For the first time in a decade, Cairo's iconic Mohamed Ali Mosque, situated in the Citadel, opened its doors for Eid prayers, allowing hundreds to worship at the historic Ottoman site on the most important day of the Islamic calendar.
The popular tourist destination, whose familiar silhouette dominates Cairo’s skyline, was shut 10 years ago due to security risks.
“The Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the Ministry of Tourism made an agreement and we have been working for the last two months to ensure it is open today,” Sheikh Khalid Abdel-Fattah, who conducted the Eid prayers, told Ahram Online. “Its history and its location makes it so important to the capital.”
Worshippers had come from across Cairo to the historic opening. "It was absolutely beautiful to pray in this special place," says Nihal, who bought her whole family from Shubra. "We didn't want to miss this moment." People continued pouring into the mosque even as the prayers ended, spilling into the courtyard outside.
Commissioned by Egypt’s formidable ruler Mohamed Ali during the 1800s, the mosque deliberately supplanted already existing Mamluck architecture as a strong visual reminder of Ali’s new era. Overcoming the security issues and opening this iconic site on the first Eid that Egypt has a democratically elected post-revolution president is, perhaps, not a coincidence.
Ramadan this year has not been uneventful: clashes on Egypt's border at Rafah saw 16 Egyptian soldiers killed and the launch of an ongoing military-led operation to rout out militant groups in Sinai. Added to this, in a move commentators dubbed a “preemptive coup,” President Mohamed Morsi retired the country’s erstwhile leader Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and transferred the extensive powers of the armed forces to the presidency.
The Mohamed Ali Mosque sermon reflected this moment of upheaval and called on the people to show loyalty to a “good president.”
“It was very diplomatic. The sheikh didn’t mention Morsi by name but the message was clear — we should stick by him,” says Abdul-Rahman, 25, an environmental researcher who came to photograph the reopening. “There are a lot of problems in Egypt right now, but so far I think Morsi has succeeded in sorting out power management with the military. I think the people are generally positive and happy.”
Outside of the mosque, families continued discussions about the eventful last few weeks.
“This Ramadan has been an important month. Right now we are in a freedom era. We hope we are going to continue this spirit of change and democracy,” says Mahmoud Bakr, 55, an accountant from Abdeen. “I see the Sinai crisis as a key event, as it will push Egypt to have more security forces in the area, which will be ultimately better for Egypt, Palestine and Israel. There were major faults in Camp David (the peace agreement with Israel) and now maybe Morsi can address these.”
Kamal El-Said, an electrical engineer and member of the congregation, agreed. “Now is a good chance to finally sort Sinai out. We left the area for too long. We left aside cultivation, infrastructure, development, this has contributed to the situation we now find ourselves in.”
The country’s infrastructure, in terms of utilities, was another topic of conversation after prayers with recent electricity cuts as well as water, gas and bread shortages. President Morsi’s 100-day plan promised to address these major issues, though many are still waiting for results.
“These major issues did not just start now, they began years ago. Egypt has water. The problem is how we use it. The same goes for electricity, and how we deal with the huge increase in consumption. I personally believe we will see these issues ironed out in the next year,” El-Said stated, adding he is putting his faith in Morsi’s programme.
“Believe me, Egypt will get better. The revolution was an important moment and now, I hope, we’re moving on.”