As part of their monthly walking programme, Mogawra NGO has provided yet another inspiring tour of the heart of Cairo, this time titled City Walks: Conservation and Rehabilitation.
The walk started from Qalaa Square, which was eyewitness to endless historic events over the centuries.
"It was called El-Remela Square [Sand Square] back in the day because it was tucked between two hills: that of Saladin Citadel and the Kabsh Citadel. Hence it was subjected to a lot of sand," explained our tour guide Maissa Moustafa.
This square in the heart of the city beheld countless historic moments. The sultan's marches always passed through here, whether to celebrate Ramadan, or for the River Nile celebration, or for the Mahmal march. It was also the setting for the royal weddings of Sultan Nasser Ibn Qalawoon's daughters.
During the Mamluk era, the square was the venue for circus-like street entertainment. According to historian El-Maqrizi, during the 14th century, a famous trapeze artist named Yashbak walked a tightrope across the square, between the citadel and the mosque of Sultan Hassan. There were also rooster fights, wrestling matches and a variety of folk arts.
On the other side, facing Sultan Hassan and El-Refaai mosques, is one of the ancient gates of the Saladin citadel. Bab El-Azab was built during the Mamluk era and was restored in the reign of Khedive Ismail. It is carved between two towers that are crowned with a small room from which they used to pour boiling oil – a standard defence technique of the time.
The gate is named after Mohamed El-Azab, who was the head of the Inkesharia, the senior officers of the Ottoman Sultan, who were sent to get rid of the Mamaluks during the reign of Mohamed Ali.
"It is said that he was the mastermind of the citadel massacre of 1811, when he lured the Mamluks to walk in the direction of this door to bid farewell to soldiers going to the Levant. He then closed the door and managed to kill the 500 Mamluk leaders – except for one. Murad Beih managed to leap over the fence on his horse and lived to tell the tale of the massacre," Moustafa said. "According to folk history, it was such an act of violence and viciousness that the blood flooded the area and the neighborhood was named El-Darb El-Ahmar (The Red District) in reference to such bloodshed."
The route is dotted with graceful minarets to the left and right, each representing a signature work of art from the era in which it was built. There is the minaret of Sultan Hassan, which is also known as the Islamic Pyramid due to its architectural excellence. Built in the 14th century, the minaret is pencil-shaped, a common theme of the Ottomans.
Overlooking it is Al-Mahmodeya Mosque, built in the 16th century by Mahmoud Pasha, the ruler of Egypt at the time.
"He was known for his violence and he was usually accompanied by Ashmawy [the killing machine who kills anyone who disobeys the ruler]. Consequently, Mahmoud Pasha was assassinated with the same vicious technique that he applied to the citizens. It is interesting how the name [Ashmawy] lived on to symbolize the man who executes the death penalty in prison, up to this moment," said Moustafa.
A few blocks away is the Bimaristan El-Muayyad Sheikh, recently restored and opened to the public. Built in the 14th century, it is one of the few Islamic relics that survived the modernization of Cairo during the era of Khedive Ismail, thanks to the efforts of Egyptian and French archaeologists in 1881. Hidden amidst the low-rent housing of the district, it took the government years to renovate.
El-Muayyad Sheikh's signature building resembles Ramses II's in its grandeur. Built in 1412, the entrance of the building is a mixture of Persian-style calligraphy endorsed with two shades of Egyptian blue. The Persian word Bimaristan means a place for patients. It included a hospital, a medical school and a school of pharmacy.
The premises also includes a Sufi shelter, known as El-Khaenqa. It was created as a refuge for the Sufis who fled Syria during the Tartar invasion in the 13th century. This place was allocated to non-Egyptian Sufis who stayed there to pray and learn. It was quite prestigious to sponsor such Sufi shelters in those days. Over the years, it was transformed to a tekkia, providing free food and shelter to Sufi Dervishes.
Five minutes away, lies the perfect model of an 18th century building. Built during the Ottoman period and featuring traces of Mamluki design, the House of Egyptian Architecture was first owned by Amr and Ibrahim El-Malatili. During the 1930s it was known as the House of Artists, where Egyptian artists such as Ragheb Ayad, Ramsis Younan and Sahdy Abdel El-Salam used to work.
Until 1989 it was well preserved, because Hassan Fathi – Sheikh of Architects – lived there until his death. However, it was architect Essam Safi El-Din's initiative to restore the house and transform it into a museum for Egyptian Architecture.
The three-story building currently boasts a museum dedicated to the architects Hassan Fathi and Ramsis Wissa Wasef, as well as the history of local Egyptian architecture. Visitors will find models and rare photographs, as well as room dedicated to postcards of Egypt dating back a century.
All photos by Amira El-Noshokaty