Last Update 22:27
Sunday, 24 September 2017

Exploring Cairo: A walk on El-Muezz from Bab Zuweila to Wekalat Al-Ghuri

The hey-day of Islamic architecture in Cairo left prints all over the city; one of the best places to discover them is on historic El-Muezz street

Doaa El-Bey, Sunday 22 Jan 2017
Wekalat Al-Ghuri
Mohamed Ali sabil from the outside. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey).
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El-Muezz Street was once the heart of fortified Cairo –or El-Qahera- when it was founded by Gawhar El-Saqelli as the capital of the Fatimid Dynasty in 969.

"When the borders of Cairo were drawn, the fortunetellers noted that planet Mars –known as "the Conquering Star" or Al-Najm El-Qaher- was rising at the time. They suggested that the new capital be called El-Qahera  or "the Conqueror" relayed our knowledgeable guide Mohamed Khalil, head of the Department of Monument Awareness at the Ministry of Antiquities.

Wekalat Al-Ghuri
The dome of Sultan Al-Ghuri's Mosque. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey).

Our walk took us through Al-Ghuriya. Here in the 19th century El-Muezz street was joined with Al-Azhar, our guide explained, creating the Ghuriya area that took its name from the venerable Wekalat Al-Ghuri — built in 1504 as a merchant inn. The other side of El-Muezz holds Al-Hussein Mosque, Khan El-Khalili and other landmarks.

Our walk started from Bab Zuweila, the southern gate and one of the ports of Cairo built by El-Saqelli. It acquired its name from a tribe of Berbers who accompanied the Fatimid Caliph to Egypt and were responsible for guarding the gate.

The gate was also known as Bawabbat Al-Metwalli during the Ottoman period.Al-Metwalli was a tax collector who used to sit on the gate, collecting tolls from workers who could use only that passage to enter and exit Al-Qahera.

Bab Zuweila was famous into the 19th century for the executions that sometimes took place there. At times the severed heads of criminals would be displayed along the tops of the walls—the most famous of which were those of the Mamluks killed in the Citadel massacre of 1811.

Wekalat Al-Ghuri
The Mimbar of Sultan Al-Ghuri's mosque. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey).

Bab Zuweila has two towers that can be accessed via steep and tiring steps. The structures were built to monitor enemy troops attempting to enter the fortified city. Today, the walls provide one of the best views of old Cairo.

Wekalat Al-Ghuri

Our walk brought us next to the Mosque of Sultan Al-Muayyad, originally a jail in which Sheikh Al-Muayyad was imprisoned. Al-Muayyad vowed that if he were ever released, he would someday destroy that jail and build a mosque in its place. When he was eventually released, and rose to become Sultan of all Egypt, Al-Muayyad honored the vow, building a new mosque on the location in 1415.

The mosque's mimbar (pulpit) was once one of the most spectacular in Islamic architecture, but was recently looted. Although the thieves were arrested, the damage was done. It was later restored but in a rather amateurish way.

Wekalat Al-Ghuri
Some of the equipment that the Fatimid Dynasty used during their reign. It is on display in Bab Zuweila Tower. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey).
                                                                                                                                      

Up the road a little way is the sabil (public water dispensary) of Muhammad Ali, the founder of the modern state in Egypt. Ali built the site in memory of his son Tosson, who died of plague at the age of 22. 

The sabil is one of the first buildings in Cairo to be built in the Ottoman architectural style, with decorative ornaments carved into marble brought from Turkey.

Wekalat Al-Ghuri
Some of the equipment that the Fatimid Dynasty used during their reign. It is on display in Bab Zuweila Tower. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey).

The purpose of the sabil was to provide ordinary people with fresh and free drinking water. It contains a huge underground reservoir of water, which would be drawn up in buckets set out for the public in basins outside the structure.

There were once over three hundred Asbelah (sabils) - in Cairo that offered free drinking water — the main source of the resource in the pre-modern era. Most of the sabils were eventually transferred into schools.

Mohammed Ali established a kuttab — a school where children learn to recite and memorise Quran — in the second floor of the sabil. Some of the desks that the school children used to sit on are still there.

Wekalat Al-Ghuri
A guide to few landmarks in Al-Muezz Street. It is placed on top of Bab Zuweila Tower. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey).

At the end of El-Muezz Street — before its intersection with Al-Azhar — lies the complex of Sultan Qansuwa Al-Ghuri or Wekalet Al-Ghuri built by and named after the second last of the Mamluk sultans, who reigned from 1501 to 1516.  

The complex comprises his mausoleum, with a grand hall called the khanqah on the left and a mosque and madrasa on the right.

The Mosque has a large minaret visible from Bab Zuweila, and is known for its high rectangular tower that boasts five bulbs — unlike most mosques, whose minarets claim only one or two. The fifth was not added until the 19th century, to repair a collapse in the top of the tower.

Our guide told us it was once rumoured that the sultan stored gold coins in these bulbs, although the historical record cannot confirm them.

The complex madrasa was inaugurated in 1503 with a great banquet attended by the Abbasid Caliph and the top military and civilian officials of the day.

Today, the khanqah and mausoleum of the complex function as a cultural center.

Wekalat Al-Ghuri
A view of Bab Zuweila from a window of one of the Towers. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey).

Al-Ghuri himself was never buried in his mausoleum. He died of a heart attack while fighting the Ottoman Turks outside Aleppo and his body was never found. However, his wives and children were buried at the site.

 

The dome of the mausoleum was originally made of bricks and covered over with green tiles. Plagued by structural problems, it required rebuilding three times during Al-Ghuri's lifetime and never came out quite right.

The khanqah provided a meeting place and sometimes housing for Sufi mystics.

Wekalat Al-Ghuri
The Mosque of Al-Muayyad Sheikh from the inside. In his rush to build the mosque, that needed a large quantity of marble, Al-Muayyad Sheikh resorted to harvest some of it from pre-existing structures. Besides marble, other parts of the mosque were cannibalised from other buildings, including the door which was taken from have come from the Mosque of Sultan Hassan. That explains why the columns of the mosque look different. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey).

At the end of that walk, green tea in the traditional tin teapots is recommended in El-Fishawy Café. It is the most famous and most crowded café in the area.

You just have to cross Al-Azhar Street to the other side of El-Muezz Street –preferably via the metro- and the café is a short walk from there.

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