Hussein: When the tourists were local

Nabil Shawkat, Sunday 5 Aug 2012

Al-Hussein Mosque and the layers of history it reveals

Al-Hussein (Photo credit: from the AUC Creswell Collection)
A popular destination for religious as well as mundane tourists, the Shrine and Mosque of Sidna al-Hussein is at the heart of Fatimid Cairo, and apart from its spiritual value, the building is of interest because of the incredible layers of history it reveals.


In this photo, from the AUC Creswell collection, taken in the 1920s, you see the oldest gate of the shrine, known as al-Bab al-Akhdar, or the Green Door, now located just inside the eastern wall of the mosque.

When this picture was taken, the area was yet to explore its future potential as a tourist destination. So, although the boy standing in front of the shrine may have picked up a few English and Italian words from the westerners living in the Moski quarter nearby. foreign travellers touring the nearby Khan al-Khalili were few. Still the al-Hussein quarter was very popular among countryside visitors, who would converge on the neighbourhood in Ramadan and various religious holidays.

The gate to the shrine is made up of layers of history, the lowers parts Fatimid (eleventh century), the bottom part of the minaret Ayyubid (thirteenth century), and the top part Ottoman (seventeenth century).                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Considering the slow modes of transportation, the boy standing on the left is probably from the neighbourhood, or has close friends and family there. Although his family may be of modest means, he may still have had some education in the many Koranic schools in the neighbourhood, called kottab (usually located at the top of a drinking fountain establishment, with education offered for free, finance coming from religious endowments).

Egypt was under British occupation at the time, and a new, more modern system of education was beginning to take hold. Parents of wealthy families were beginning to shun the old religious schools for a more modern one. And some families sent their children to study in the two educational systems simultaneously, as a way of hedging their bets.

Some of the boy's more affluent contemporaries would go to French and English schools, some run by missionaries, and later on acquire some education abroad and come back to join the top ranks of the country's up and coming class of government clerks.

The original al-Mashhad al-Husseini (the word mashhad literally means view or viewing site, but it is used commonly to indicate a mausoleum or shrine) was built in 1154. The middle part of the minaret above was added around 1236, and the top part is an Ottoman addition.

The mosque of which the shrine is now only a small part was not built until the time of Khedive Ismail in 1873.

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