Two legends are told about this mosque-mausoleum on the south-western edge of the Moqattam hills.
One is that the man who commissioned it, Badr Al-Gemali, the Armenian who was the country’s de factor ruler under the Fatimid Caliph Al-Mustansir, selected a site from which he could see the mausoleum of the seven women he loved, the reference here being to the mysterious mausoleum of the Sabaa Banat, which is in the southern cemetery, also called the Qarafa Kebira.
The other legend is that the mosque may have been used as a watchtower. Al-Gemali, vizier and army chief, lived in turbulent times.
The Crusades hadn’t started yet, but Egypt was already coveted by Muslim rivals to the east and the north. The Sunnis were the main threat to the country’s Shia regime.
Hard to believe, but Egypt was in Al-Gemali’s time the most powerful Shia nation on earth, sort of like today’s Iran, and proud of it.
Al-Gemali kept building fortifications in and around Cairo, of which the gates of Bab Al-Futuh and Bab Al-Nasr in the northern wall of Cairo and Bab Zuweila in the southern wall of Cairo remain in astonishingly good shape to this day.
It is not improbable, then, that military and intelligence personnel working for Al-Gemali would have worked shifts on the tower, looking for signs of disturbance in the city, and at night receiving light signals from informants to warn of any threats, advancing armies or disturbances in rowdy neighbourhoods.
What they would have seen in front of them wouldn’t be the sprawling city that we see today. Saladin’s Citadel was not yet built, and of course the wide highways passing through the southern cemetery were still sleepy desert land adorned with tombs and domes.
In day time, especially on Fridays, they would see pilgrims filing through the narrow lanes of the cemetery, to visit their family tombs and say prayers to the nearby saints.
The men with the hard hats appearing in one of the accompanying photos worked for the Committee for the Conservation of Monuments of Arab Art, which is known by its shortened French name as the Comite.
The scene they would have witnessed around 1920 would have been quite different. Tramways in the distance, a few automobiles, and the first high rises of downtown, up to five or six storeys, already visible in the distance.