Minaret Scrambles

So there we were, on the opposite side of the street from the Khan, standing under the wooden roof connecting the two buildings that essentially created the Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri Complex. Apparently there have been attempts to prevent vendors from squatting here, however you wouldn’t know it by looking. It’s the go-to spot for bras and lacy underwear (who wouldn’t want to buy those from a wooden pallet on a dusty street sold by a 14-year-old boy), scarves (I’m learning one can never have enough) and plastic hangars.

The complex of al-Ghuri was built in the early 1500s, and includes a mosque, mausoleum, sabil (public water fountain), madrasa (school for teaching the Qur’an), and a caravanserai. It was also a gathering place for Sufis. As the last complex of its size to be built before the Ottoman rule in 1517 AD, it’s apparently a classic example of late Mamluk architecture.

The one side held the sabil, madrasa and caravanserai, but Haitham and I climbed the other stairs to the mosque. The inside was quite beautiful, with an open central courtyard and towering open-air roof. The walls were lined with marble and limestone and the floor was covered in multi-colored marble. And there were a handful of kittens playing back near the women’s area (which is behind a screen, out of sight).

As we were looking around, taking photos and admiring the architectural details, Haitham was approached by a man who offered to take us up the minaret. Why not?! So we gathered up our shoes from the entrance, carried them through the mosque to a door on the other side and were led up a small stone staircase. We reached the top of the mosque and could see right across the tops of Cairo’s buildings. We could also see over the edge to the fabric/bedding/clothing/spice markets below. (Note the visual hiccup of minarets and satellite dishes.)

At the edge of the roof was the entrance to the square, red and white checked minaret. I’ve been told, on another tour, that this was the only square minaret in Cairo, however I have not yet been able to confirm that anywhere else, so it might just have been one of those “Cairo facts” that are thrown about. But apparently I can tell you that the five spires currently on the top are a misrepresentation of the original, which only had four. (And they thought no one would notice.)

So our guide preceded us up the interior stone steps of the minaret. I have to assume he’s done this once or twice before. Which leads me to wonder aloud why he doesn’t come prepared with a flashlight for his unsuspecting followers; because inside it is as dark as a moonless night in the backwoods of Maine. I mean, dark! Stumble along, drag your hand on the wall in front of you and use your toes as step-finders and just keep muttering, “I’ll be fine,” type of dark.

We were fine, and the view was worth the temporary blindness. Luckily we also had a clear day. So here you see, what is sometimes called, medieval Cairo spread beneath you. I know, looks a lot like the other parts of Cairo. But this dirt is medieval dirt.

Despite Haitham’s expression, we were both really quite proud of ourselves, having both admitted to bouts of vertigo at times in our pasts.

So, having taken our fill of photos, we inched our way back down. I declined the oh-so-kind offer of our guide to hold my hand, and instead just kept blinking and shuffling until my eyesight returned and I was at the bottom again. Haitham dutifully tipped him, however despite the rather significant sum, he was obviously hoping for more. Welcome to Cairo!

So we finally zipped over to the Khan for one quick errand, then prolonging the adventure we decided to walk home from here – which I have never done. Along the way we passed a guy selling grilled corn on a make-shift stand and Haitham bought one. My street food introductions continue and I had a bite and it was delicious! It’s just raw corn, grilled (or burnt) over hot coals while being fanned with a filthy mass of feathers (we’ll have to come up with something catchier for the marketing campaign). The guy’s fingers were charred black from turning the cobs – I’m sure there’s a metal tong store just around the corner somewhere.

We ambled on, through a fabric market, past the bolts of upholstery and satin and linen and lace. Past stores selling everything imaginable, and some things actually unimaginable.

We passed a huge open market that I’d only seen from cabs as I drove by on the fly-over. There were throngs of people everywhere, all along the walk until we got finally to the downtown area and stumbled home to Zamalek. By this point we were admittedly exhausted, dirty, tired and extremely thirsty. But oh boy was it worth it!

The one thing I forgot to mention that I also brought with us was a pedometer, which dutifully tracked our 16,000 steps, equaling more than ten miles of walking. I think Haitham might be trying to kill me.