It goes without saying that Alexandria has always been looked upon as cosmopolitan, the gateway of east and west. Historians, writers, and poets have long seen the Egyptian coastal city as a place of harmony where people from various backgrounds have lived together peacefully.
However, the western aspect of the city has sometimes received the most attention in books, films, and historical depictions of Alexandria. The Islamic and oriental aspect of the city, though sometimes neglected, is just as rich.
One recent Friday morning, Maysara Hussein, a researcher in the modern history of Alexandria and treasurer of the Heritage, Culture, and Arts Foundation in the city, took Al-Ahram Weekly on a tour around some of Alexandria’s richest districts.
Who were the people who gave their names to the city’s streets and mosques? And how were they related to Alexandria?
During the Hellenistic period, the area known today as Bahari in Alexandria was the Heptastadium, a bridge that connected the mainland of the city with the Pharos Island and forming what we know today as the Eastern and Western Harbours.
The city was the capital of Egypt up until the Arab and Islamic conquest in 641 CE, when it was moved to Fustat in what today is Cairo. Alexandria then began a slow decline, though throughout the Islamic period it was surrounded by walls, with each gate in them being similar to the Andalusian style, with front wall lower than the inner wall. The city had four main gates: the Bab Rashid (today at Fouad Street from Zohour Square); the Bab Sidra (in the south of Alexandria); the Bab Al-Bahr; and the Bab Al-Akhdar, or the green gate (today in Manshiya). Later, there was also the Bab Khokha established during the Mamluke era.
Bawabeen (gate keepers) were in charge of protecting these gates and were familiar with all the residents in the area. Outside the walls, there were a number of cemeteries, and as the years passed new parts of the city started developing outside the walls and between the two harbours as a result of silt deposits.
In the 16th century CE and after the Ottoman invasion of Egypt, Alexandria’s standing continued to worsen, particularly the remains of the ancient city behind the walls. The new city outside them continued to develop but in a rather chaotic way, and some architectural elements from the old city were used in the building of the new city, later known as the Turkish Town.
This eventually led to the “hybridisation of styles” described by author Mohamed Awad in his Italy in Alexandria: Influences on the Built Environment published by the Alexandria Preservation Trust in 2008.
The new city became mostly inhabited by Andalusian and North African immigrants looking for work at sea. Many of the city’s districts even today are named after Moroccan and Andalusian sheikhs such as Al-Agami and Al-Shatbi. According to Awad, “the new city resembled that of many Turkish settlements, with narrow irregular streets, very few open spaces, and a dense built environment. This part of the city, known at the time as Al-Qasabah (the neck), was the product of the traditional guilds with all their building crafts and professions.”
Even so, by the beginning of the 19th century, Alexandria was little more than a fishing village, according to some observers.
“It was not until the beginning of the 19th century and the appointment of Mohamed Ali as viceroy of Egypt that the city started to flourish again,” says M Dessouki in his Interrelationship between Urban Space and Collective Memory, a study published by Cairo University in 2012.
“Mohamed Ali’s ambitious plans to revive the once-great city included the construction of a new port and arsenal, the re-digging of the Mahmoudiya Canal, the construction of the Ras Al-Tin Palace, and the establishment of a new European quarter to match those in European cities. In order to attract foreign capital, the viceroy granted lands to immigrant communities as well as capitulations,” he says.
“These communities settled in the newly established European quarters and each had an elected president and built its own schools, hospitals, and clubs. The Turkish Town also continued to develop and expanded towards the area within the old city walls, what is today the area of Gomrok and Manshiya district,” writes UK author Michael Haag in his Vintage Alexandria: Photographs of the City, 1860-1960, published in 2008.
The English writer E M Forster (1879-1970) also described the Turkish Town as “picturesque and full of gentle charm”.
THE TURKISH TOWN: Walking through the old Turkish Town of Bahari, one often stumbles upon small mosques (zawya) or narrow streets with the name Sidi (my lord), such as Sidi Mefrah, Sidi Al-Hagary, and Sidi Yakout (all mosques and shrines) named after Islamic imams and scholars.
The Weekly started the tour from the Morsi Abul-Abbas Mosque, named after Abul-Abbas Al-Marsi, an Andalusian scholar who came from Murcia (Spain) to settle in Alexandria. He was a student and follower of Abi Al-Hassan Al-Shazli, a prominent Sufi scholar who was the teacher of many prominent Islamic figures such Ibn Atallah Al-Iskandari.
The construction of the mosque started in the 14th century and was pursued by one of the well-known merchants of the time, Sheikh Zeineddin Ibn Al-Qattan, who was visiting it and decided to build a dome on top of the tomb of Al-Marsi. He hired an imam and a servant for the mosque at this time.
In the 16th century, the mosque was renovated by one of his later students, Abul-Abbas Al-Salafi, also buried in the mosque. In the late 18th century, Sheikh Abdallah Al-Maghrabi, a Moroccan pilgrim, expanded the mosque and constructed a fountain. In the 19th century, it was renovated once again by Ahmed Bek Al-Dakhakhni, and in 1857, Mohamed Said Pasha also renovated and expanded the mosque.
In 1929, the Egyptian government decided to rebuild the mosque and develop the area surrounding it, known today as the Midan Al-Masajid, or Mosques Square. It hired prominent Italian architect Mario Rossi to do so, and he went on to build three of the most famous mosques in Alexandria, including the Morsi Abul-Abbas Mosque and Al-Qaed Ibrahim Mosque at Ramleh Station, built in 1948. He also designed the shrine of Al-Shatby Mosque.
Meanwhile, Yakout Al-Arsh Al-Habashi, one of Al-Marsi’s students who came from Ethiopia to Alexandria as a slave and was set free by Al-Marsi, is buried close to the Morsi Mosque in the Midan Al-Masajid. The mosque’s architectural style is classic Ottoman, and it has an open court.
BAB AL-BAHR: As its name of Sea Gate shows, the Bab Al-Bahr overlooked the Eastern Harbour of the city, being the main gate of travellers to and from Alexandria.
Behind the gate there was a large area where local emirs used to play a game similar to Polo, as described by commentator Mohamed Abul-Kasem Al-Neweiri, who witnessed the Cypriot invasion of Alexandria in 767 Hijri (1366 CE). He wrote a book, in which he described the city’s shrines at the time.
The Bab Al-Bahr was partly demolished at this time, but it was later renovated by an emir named Salaheddin Ibn Araam. It used to stand at the intersection of what today are the Attarin and Sabaa Banat streets.
The Omar Gouda Mosque is another of the hidden gems of this area across from the Ras Al-Tin Palace, and it is named after Sheikh Gouda, a boat builder during the Mohamed Ali period called Al-Rayes Omar. He was hired to work with French engineers due to his exceptional talent.
During the same period, a man named Sheikh Al-Banaa shared a close relationship with the royal family and Ismail Pasha in particular before he became khedive or ruler of Egypt in the late 19th century. During one of his walks to the Ras Al-Tin Palace, he used to pass by the cemetery of Bab Al-Bahr reciting the Quran and praying for those who have passed.
One day, he forgot to say his usual prayers during his walk to the palace. Later that night, he dreamt of a man asking “why did you not pray for us.” He asked him who he was, and received the answer “I am Abdel-Rahman Ibn Hormoz Al-Arag, one of the followers of the Companions of the Prophet Mohamed and the student of Abu Huraira.”
The next day, Al-Banaa told of his dream, and one of the people listening to him was a man named Darwish Abu Sen who decided to build a mosque in the same spot he had described. This is what we know today as the Masjid Ibn Hormoz in Ras Al-Tin.
BAB AL-AKHDAR: The Bab Al-Akhdar originally overlooked the Western Harbour of the city, the Selsela area today.
The mediaeval Moroccan traveller Ibn Battouta says that it was known as the western gate and that it opened only once a week, usually on Fridays, as people used to visit the cemetery outside its walls, known as the Tal Walaa Cemetery after Abdel-Rahman Ibn Walaa who was killed during the Islamic conquest of Alexandria.
The gate was also demolished during the Cypriot invasion of the city, but it continued to be opened and closed throughout the Mamluk period. The street where the gate used to exist is known today as Al-Bab Al-Akhdar and leads off Manshiya Square. It is home to a number of hidden gems belonging to the Islamic and Ottoman eras.
Sadly, however, most of the historical spots can hardly be distinguished among the heaps of rubbish around every corner, but despite the neglect some of the mosques are in a relatively good condition. One can also take in the view of the unique minarets of the area.
Today, houses from the Ottoman period are still standing, but they are often in a bad state. Their wooden terraces and balconies were constructed using traditional Ottoman techniques in which wooden boards were fixed and then reed strips were plaited together uniformly to form a surface.
In 1844, the street was established as part of Mohamed Ali’s development plans for Alexandria, and in the area outside the original walls there was a cemetery that was moved to another part of the city to make way for the construction. The gate gives its name to one of the most notable mosques in the area, the Green Mosque or Western Mosque or Al-Alf Amoud (Thousand Pillars) Mosque. It is distinguished by its green granite fountain for drinking and ablutions.
The mosque was founded by conqueror of Egypt Amr Ibn Al-Aas and is considered one of the oldest and biggest mosques in Alexandria. Historical records by Al-Qalqashandi from the Mamluk era describe the mosque as a remarkable spot where the most prominent scholars of east and west gathered to deliver the Friday Sermon.
Nassereddin Al-Monayar and Sharafeddin Ibn Al-Danini or Sidi Meferah of the Sidi Mefrah Mosque in Fouad Street today were scholars at the Green Mosque. The records also state that some of the Companions of the Prophet Mohamed also took part in the construction of the mosque, which was originally a church named Theonas, built between 282-300 CE, but was demolished during the Arab conquest of the city and the mosque built in its place.
The historical records say that Ottoman Sultan Selim I prayed in the Mosque during a visit to Alexandria. Other records claim that the district saw the first translation of the Jewish Torah into Arabic.
During the French Campaign in Egypt in 1799, the mosque was used as a fort and then became neglected. Mohamed Ali transformed it into a military hospital. During the khedive Tawfik’s rule (1879-1892), the land was granted to the Franciscans, who constructed the Church of Saint Rita, which still stands today.
Many of the mosques and shrines in the area were named after Islamic scholars to have their blessings. Some were buried in the area or were seen by people in visions (mashahid roeya). A rich man would have a dream about a sahabi or a sheikh, and he would then decide to build a mosque in his name.
IBRAHIM PASHA MOSQUE: One of the oldest 19th-century mosques in Alexandria was built in 1824 and named after Ibrahim Pasha (not Mohamed Ali’s son of the same name), who was a landowner and merchant.
He was popular among the community, to the extent that they would ask his opinion on religious matters. He was later exiled by Mohamed Ali, but his mosque’s foundation panel still exists today.
ALI BEK GENINA MOSQUE: Genina Bek was one of the notable figures of Alexandria during the Ottoman period and was the head of the Alexandrian Merchants Council, having a number of titles.
The land for the Ali Bek Genina Mosque was originally a graveyard belonging to the Zaza family. Genina bought the land and established the Mosque and a fountain (sabil) in 1853. He also established a market in the courtyard surrounding the area as a foundation to serve the mosque.
It is distinguished by its red bricks and was built using the “hanging” technique, a famous classical Ottoman building style that was particularly common around markets. The mosque stands on today’s Al-Bab Al-Akhdar Street.
AL-KALZA MOSQUE: This was built by Dessouki Ibn Abdel-Razak Al-Kalza in 1854, an Alexandrian merchant, and is located in Al-Magharba Street.
Al-Kalza bought three houses surrounding the mosque to pay for its expenses. The three-storey building was built in a domical style and its foundation stone still exists today. In his will, Al-Kalza said that a daily recitation of the Quran should be held every day between the Asr and Maghrib prayers and a scholar should be available for students.
He made sure that the expenses of the mosque would be fully paid after his death, including the payment of the caretaker of the sabil.
NAZIR AGHA MOSQUE: This is named after Nazir Agha, who never lived to see the completion of his mosque, as he died before it was finished in 1851.
The mosque was officially opened in 1854 by Ahmed Bek Norsi, appointed by Agha to complete the construction. It does not have a minaret, but does have exquisitely decorated intricate patterns, evidence of a European style popular in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Agha was close to Moharram Bek, a governor of Alexandria. After his death, a dispute occurred between queen Nazli, Mohamed Ali’s granddaughter, and Norsi Bek on who owned the mosque. This may explain why it does not have a minaret.
Other notable mosques in the area include the Sidi Suleiman Mosque, said to be one of the students who came from Andalusia to Alexandria with Abul-Abbas Al-Marsi. Egypt and Alexandria in particular were influenced by Andalusian Sufis, and this meant that many mosques were named after Islamic scholars and the Companions of the Prophet or their followers.
Some mosques were also built as a way of getting closer to the people. “The mosques were usually built in central areas. The Al-Bab Al-Akhdar, for instance, was a busy market street, and whenever someone built a mosque there it was a way of becoming popular among the people. The residents would see the mosque, ask about its owner, and pray for him. In that way he would become well known,” Hussein said.
Other mosques such as the Abu Ali Mosque are also located in the narrow streets of the area. The foundation panel dating back to the Fatimid era is what makes this simple mosque stand out. It is said to have been renovated in the 13th century by an Iraqi named Abu Ali.
The Abu Bakr Al-Tartushi Mosque is named after a man from Tortosa in Spain on his way to pilgrimage in Mecca. He was like many scholars who came from Andalusia to Alexandria on their way to Mecca and decided to settle in the city owing to Egypt’s major religious status and reputation as the fortress of Islam.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.