Walks are often acts of remembrance and companionship. They make you appreciate social history, architectural gems and rejoice the beauty and joy cleverly hidden beneath dusty trails. This walk was quite unique, following the route where mosques, church complexes and an old Jewish temple are only a few steps away from each other, all set in complete harmony in the heart of the ancient city of Cairo.
What makes this walk really special are two main things. First, the idea of mapping three different houses of worship of the same god in one place is quite insightful. The second, the fact that tens of Egyptians from all walks of life attended and were attentive and willing to re-connect with the essence of the multicultural layers of Egypt was a site in itself.
Organised by the Administration of Heritage Awareness of Al-Gamaliya district, Fatimid Cairo, the walk included Qalawun complex, Prince Bashtak Palace, Al-Baladi Hammam, all tucked neatly on Al-Moez street. Guided by Mohamed Khalil, a tour guide and the head of the administration, the tour was quite a treat.
Is it Zucchini?
According to Khalil, Al Qahera, (The conqueror) was first built in this area, by Gawhar Al Seqelli when the Fatimids first reached Egypt to claim their throne back from the weak and corrupt reign of the Ikhshidids. They consulted astronomers about where to pick the best location, and were all ready to build the city fence wall by nightfall. At night planet Mars was quite visible and known as Al-Qahera (Cairo), they named their capital after him.
Cairo, the new capital, was the hostel of royalties and their entourage, and by sunset, the city gates would be closed. During day time, vendors are permitted to enter and sell their goods, from Bab Zewila gateway, where lots of zucchini vendors were allowed to skip the long queues because the vegetable has a short shelf life, hence the famous Egyptian saying, “heya kossa?” (Is it zucchini?) as an objection to any favouring.
Against the backdrop of ancient castles and behind the capital’s walls lies the Qalawun Complex.
The first thing that greets the eye is the flow of light. Gracefully floating from three windows on the high ceiling, it exposes the rich detailed patterns and motifs embracing the ceiling that beholds a lantern made with lace style metal (shefteshi).
This is where Sultan Qalawun is buried. Known to be the most beautiful tomb in the world -- second to the Taj Mahal -- though much older, the place is serene and quite beautiful.
The path opens up to a yard that beholds perhaps the world’s first general hospital. The Bimar-estan, (patient-place) opened its doors to people from all social levels free of charge. The hospital would even secure two-month payments for all its cured patients, so they would recuperate properly. There was a patio with a fountain and live soft music played as part of their music therapy sessions.
Next to the hospital is a religious school. The school taught the four pillars of feqh (religious study) -- Shafei, Hambali, Hanifi and Maleki -- and beheld special wards for the khanqa, the Sufis who are dedicated to learning and worship.
A few kilometres away is Moshe Ben Maimon, or Maimonides Jewish temple, inside the Jewish alley, built in the 13th century. Ibn Maimon was born in Andalusia on 30 March 1135 AD and died in Egypt 31 December 1204 AD. He was a great thinker and physician.
“No man matches the greatness of (Prophet) Moses, since the time of (Prophet) Moses, except this Moses,” is a phrase often said in praise of Moshe, the Jewish priest who learnt medicine and excelled in it to the extent that he became the family physician of sultan Salah el Din el Alyouby who made him the head of doctors in Egypt. Often known for his ability to cure grave ailments, Ibn Maimoun was sought by Egyptians and non-Jews to heal. Sultan Saladin Al-Alluibi also made him the head of Egypt’s medical sector and his own family doctor.
Of Melting Metal and Running Water
Set a few blocks behind the Jewish Temple is the Zoeila church complex.
The Zoeila church complex was first built in the 4th century to commemorate the stay of the holy family in that spot during their holy journey. According to the local legend, near by to this place were innocent prisoners who were sent to jail, and when virgin Mary passed by them, they asked her to help rescue them because they were innocent. She prayed for them and as she did, the prison bars melted. And Father Zeidoun built a church on that spot and named it the Melt Iron church.
What is also interesting about this church is the water that comes out of its walls. In the old days it was very close to numerous Nile banks. Despite flooding, the church walls managed to survive the different geographical changes over the centuries, as its walls absorbed the underground water, and started to pour it out. The miracle is the fact that this church is still holding its ground, and now they’ve added little plastic water pipes to channel the wall water out of the church.
The water is still running today.