Thursday 2 April 2020

Al-Mu'ezz Street, Cairo 2016

We were the only tourists in Old Cairo that day.

Al-Mu'ezz Street was slowly waking up on the first day of Eid.  My wife and I seemed to be the only tourists exploring old Cairo that morning.  Our guide, Anwar, took us into the street through its mediaeval gate Bab Zuwela.  Above us ancient, dark, wooden filigree filtered the morning sun and I do mean ancient, this wood is reputed to come from Noah's Ark.  Al-Mu'ezz   Street was first built when Cairo — El-Qahîra, "destroyer of the enemy" — was at the height of its power inthe 10th century under the Fatimid rulers. What we saw, however, was built mostly in the 18th century.
On our right, we saw the Sabil of the son of Muhammad Ali Pasha.  Here, water was carried from the Nile and stored in a cistern (Sabil) to provide water for the poor. We could not get in but continued up the awakening street. Narrow alleys branched off. These alleys used to hide the workshops or Khans of artisans: the leather workers, the silversmiths, the weavers.  It reminded me of parts of the city of London where names of old streets, for example, Ironmongers Lane, still record their old purpose. 
In Arab architecture, the outdoors is hot and hostile.  Its buildings reflect the inner life of coolness, family and privacy.  So we were not entirely surprised on being shown through a non-descript door to find ourselves in the previously concealed Al-Mu'ayyad Mosque.  Glorious stained glass windows high above us filtered hostile sunlight into a shaded and cool space.  I learned something, new about the Mirhab that is to be found in every mosque.  I knew that one purpose was to indicate the direction of Mecca. However, its shell-like shape also reflects the voice of the imam leading the prayers back behind him to the prayerful.
We returned to the street to find that not everything was serious.  A few young Cairenes were also visiting. They had hired period costumes to have their photographs taken. Over his jeans and T-shirt, the young man wore an elaborate black cloak and had enhanced his look with a false beard and a tarbouche.  The two young women, already very attractive in modern dress and hijab, had put on the full niqab, albeit its black material festooned with bright embroidery and pailettes.  One of them, entirely aware of the effect she was having, flashed kohled eyes through the narrow slit.  While we wondered whether to take photographs,they invited us to join in.  No doubt, we are now strangely adorning somebody's Facebook page in Cairo.

First floor windows jutted out over the street.  The windows were covered with dark wooden fretwork.  From here, the women would have looked out on a world that would never see them.
Another blank door, a few steps and we were in the bright, sunlit courtyard of the El Ashraf Brisbay Madrassa.  Its cool cloister was marked out with columns.  In its day, the courtyard would have been full of students in a swirl of robes, hurrying to the particular pillar, at which they knew to expect a particular professor to deliver the lecture they wanted.  
A diversion to our right brought us to the Bayt al-Sihaymi,the house of a 17th century merchant.  Rich merchants have not changed their habits much; this mansion was two houses knocked into one.  We stood in the festival room, where the men had sat on divans to watch dancers.  The women had their own rooms for entertainment.  They would have watched female dancers performing Raqs Sharqi, the gentler and less exotic form of belly dance.  We were in the house of a family that knew how to live well, what a treat it would have been to spend a day in the house's library when it was full of books.
Our last call was Sultan Inal's Hammam.  It no longer functions but we loved all the familiar elements of a hammam, the steam rooms, the marble slab and light
through coloured glass stars in domed ceilings.
We emerged from Al-Mu'ezz Li-Dîn Illâh, to give the street its proper name, at Bab Al-Nasr, the gate through which Egypt's victorious armies returned to the city.  We turned right towards the Khan el-Khalili and finished our tour in the traditional coffee house, El Lord.  We sat on divans among brilliant tapestries and carpets, drinking coffee and mint tea, we felt at home.  On the wall were photographs of some of Egypt's former leaders with such as Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein; smiling faces of men who thought they would rule forever.
For a few hours, we had felt part of old Cairo. Egypt needs its tourists back.  We met nothing but friendship and care for our safety.  My message to travellers is, please return to this city and to Egypt.

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