After the visit to the Giza pyramids, I hit the road again with my host in his car.
On the way, he stopped at the Ring road-bridge that separated Cairo from Giza, and told me to take a look at the Nile river. I took one look, and I was immediately disappointed. The mighty Nile was just 100 metres or something in width around here. I told this to Husam, my host, and he started laughing. Turns out, that the land I saw on the left, was not the river banks. It was an entire island called Gezirat al Dahab (or golden island), in the middle of the Nile river, which housed nearly 1000 people. I have seen minor islands on some rivers before, but seeing such a huge island, in a river, was definitely a first.
Next, we headed to the hanging church, or known locally as El Muallaqa. Now, before you get any assumptions, let me state that the hanging church is NOT hanging. it’s named so because it was built on top of a roman fortress. Located in Coptic Cairo, I am told that it is also called a staircase church, at times, because of the 29 steps that lead up to it.
The church was notably absent of any kind of touristic scammers, or touts, and had some incredibly beautiful interiors with art details and marble pulpits. There were passages where you could look down through a fiberglass, and see the fortress below, kind of justifying its name.
The mosques of Cairo
After the hanging church, we had to do a mad dash to see the Saladin citadel, since the time was already 3 pm. The citadel closed at 4 PM, and that meant that we had to come the next day to see it, along with the mosque of Mohammed Ali Pasha, which was inside the citadel. Weaving our way through the tortuous Cairo traffic, we reached the citadel with 30 minutes left, and found out that only the ticketing counter would close by 4, and the citadel was open till 5 PM. Happy to have made it, I bought the ticket of 60 Egyptian pounds, while my host, being the Egyptian, had to only pay 2 EGP as always. Local’s luck, I call it.
We skipped the museums inside the citadel complex, namely the Egyptian military museum and the Carriage museum, owing to time constraints. But the Mohammed Ali Pasha mosque itself, was worth the mad rush. This ottoman-styled mosque is so similar to the blue mosque of Istanbul, and the Turkish connection was left glaring in your face. And inside the mosque, the lighting and the architecture was so intricate, that I wished I had studied architecture to be able explain it better in this post.
The twin minarets of the mosque may be visible from almost anywhere in Cairo city, but it was the interiors that captivated me more. The fact that there are 2 levels of domes, adds to the space quotient inside the mosque, which feels elaborate and massive. The interiors are covered in Alabaster, and has ornate lamps and lights in the roof, giving a very serene and peaceful feeling to the mosque ambience.
After the mosque, we proceeded to see the rest of the citadel, especially enjoying the views of Cairo from above, before we were asked to leave around 5 PM. I thought seeing the citadel and the mosque was one of the best-spent 90 minutes of my life ever, but to anyone else, I would recommend to come early and take your time to enjoy this spectacle.
Being famished from all the hurrying of the day, we stopped by a small falafel shop, and gorged a couple of big falafels each, only costing 6 Egyptian pounds in total. That was less than a dollar! My host explained that everything was cheap in Egypt, including gas which cost only about 2 Egyptian pounds. But for a foreigner, all the touristic tickets were mad expensive. And going by my day, he must be right, because I had spent about 200 – 300 Egyptian pounds on tickets alone, while only about 30 EGP on everything else.
After the falafel, it was dark already, and I was thinking of heading home. But my host informed me that the streets of Cairo are safe even at night, and I should check out some amazing night-time mosques.
First, we went to the Al Azhar mosque, which was named after the prophet Muhammed’s daughter, Fatimah, who was also called Az-zahra or the shining one. Being the first mosque in Cairo, it has also seen multiple changes, and alternating local treatments under different rulers and empires. It also housed a school/university inside the mosque, and I was lucky to see a school session in progress. (I would learn in the future that this was the second oldest functional university in the world!) Actually, I felt lucky to be the only tourist inside the mosque, as I could experience a religion different from mine, and understand how it felt to practice it.
After Al Azhar, we took a walk through the Khan Al Khaleeli bazaar, where people quickly caught on that I was the foreigner and invited to buy anything and everything that was there to be bought. Since the tourism in Egypt had died almost entirely since the revolution, and it was a rare sight to see a tourist nowadays, so all the vendors pounced on me to sell whatever they were selling. I kept politely refusing in the 2 Arabic words that I had become an expert in. La Shukran (No, Thanks)
Through the bazaar, we took a few side streets, to my fear and the chuckling of my host, to reach the Kalawun mosque complex. I figured out later that the full name was Sultan Al Nasr Muhammad Ibn Qala’un Mosque. So much for a name!
I was told that tourists almost never visit the mosque. And true, it wasn’t very grand or something. But the lighting around the mosque at night, was awesome. They had a string of different lights, giving it a very psychedelic look. This was also a very young neighbourhood, judging by the number of young couples who hung out outside the mosque compound.
That was a packed day for sure, and it is not easy to club the whole experience of Cairo into one day. But somehow, I managed. Next up, need to check out the smaller towns of Saqqara and Memphis for their famous pyramids.