Exploring Cairo: An enchanted walk through the historic El-Khalifa neighbourhood

Lamia Hassan , Tuesday 20 Sep 2016

Home to the Salah El-Din Citadel, Tekeyet El-Mawlawiya and Ahmad Ibn Tulun Mosque, El-Khalifa is a journey in time through Cairo's Islamic history

The domes and minarets of Al Khalifa (Lamia Hassan)
The domes and minarets of Al Khalifa (Lamia Hassan)

When crossing Salah Salem Road at any time of the day, you cannot miss the iconic Citadel of Salah El-Din dominating the eastern edge of the city. One might think this is the best this side of the city has to offer, but there's a world behind the beautiful fortress that holds a fine collection of Cairo's Islamic architectural gems.

Three girls enjoy a walk on the roof of Ibn Toloun Mosque (Lamia Hassan)

Take a small detour off the main Salah Salem road towards Salah El-Din Square and get ready to embark on a special journey through the sites of El-Khalifa neighbourhood.

While many of the nearby districts may be more well-known for their monuments and touristic sites, the streets and nooks of El-Khalifa neighbourhood are perfect for a day-walk if you are looking to see a great collection of monuments and mosques in a less crowded and non-commercial area of Cairo.

Sabil Um Abbas: Ottoman era

The facade of Sabil Um Abbas (Lamia Hassan)

Starting off the walk at Salah El-Din Square, you will start noticing the decorative Islamic designs on some of the buildings, and further down the street you cannot miss the remarkable Ottoman landmark resting on a street corner; Sabil Um Abbas.

The landmark was originally built on the orders of Banbah Qadin, the mother of Abbas Helmy I, who ruled Egypt from 1848 to 1854. At the time, sabils were built to serve clean water for passersby as well as serve as a Kutab, or a small educational institution.

The unique marble ornaments with full-blossomed flowers and Arabic calligraphy on the outside of Sabil Um Abbas (Lamia Hassan)

Thirteen years after his death, Abbas's mother ordered the construction of this sabil in the honour of her son, whose reign was marked with cruelty and culminated in his assassination.

Though sabils are not uncommon in Cairo, Sabil Um Abbas is particularly splendid. The structure is marked with a beautiful marble facade, with wooden hoods engraved with Arabic calligraphy and Qur'anic verses. The sabil also boasts beautiful bronze window grills and unique marble ornaments, with full-blossomed flowers on its different sides.

The luxurious landmark catches the eye from afar, though sadly it has long been closed to the public.

Amir Taz Palace: Mamluk era

The ceiling inside one of the main rooms at Amir Taz Palace (Lamia Hassan)

If you take a right at the sabil and walk a few metres down the street, you will come across the entrance to the magnificent Amir Taz Palace at the intersection of Saliba and Siyufiya streets. The palace, which dates back to the Mamluk era and now serves as a cultural centre, is open to the public free of charge.

Arabic calligraphy and art on the walls of Amir Taz Palace (Lamia Hassan)

As you step inside, you find yourself in a courtyard at the centre of the structure, facing the different rooms. Unlike some other historical palaces that still hold the belongings of their original masters, there is not much to see inside the rooms of the Amir Taz Palace. However, the beautifully designed building, with its chandeliers and walls adorned with Arabic calligraphy, is splendid to behold on its own.

The details of Amir Taz Palace (Lamia Hassan)

The palace also serves as host to many cultural events and exhibitions, especially during the month of Ramadan.

Tekeyet El- Mawlawiya: Ottoman era

A sign that reads 'Our Master' inside the Sama'a Khan at the Mevlevi Museum (Lamia Hassan)

Beyond the intersection where the palace stands lies Tekeyet El- Mawlawiya, or the Mevlevi Museum.

Although one of the less popular touristic or historical sites in the area, Tekeyet El- Mawlawiya still has much to offer behind its doors. The place was built during the Ottoman period to serve as a house for dervishes following the Mevlevi Sufi order.

The inside of the Sama'a Khana (or the Sufi dervishes dance hall) at the Mevlevi Museum (Lamia Hassan)

Inside the complex, you first come across a room that serves as a museum where the clothes and belongings of the dervishes are displayed.

The main attraction of the site, however, is the Sama'a Khana; a two-floor dance hall for the dervishes where Sufi performances are held to this day.

The ceiling of the Sama'a Khana (Lamia Hassan)

The ceiling of the Sama'a Khana is an art piece adorned with Sufi writing, and the hall holds colourful mosaic windows and a chandelier.

You may find one or two visitors during the day if you visit on a weekend, though most of the time the place is free of visitors unless there is an event.

Ahmad Ibn Tulun Mosque: Tulunid Dynasty

The spiral minaret and arches of Ibn Toloun (Lamia Hassan)

A 10-minute walk from the sabil will take you to the gate of the Ahmad Ibn Tulun Mosque.

Top view of Ahmed Ibn Toloun Mosque and its courtyard (Lamia Hassan)

Ibn Tulun is one of the oldest standing mosques in Egypt that remains in its same original form. It was built by Ahmad Ibn Tulun, a soldier who came to Egypt from Iraq and went on to found the Tulunid Dynasty, forming a new Egyptian capital; Al-Qata'i.

Inside the walls of Ibn Toloun complex (Lamia Hassan)

Inside the mosque, you cannot miss the unique arches and the windows all around the courtyard with beautifully carved stucco, as well as the coloured, red-brick columns, each representing a different era. The architecture and the different decorative additions made to the mosque are a reflection of the Abbasid Dynasty architecture.

The beautiful red-brick columns inside Ibn Toloun Mosque, each representing a different era. (Lamia Hassan)

The mosque is perched on the rocks of Jabal Yashkur as a way to ensure its protection. While the Amir Taz Palace and Tekeyet El-Mawlawiya serve mainly as tourist attractions, the Ibn Tulun Mosque sees visitors from all walks of life.

The courtyard of Ibn Toloun (Lamia Hassan)

When visiting the mosque, you may want to check out the upper floor, where you can get a great view of the courtyard as well as the Citadel of Salah El-Din. You can also take the Samarran-inspired spiral staircase up to the mosque’s minaret.

The spiral minaret of Ahmed Ibn Toloun Mosque (Lamia Hassan)

From within the walls of Ibn Tulun, you can find a small gateway to the south of the mosque's entrance that leads to the world of Gayer Anderson.

Ibn Toloun visitor enjoys a moment of serenity inside the mosque. (Lamia Hassan)

Gayer-Anderson House

The 'Summer Room' at Gayer Anderson Museum (Lamia Hassan)

The Gayer-Anderson House and Museum, also known as Beit El-Keretleya (the House of the Cretan Woman), consists of two connected 16th century houses that hold a beautiful collection of artefacts, furniture, letters, artworks, images and objects that once belonged to the British major and army doctor John Gayer-Anderson.

A doorknob inside Gayer Anderson Museum that reads 'Love knocks on the door then life enters.' (Lamia Hassan)

Gayer-Anderson was a British officer and doctor who first came to Cairo in 1906 as part of his service in the army, eventually settling down in the city in the 1940s.

Gayer-Anderson was a great collector of objets d'art, monuments and furniture from all around the world. The house is notable not only for the objects and unique collection of artefacts that Gayer-Anderson left behind, but also for its architecture, as the residence was made up of two 16-century houses which Gayer-Anderson restored.

The colourful stained-glass windows of the 'Reading Room' at Gayer Anderson Museum

Gayer-Anderson, who lived in the house until his death, bequeathed the house and its contents to the Egyptian state, which turned it into a museum.

Details of the 'Damascus Room' inside Gayer Anderson Museum. (Lamia Hassan)

Unlike many other historical houses or palaces, this museum is one of few that still contain all the well-preserved belongings of the original owners.

Every small detail of the house is a masterpiece in its own right, from the Damascus Room, Queen Anne's Room, the Reading Room to the Haramlek and Salamlek. Even the doorknobs, the library has on its door a small figurine of an angel and on top of it an engraving that says, “Love knocks on your door and love starts”.

Almost every corner of Gayer Anderson Museum has a unique style, even the ceiling of every room in the house

The house also partially served as a set for the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me.

Mapping the monuments and historic buildings of Al Khalifa put together by Megawra and Athar Lina (Lamia Hassan)

Unlike many of the other sites on El-Khalifa that offer free entrance, the museum has an EGP 5 entrance fee and an EGP 50 photography permit, though it is certainly worth the price of admittance.

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