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Thursday, 24 June 2021

Lanterns and palms in Old Cairo

The sound of church bells and the call to prayer provides an enchanting backdrop to the historic neighbourhood of Old Cairo

Dina Ezzat , Sherif Sonbol , Wednesday 28 Apr 2021
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It is a little after midday, and the call to noon prayer is coming from the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque in the Cairo district of Old Cairo, the city’s most ancient quarter and the location of Al-Fustat, the oldest capital of Egypt after the conquest of the country by Ibn Al-Aas in the seventh century CE.

The streets are empty, and there is hardly any noise to interrupt the sound of the muezzin’s rhyming words. “This is the typical sound of Cairo on a late morning at a weekend. It is an incredible contrast to the otherwise very high volume of noise that marks Cairo streets, especially for such a central and busy neighbourhood. But during the call to prayer, the fusion of voices and sounds is suddenly put on hold,” commented Marwan Fawzi, a professor of music at Helwan University.

“But it is not just any weekend. It is also Ramadan during the summer when the quiet becomes more typical. It is only interrupted by either the call to prayer, or the ringing of an occasional church bell, given that we are in the quarter of Cairo’s oldest churches, or the noise of the tok-toks [auto rickshaws] in the streets,” Fawzi said, a student of the soundscapes of Cairo.

In line with government regulations, it does not take long for the gates of the Ibn Al-Aas Mosque to close after a brief opening of around 15 minutes to allow the devout to perform their prayers in this large mosque built in the 19th century to replace one of the many versions of the original that was built of wood and palm leaves.

Given the heat, once the prayers come to an end the mosque seems deserted, and it becomes possible for pedestrians to have the rare chance of hearing the steps of passers-by hurrying inside out of the high temperatures.

The quiet prevails even in the Souq Al-Fustat adjacent to the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque. This art space for the sale of a wide range of traditional crafts is missing its clients to the extent that many stores are closed, some permanently.

“A Saturday Ramadan morning would normally entice many shoppers, but the fact of the matter is that we have not been having any traffic,” said Hoda who sells a range of traditional dresses and bags from across the country.

Mona of the Al-Fustat Gallery selling a range of kelims crafted in the northern Delta city of Kafr Al-Sheikh and pottery from the remarkable Garagos factory in Qena in Upper Egypt said that “this place is not well-marketed. I don’t just mean the Souq Al-Fustat, I mean all of this quarter that is outside the cordoned-off zone of historic Old Cairo.”

The historic district is where the Hanging Church, the Babylon Fortress, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue are located. It is a zone that is frequented by mostly Coptic worshippers who come for prayers and blessings. At the moment, because of the Covid-19 pandemic it is not much of a tourist destination.

But, as both Hoda and Mona note, tourism has been slow for a few years, the economy has been equally slow, and business has been slow for what could otherwise have been a very happening place for traditional crafts.

“In such a very particular spot in a very central area of Cairo next to many old churches and mosques there should be a lot more people, especially since we are approaching Holy Week, but this is not the case,” said Doris Hannah, art manager of the Holy Art store in the Souq Al-Fustat.

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Selling replicas of iconic items from leading Egyptian, Coptic, and Islamic museums and innovative drawings inspired by the themes of Egypt’s history of religious art, she said the material has been seeing a lot more interest from Egyptian than foreign shoppers and mostly from Copts whose passion for icons is profound, as demonstrated by the walls of the churches in this part of the city.

With the advent of Ramadan, Hannah was hoping to see interest picking up in lanterns and Islamic drawings and calligraphy pieces. But she has not seen the interest she had hoped for even in Coptic icons and beautifully crafted pottery and wooden crosses, not even on the eve of Palm Sunday.

AROUND THE AREA

An hour after the end of noon prayers, the vicinity of the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque is still so empty that it becomes possible to hear music coming from occasional stores that have started to do business.

This is something, Fawzi noted, that could ordinarily only be heard in such an otherwise intense neighbourhood on a hot summer day.

The increasing number of high-rise buildings even in this old quarter of the capital has made it more unlikely that a pedestrian will be able to hear music coming from the windows or the balconies of the surrounding houses. This is one of the main changes in the soundscape of the city as a whole, including in the older quarters where older buildings are being knocked down to allow for new and mostly unaesthetic constructions.

However, Fawzi added that unlike the newer neighbourhoods, Old Cairo, or Masr Al-Qadima as the residential quarter is known, is still a neighbourhood where one can still catch occasional tunes. On Amr Ibn Al-Aas Street opposite the main entrance of the mosque this is certainly the case, and some tunes and voices can be easily recognised. A recurrent note is Quranic recitation.

Car mechanics and small grocery stores have already started playing recordings of Quranic recitation by legendary reciters like Mohamed Rifaat and Mustafa Ismail whose voices are synonymous with the holy month of Ramadan.

Although it is the eve of Palm Sunday, there is no indication in the three adjacent churches that things are picking up, neither inside nor outside the churches that fall within the vicinity of the Abu Seifin (Saint Mercurius) Monastery.

“Around the churches there are usually the sounds of pigeons and doves. However, usually one does not hear this cooing noise much if one is close to the cemeteries. The birds do not usually gather much there,” Fawzi said.

A straight walk leads to the Fom Al-Khalig, once the location of a major canal, where Amr Ibn Al-Aas Street ends, allowing for the beginning of Al-Dayoura Street. There are several cemeteries for the many Christian Churches that came to Egypt to join the Coptic Orthodox Church, essentially in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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There is also the Mar Mina Church, where Morgan has arrived in the outer court to start selling palms in the late afternoon of Saturday and continuing into Sunday morning.

Palm Sunday shares with the Moulid Al-Nabi, the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohamed, and the advent of Ramadan a festive look that leads to palms, sugar dolls, and packs of sweets or lanterns all being used as decorations.

The palm festivity is slowly picking up. “We usually start gathering and selling after sunset. It has nothing to do with the coincidence of Palm Sunday falling in Ramadan,” Morgan said.

The street noise is also picking up. A young man riding a cart is singing a song while his horse is moving slowly.

“This is typical of the older neighbourhoods of the city — to find a man passing by and singing,” Fawzi said. “In the older neighbourhoods of many cities not just Cairo, the space that people take up usually goes beyond the limits of their own households. It is about the small houses they live in, as well as about the intimacy that the people of such neighbourhoods share, unlike the upscale neighbourhoods where sometimes people do not even know their neighbours,” he added.

“What is really typical of the entire city are the sounds of animals. Apart from the street dogs and cats, there are also the sounds of horses, donkeys, chickens, ducks and even sheep. This is a particularity of Cairo among other Egyptian big cities,” he said.

AL-SAYEDA ZEINAB

A walk straight on through Al-Sad Street leads to the northern boundaries of Masr Al-Qadima and the edge of the Al-Sayeda Zeinab Mosque.

This is one of the most frequented mosques in Cairo. While the debate continues on whether this mosque is associated with the granddaughter of the prophet or a grand-granddaughter, the blessings that devout worshipers feel they get by even entering the mosque cannot be over-emphasised.

The mosque is closed after the afternoon prayers. However, its vicinity is far from empty, a function of the fact that the day is picking up as the hour comes closer to sunset. People do not frequent the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque for blessings, so it is only busy during the last ten days of the fasting month for the performance of the extended evening prayers of Ramadan, the taraweeh. This is not the case for the Mosque of Al-Sayeda Zeinab.

According to Fawzi, there is a qualitative difference in the soundscape of this part of the city that relates to the fact that it is a busier neighbourhood with no historic buildings and a more diverse residential profile.

The commercial scene is also a lot more intense. Unlike the southern end of the neighbourhood where the Mar Girgis Metro serves as a vegetable and fruit merchants’ area, the northern end of the street is packed with all types of shops selling pickles and pastries.

The restaurants, normally seeing lots of clients, are not expecting many visitors given that Ramadan is a month when people dine at home. However, the stores selling konafa and qatayef, traditional sweets, and pickles are busy.

At a traditional spot near the Mosque of Al-Sayeda Zeinab there are also a few stores selling Ramadan lanterns and playing typical Ramadan songs.

“The high season starts in the three weeks leading up to Ramadan. We still sell during the first few days, but by mid-month we rarely get clients — maybe someone who is visiting relatives out of Cairo or who is travelling abroad and wants to take a lantern from the vicinity of Al-Sayeda Zeinab,” said Ahmed, a merchant.

“I keep the lanterns on display until the 27th, and then I switch to displaying children’s toys which are popular for the feast after Ramadan. But we are still in the mood of the holy month,” he added.

Nothing marks the mood of Ramadan in this part of the city like the sellers of traditional Iftar drinks — cold hibiscus and sobia, a drink made of milk, coconut and soaked bread crumbs. The latter is particularly associated with Al-Sayeda Zeinab.

Queuing up for her drink, Fatma is chatting with other shoppers about the plans of the government to delay the Sham Al-Nessim holiday to the weekend. Sham Al-Nessim has forever been celebrated on the Monday that falls after Easter Sunday, and it is perhaps the one day of the year that almost everybody takes off.

Most people celebrate with an outing and a salted fish meal. It is a holiday that brings all Egyptians together, irrespective of faith or other affinities or associations.

Last year, when the government still imposed restrictions to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, the day was not much celebrated. This year, it falls in the second half of Ramadan. The government, according to its official spokesman, is contemplating pushing the day back to Thursday as it has been doing with some bank holidays.

“It is Ramadan, and we will not be able to enjoy feseekh [salted fish], so we will not really notice the day so much. But we were planning to take our Iftar and eat out in the open air. Why make it on Thursday,” Fatma asked.

The remarks of other women and men standing in the queue were not less perplexed by the debate over the government’s plans. Having picked up her sobia, Fatma said that “we will eat the feseekh for the feast anyway.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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