Along the trail of lions: revisiting Cairo's historic graves

Amira Noshokaty , Saturday 22 Oct 2016

Just when you think you know your city well enough, Cairo surprises you with routes unknown and all the mythic stories left behind.

El-Saida Nafisa Mosque

Spend a Day in Al-Khalifa is a regular event hosted by Mogawra NGO, one that truly connects the monuments with the people who inherited them. Last weekend, as part of the national People and Heritage campaign, Mogawra launched the first of its monthly walks in Al-Khalifa district in the heart of Islamic Cairo. We were led by Maissa Moustafa, a tour guide whose passion and stories made this walk as enchanting as the lives of those we visited.

We started off at what Moustafa described as the "edge of the city" where Cairo ends and many graveyards begin, situated in Al-Khalifa district in historic Cairo—one of Egypt’s 7 UNESCO World Heritage sites.

El Sit Gawhara

El-Saida Nafisa Mosque/maqam (shrine)

Saida Nafisa was the great granddaughter of Al-Hussien . Born in 193 hejra, she was named Nafisa (precious) because she had great precious knowledge. She was born in Mecca and lived in Medina and was known for her piety; she is said to have performed 30 hajj rituals on foot. She was very religious and would fast most of the time and pray all night. Folk stories said she used to pin the tip of her hair to a wall, so that if she fell asleep during her nightlong worship, the pulling of her hair would wake her up.

When she came with her husband to Cairo, escaping turbulent times in Al-Hijaz, they were received with flowers, songs and great love and appreciation by the Egyptian people.

el arbaain
photo by amira el noshokaty

In this place she would hold a science and knowledge salon twice a week, and is said to have given the last prayers to Imam El-Shafai himself when he died. Folk heritage attributes many miracles to El-Saida Nafisa. After her death, people would organize group visits to her shrine (where the current mosque is), as an act of remembrance and gratitude to a true woman of God.

Foreseeing the time of her own death, Nafisa dug her own grave and died in the place her mosque now sits, in 208 hejra.

The road that joins the square of Saida Nafisa to the rest of the tombs of awlia (people of God), charted since the 12th century is called Darb el-Sibaa (“the trail of lions”).

Darb el-Sibaa

In bygone days, kings and sultans possessed their own motif to represent their lifetime’s achievement. El-Sibaa (“the lions”) was the symbol of the Al-Zaher Beibars.

The idea of creating a whole city of for the dead is an Ancient Egyptian one, Moustafa reveals, explaining that Egyptians built tombs with decorative tombstones and shrines to act as a gateway, allowing them to connect with loved ones who have passed. To this day, many Egyptians make sure to visit their deceased on the first day of holy feasts as an act of sharing and remembrance.

However, over the years the city of the dead was soon co-opted by the living, and in a surrealistic moment you can witness the living and the dead side by side.

Darb El-Sebaa was also the main route of religious festivities and marches. It is where the Sultan would walk towards the Nile-metre to announce the flood season, to see the crescent moon and announce the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. It is the route of Mulids (Carnivals of faith) due to the numerous saints who are buried along the trail as well as the path of the Mahmal—the carrier of the Kabba’s cloth, which was crafted in Egypt and carried to Saudi Arabia by camel every year until the 1960’s.

Abbasi tombs
photo amira el noshokaty

A narrow trail off the main pathway brought us to the second stop, Sidi Mufi El-Din and Sidi El-Henawi, where it is believed that anyone hoping to marry can take a bit of henna from El-Henawi’s dome to assure his luck. The third stop was the Abbassid tombs where 17 of the Abbasid Khalifate were buried, beginning in the 12th century. On their right and a few steps down lies a marble obelisk that marks the grave of Mohamed Farid (1868-1919), a notable politician and lawyer who fought for Egyptian socio-political reform before being exiled to Germany. His body was returned to Cairo for burial after his death.

abbassi tombs 2
photo by amira el noshokaty

Al-Set Gawhara

A few blocks away, we found the tombstone of Al-Set Gawhara. Personal assistant to El-Saida Nafisa, Gawhara nursed her in her final days. Constructed of wood, the tomb stands out among its stone companions. A folk story concerning the woman says that one day while Al-Set Gawhara was throwing out water used by Saida Nafisa, she splashed the legs of a non-Muslim girl in the road, granting her the ability to walk and thus prompting her family to convert to Islam—a decision which met with tragedy.

Mohamed Farid tomb stone
Photo Amira El-Noshokaty

Sidi El- Arbaain (The 40 tombs)

A few metres away lies the shrine of 40 Muslim men who died in a dispute with non-Muslims who were angered that the family of the disabled girl converted to Islam.

Al Sayeda Sakina Mosque
Photo Amira El-Noshokaty

In Al-Ashrafi Street lie the tombs of Saida Roqaia, Saida Akka and Al Gaafari. Actually maqam roaia, the tombs were crafted after of a vision, rather than to house actual remains. El-Saida Roqia represents the decadence of Prophet Mohamed. It holds a Mamluk-style dome and was renovated in the eighties, so it appears fresh and has lost the essence of time. Next to it lie the two domes of Akka, known for her beauty and as the bride of so many martyrs—such as the son of Abu Bakr El-Sediq—it was said that whoever wants to be a martyr should marry this beautiful woman. Next to it sits the Shrine of Mohamed Al-Gaafari, the descendant of Sufi pillar Al-Sadiq Al-Gaafari

Shagar El-Dor Dome

This is the place where Shagar El-Dor, the first woman Sultan of Egypt planned to be buried. Little did she know that she would be assassinated only seven years after becoming Sultan in 1250 AD. Shagar El-Dor's dome is decorated in the symbolic byzantine style, with the interior of the dome depicting in mosaic the literal meaning of her name: Trees of Pearls.

Though neither a Sufi nor a woman of faith, she wanted to be buried next to those who were, and chose the site for this reason.

Al-Gaafari shrine

El-Saida Sakina

The granddaughter of Imam Ali and the daughter of Al-Hussien, El-Saida Sakina's real name was Amena, but she was known as Sakina (serenity) for the peace that she radiated. She was a poet, an intellect, witty, smart and from the age of 13 a trend setter, with many women eager to imitate her hair style. Moustafa informed us that there was even a man who imitated her hair style once, but was scolded by Khalifa Omar Ibn Abdel Aziz. She became the first Lady of Hijaz when her father was killed in the Karbala war, and came to stay for a while in Cairo—hence her symbolic shrine which dates back to the 18th century.

Darih Shagar el dor
Photo Amira El-Noshokaty

Sakna Pasha

At the end of the trail, a house stood fast in the face of time. Built in 1846, this is the house of Sakna Basha, a singer and artist who so excelled in her profession that she was given the title Pasha. She taught the famous Almaz how to sing. The house was originally built by a French architect to host the Son of Mohamed Ali.

Sakna Pasha House
Photo Amira El-Noshokaty

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