Book Review - The 1,000 faces of history: Cairo’s buildings tell tales of bygone times

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 9 Jun 2020


Kharidat Al-Qahira (The Pearls of Cairo) – 238pp, Hamed Mohamed Hamed, Rewaq Publishing, 2020


“In 1347, Cairo was hit by the plague, and it seemed like the worst nightmares of the Middle Ages were unfolding. At the time, Sultan Hassan left Cairo to retire in Saryakos (in today’s governorate of Qalioubya) to escape the epidemic. It was actually a pandemic that had started in China, hit Europe and spread all over the world. It changed the face of the entire world, killing millions and millions of people.

“In Cairo, thousands were dying every day. At times, entire families were just wiped out as their members dropped dead one after the other in a matter of a few days. This meant that entire streets and neighbourhoods would become uninhabited as everyone living there lost their lives to the plague. So today, if you ever pass by the mosque of Al-Hakim (at the southern end of Muezz Lidinallah Street) try to remember that some 650 years ago this mosque hosted the funeral prayers for endless numbers of people who died from the plague and whose coffins were too numerous for this [spacious] mosque to accommodate.”

This text comes from Hamed Mohamed Hamed’s book “Kharidat Al-Qahira – shaya’ min sirat alamakan welashkhas” (The Pearls of Cairo – on the history of places and people).

The book came out in the very early days of this year from Rewaq Publishing – just as the world was trying to make sense of the devastating coronavirus pandemic.

In close to 300 pages, Hamed, a pharmacologist turned anthropologist in his late 30s, tries to introduce the reader to the many often overlooked buildings that sit next to more well-known monuments in the Islamic quarters of Old Cairo. Hamed tries to take the reader away from the dominating stories that are associated with the well-known and not so well-known buildings – because, as he makes clear, some of these stories are simply untrue and have only been ingrained in the collective memory of the city through repetition.

Moreover, Hamed tries to help the reader get beyond the assumption that the history of any particular monument is strictly the making of the time during which it was built. Many times, the reader would certainly be surprised to learn that the commonly known history of some famous building relates a lot more to incidents that took place years after its construction.

The story of Al-Fakahani Mosque, at the other end of Muezz Lidinallah Street towards Bab Zweila, is one of many that Hamed reveals in his walk around the pearls of Cairo.

Contrary to what many believe, Hamed’s book reveals that this mosque was never actually built by a Sufi sheikh named Al-Fakahani. In fact, the mosque we see today on the left side of the street near the old gate of Cairo is the Mamluk age version of an older building constructed in the Fatimid age by Al-Zafer, one of the most unfortunate Khalifs of the Fatimids.

The reference to Al-Fakahani (Arabic for “fruit-vendor”) relates to the fact that many fruit-vendors would sell their wares on carts next to the mosque. One day, as the mosque was falling into serious disrepair, one of the leading Mamluks dreamt that one of these vendors appealed to him to reconstruct the deteriorating building as a way to atone for the many horrible things he had done.

And as promised by the author and by the title, the book is also about the people whose association with the buildings goes way beyond those who commissioned or constructed the monuments we see today.

Hamed’s Kharidat Al-Qahira talks quite a bit about the norms of life in Cairo from when it was founded by the Fatimids to the Ottoman occupation of the city.

Relations between rich and poor, men and women and Muslims and Christians are there for the reader to reflect on. And as perfectly becoming of a book about the rule of the Fatimids, Ayoubids, Mamluks and Ottomans, the book tells many stories of palace intrigue, murder and of rulers’ atrocities and eccentricities.

Hamed’s book acknowledges the power of old buildings and the stories behind them, and that in Cairo one can never escape the power of old stories, true or false. Ultimately, Hamed wrote, Cairo is a city of over 1,000 years and its history is also of 1,000 faces, and it would be unfortunate for one face to hide all the others.


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