in 1177, then in 1296 and most recently in 2004.

During this trip I managed to bring a camera with a dead battery, so I didn’t get any photos. However, a few weeks later, Ron and I took Mom, who was visiting us, back and this time I made sure to bring a working camera (enabling documentation of the matchy-matchy mother-daughter look – which was unintentional, I assure you; Ron in his "rented" shoe covers; and Mom practicing for her upcoming role in "Aladdin.").

From here, my adventures with Haitham in Islamic Cairo had merely begun, so stay tuned!