topics: Mohammed, Islam, daily life, Citadel, Mamluks, HISTORY, architecture, Pyramids, Ibn Tulun Mosque; jump to dispatch

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Rider Notes: November 22, 1997

Breakfast: We dragged ourselves away from our laptops by late morning and, on the way to Islamic Cairo, snacked on leftover pastries from yesterday's Sphinx lunch.

Lunch: We stopped in between mosques to snack on some kushari from a street-side stand approximately the size of a closet. We ate our kushari on a bench perched precariously at the side of a road. click to view a photograph

Dinner: See the Food of the Day.

Food of the Day: Egyptian pancakes

For dinner, we stopped in at the Egyptian Pancake restaurant. click to view a photograph We hesitated at first, because we were not sure what Egyptian pancakes would be like; but we were pleasantly surprised. The pancakes were more pizza-like than we anticipated. The pancake maker took a handful of dough and rolled it into a circle. Then, with a deft motion, he picked the dough up, whirled it over his head, and gently laid it back down on the marble counter. click to view a photograph He did this three or four times stretching the dough out to the required thinness (sort of like a pizza maker tossing the dough into the air except this dough quickly grew to about a yard wide!). Finally, he spread out what ever fillings we had asked for (the guys shared a meat pancake, while andrEa had a coconut and raisin pancake, and Corinne had a cheese and tomato pancake). Next the dough was folded over the filling. Using a large spatula, the chef then slid the pancake into a large oven (which looked suspiciously like a pizza oven). While the pancakes were good and the balmy and relatively quiet outdoor seating area was relaxing click to view a photograph we all agreed that they were not nearly as good as those our mothers make at home.

Word of the Day: Ana faehem and ana faeha — "I understand"

While our knowledge of Arabic grows every day, rare are the moments that we can use ana faehem, which means "I understand" in Egyptian Arabic. A man would say ana faehem click to hear an audio clip, while a women would say ana faeha. click to hear an audio clip

Person of the Day: Prophet Mohammed

"There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah."

In essence, this is the statement of faith in Islam, one we heard and read many times today, having visited so many mosques. The statement is a declaration that Mohammed is the founder of Islam, one of the world's major religions that, at one time, was dominant throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, parts of France, and even the Byzantine Empire. Muslims (the people who practice the religion of Islam) are now a majority in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Persian Gulf states, Oman, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia (with India and Nigeria having very sizable minority populations as well). See more at the Tech fact of the Day. The word Islam means "surrender" or "submission." Muslims, then, are those who have submitted themselves to the will of Allah, the one God.

Mohammed lived in the city of Mecca (in what is now Saudi Arabia). According to legend, one night in the year 610, the first of many revelations came to Mohammed from God by way of the angel Gabriel. The messages Mohammed received conveyed that, contrary to what many Arabs at the time believed, there was but one God. This was, however, not a new message, since Judaism and Christianity were already spreading the idea of one God. Mohammed, then, saw his task not as something new, but as a continuation and conclusion. Islam became a new religion and, eventually, a new civilization and a new empire as well. The revelations that Mohammed received were collected into a book, the Koran or Qur'an (qur'an means "recitation"), which directs Muslims in what they believe and how to live. For Muslims, the Koran is the revealed, eternal, and infallible word of God, as communicated to Mohammed. It is the final, authoritative word in all religious, social, and legal matters. Many also consider it to be the finest example of classical Arabic prose.

Today there are several different branches of Islam. Two of the biggest are the Shi'ites and the Sunnis. The reason for the division into branches is that when Mohammed died, he did not name a successor to the position of caliphate (spiritual and political leader of the people). The Omayyad family of Mecca, who were supported by the Prophet Mohammed's favorite wife (after the death of his first wife, Mohammed married several times, as was common during the period), assumed control. As Islam began to spread and grow, tension was created over who had the right to assume the role of caliphate. Ali, husband of Mohammed's non-Omayyad daughter, Fatima, felt that his claim to the title of caliphate was stronger than the Omayyad family's. When Ali was ignored, he took up arms against the Omayyads, but was quickly assassinated. His son, Al-Hussein (a direct blood relative of the prophet Mohammed), then led a revolt but was killed in battle. The deaths of Ali and his son Al-Hussein resulted in the split that still exists in Islam today. The followers of Al-Hussein and Ali became the Shi'ites, or supporters of Ali; they still believe that only someone directly descended from Mohammed has the divine right of succession to the role of caliph. The Sunnis (followers of the sunnah, which means "the way" or "well-trodden path") are the majority and have banned all descendants of Mohammed from the caliphate for all time.

The religion Mohammed founded has become one of the most potent cultural forces in the world. In the 20th century, it has played — and continues to play — a decisive role in the politics of the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia.

Place of the Day: Islamic Cairo

Islamic Cairo (sometimes called Medieval Cairo) lies to the east of central Cairo and is a dizzying maze of streets filled with sights and smells that overwhelm your senses. It is not surprising that it is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. World Heritage Site World Heritage City

With the highest population density in Cairo (and perhaps the Middle East), Islamic Cairo hums with activity. Walking along its streets, trying to find our way from one site to another (see below), it was not difficult to lose ourselves and pretend that we were living in another time. Vendors line both sides of the streets, selling spices, fruit, fish, bread, clothes, shoes, tools, and any number of handy (and not so handy) household items. Everyone seemed to be talking at once, shouting greetings, prices, the latest sales, and news. click to view a photograph As the sights and smells swirled around us, we walked along and were passed by donkey-led carts and people carrying impossibly huge bundles of goods. Kids raced around us headed for school (every single one of them saying, "Hello! How are you? What is your name? Welcome to Egypt!"). Dogs, cats, and chickens seemed perfectly at home dodging between the feet of passing donkeys and horses. Every tea store and juice stand seemed to be filled to capacity. If it had not been for the occasional Michael Jordan T-shirt and exhaust-spewing truck or car, we could have easily been walking around in the Cairo of hundreds of years ago.

Perhaps the most spectacular part of Islamic Cairo is the Citadel, a medieval fortress perched on a hill overlooking the entire Nile River valley and Cairo. The Citadel looks west towards Cairo and the pyramids at Giza, and dominates the entire area. click to view a photograph

Group Dispatch, November 22

picture of Anthony

Today, the mission the BikeAbout team had accepted was a tour of Islamic Cairo, another UNESCO World Heritage site World Heritage Site World Heritage City and our Place of the Day. Located on the eastern edge of Cairo, Islamic Cairo is a confusing maze of streets with many hidden treasures that await the diligent traveler.

Sometimes called Medieval Cairo, Islamic Cairo is characterized by the large number of medieval mosques that seem to tower over the area. We set out for Islamic Cairo with our Lonely Planet guidebook under our arm, a bag of fig cookies in our hands, and a general plan. While there are 150 sites of historical interest in Islamic Cairo, we attempted to limit ourselves to several mosques and the Citadel.

It is impossible to talk about Islamic Cairo without introducing a bit of Egyptian history. Be warned: This lesson is particularly bloody and full of treachery, murder, and deceit.

The Arab conquest of North Africa first brought Islam to Egypt, and by 642 the Arab Omayyid Empire, based in Damascus, had seized control of all of modern-day Egypt and established Fustat (later called Coptic Cairo) as a military base and seat of government. While Fustat did not last long as a center of government (it would eventually become the city of Cairo), it quickly grew in size as a city of Muslims. It was during the next century that the Islamic faith and the Omayyid Empire reached from Spain and southern France all the way to Asia.

But struggles within the Arab world caused problems and eventually resulted in the decapitation of Marwan, the last Omayyid caliph. As Persian troops paraded his severed head around the burning embers of Fustat, the Abbasside dynasty (based in Baghdad) began its 108-year rule over Egypt. The Abbasside dynasty had a different approach to ruling Egypt and brought in outsiders, Turkish-speaking soldier slaves known as Mamluks, to maintain order.

Mamluks (their name is derived from the Arabic word for "owned" or "held") were professional soldiers, sold by their parents when they were children and trained solely to fight for a sultan or great leader. One of these Mamluk warriors, Bayikbey, became so powerful that his caliph eventually gave him Egypt as a present. Bayikbey's son, Ibn Tulun, not satisfied to be the governor of an Abbasside province, soon launched a successful campaign to establish his own dynasty. In the process, he built the Ibn Tulun Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the entire world — so large that it could hold most of his troops and their horses! click to view a photograph Unfortunately, after Ibn Tulun's death, Egypt was unable to maintain its independence. Instead, it endured several invasions by the Abbassides (again), the Byzantines, Ikhshids, and finally the Fatmids in 968.

Under the Fatmid (who claimed to be directly descent from Mohammed's daughter Fatima and her husband Ali) rulers, Egypt prospered and the city grew greatly in size. Some of the buildings constructed were over ten stories high! — not bad for over 900 years ago.

But Egypt had not endured its last invasion. During the Crusades, the Fatmid Empire too began to crumble. The crusading European knights captured Jerusalem (1099) and carved their own kingdom out of the Fatmid territories in the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean). Hoping to preserve their control of Egypt, the Fatmids in the 12th century decided to cooperate with the Crusaders. This greatly angered the Muslim Seljuk dynasty of Syria, which sent to Egypt an army led by a Kurdish warrior named Shirkoh and his nephew Salah ad-Din. Salah ad-Din eventually gained control of Egypt and founded his own dynasty, the Ayyubids, in 1171. After the Crusaders attacked and partly burned Cairo in 1176, Salah ad-Din began the fortification of Cairo and the construction of the Citadel..

Salah ad-Din also became the most famous of Muslim military heroes. Largely through diplomacy (and force when necessary), he united Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and northern Mesopotamia. Using a huge military force taken from these lands, Salah ad-Din destroyed one of the Crusader armies near Tiberias and then went on to reconquer Acre (also known as 'Akko), Toron, Beirut, Sidon, Nazareth, Caesarea, Nabulus (today's Nablus), Jaffa, and Ascalon (today called Ashqelon). Finally, he captured Jerusalem in 1187.

Above all, Salah ad-Din sought power and, to achieve this power, he bought Mamluk warriors to help him fight his battles. These Mamluks remained in Egypt after their commitment to fight was over and, like their forebears Bayikbey and Ibn Tulun, some of them began to seek positions of power and influence within Egypt. They were largely helped by one woman, Shagarat ad-Durr, wife of the last ruler of the Ayyubids, Salih Ayyub. Shortly after Shagarat ad-Durr's marriage to Salih Ayyub, while the latter was lying ill and near death, soldiers of the Seventh Crusade approached Cairo. Knowing that Salih was sick and dying, the Crusaders decided to wait for his death and the collapse of the government before attacking Cairo. When he did died (in 1249), Shagarat cannily hid his body and for three months managed to trick everyone into thinking that he was alive and passing orders to his generals through her! She stalled long enough for her son to return from Mesopotamia and take power. Unfortunately, the son did not prove to be a strong ruler, so she had him killed! Shaggy then declared herself the Sultana of Egypt and ruled for 80 days — the first woman to rule over Egypt since Cleopatra and the only woman to rule over Muslims until Britain's Queen Victoria.

Shagarat's grasp on power was short. When the Abbasside caliph of Baghdad refused to acknowledge her position, she married the leader of the Mamluk slave warriors she commanded and attempted to rule through him. This didn't work out either. After her new husband decided to take a second wife, Shaggy had him killed too and imprisoned his new wife. The other Mamluk warriors learned of her role in the assassination, and, unable to tolerate such an act against one of their own, they turned her over to her husband's second wife (the one Shagarat had previously imprisoned). The second wife and a group of women beat the former Sultana to death and hung her body off the side of the Citadel as food for the dogs. Whew! Talk about holding a grudge!

After Shagarat's demise at the end of the 13th century, the Mamluks ruled Egypt for over two hundred years. Despite the nearly constant conspiracy, murder, and infighting among the Mamluks (during this period over 50 separate sultans ruled Egypt), the Mamluks did make some impressive contributions to the culture, and particularly the architecture, of Egypt.

In the end Mamluk bloody power tactics proved their undoing. The Mamluks were destroyed by Mohammed Ali, the last ruler to reside in the Citadel, in 1811. After inviting the Mamluk leaders to a day of food and festivities in the Citadel, Mohammed Ali had his guests escorted through a narrow lane on their way out of the Citadel. Mohammed Ali sealed off both ends of the lane and, with his waiting troops, slaughtered all but one of his 470 dinner guests.

OK. Enough history. But to the BikeAbout teams visit.

While previously, when visiting mosques, we have sometimes been limited to visiting only a small section of them, today we were able actually to enter the mosques and walk around. All of us agreed that this was an amazing experience. Actually being able to stroll around and examine the interiors from every angle, we were able to appreciate the beauty and power of the mosques. Many of the mosques we visited were not the typical North African defensive buildings that we were used to seeing in Tunisia. Instead, many of them were more open and accessible. But as beautiful as everything was, while we moved through the vast interior spaces, we took note of some of the obvious damage that the district had suffered during the 1992 earthquake. Many of the older mosques were being repaired and several others were still closed.

Still, the entire day seemed like a history lesson as we visited many of the sites about which we had read from this bloody period of Egypt's past.

We began the day at the base of the Citadel, on the Midan Salah ad-Din (midan means "square," as in "town square") with a tour of the Mosque of Sultan Hassan. click to view a photograph Built between 1356 and 1363 AD with stones believed to have been taken from the Great Pyramids at Giza, this mosque was originally a madrassa (theology school) and is a classic example of Mamluk architecture. Each of the four iwans (vaulted halls) served as classrooms for each main school of Sunni Islam. To make it easier for worshipers to concentrate on their prayers, the interior does not have any decoration. The only remotely ostentatious elements in the mosque were the immensely long oil-lamp chains hanging from the ceiling. click to view a photograph The minarets (towers) connected to this mosque were some of the largest we had ever seen (they are the second tallest in all of Cairo!).

We then crossed the street and toured the Ar-Rifa'i Mosque click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, which was built much later (in 1869) by Khushyar, mother of Khedive Ismail (a khedive is a Mamluk ruler), to serve as a tomb for her family and future khedives. Here we visited the tombs of King Farouk (former king of Egypt during the British occupation) as well as of the Shah of Iran.

Next we were off to visit the Ibn Tulun Mosque click to view a photograph, one of the biggest mosques in the world. click to view a photograph As we wandered around we had to shout to hear each other across the enormous inner courtyard. It was so big that we had a hard time imagining Ibn Tulun's army and their horses could actually fill the mosque up (which they once apparently did)! One exciting thing we did was to climb a minaret and look out over Islamic Cairo and the rest of Cairo — at least as far as we could see given the pollution in the air! click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

Next we headed in the direction of the Citadel through the surrounding and twisty streets of Islamic Cairo. It is difficult to describe what it is like walking through the streets of Islamic Cairo (see our Place of the Day). As we walked and looked and smelled, our senses seemed to approach the point of overloading. There were just too many colors, sights, and smells for our minds to even attempt to process.

As we marched around the walls of the Citadel, looking for the entrance, it was not hard to imagine the Crusaders looking up at the same walls and wondering how in the world they were going to attack. Once we entered the Citadel, we headed towards the Mohammed Ali Mosque. In the courtyard we looked up at the clock that was given to Mohammed Ali by King Louis-Philippe of France in exchange for the Pharaonic obelisk from Luxor (in southern Egypt) that still stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The French seem to have gotten the better part of the deal since the clock they gave has apparently never worked! The interior of the mosque was quite large and ornately decorated. Back outside, the minarets seemed to reach up into the clouds they were so tall. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

The sun had started to set when we headed to the walls of the Citadel and once again looked out over Cairo. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph We were able to see across the valley of the Nile River and we thought again about how so many of Egypt's people live on so little land. With the sun dipping lower and lower towards the horizon, we were even able to see the Pyramids of Giza on the far side of the valley. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

As we left the Citadel in the growing darkness, andrEa and Corinne made a half-hearted effort to lead the boys down a narrow alley that may have been the same one used by Mohammed Ali against the Mamluks. But the boys were too wary for that trick and instead attempted to hang Corinne and andrEa over the sides of the Citadel for the local dogs. Fortunately, all the local dogs seemed to have just eaten and they could find no takers for two delicious morsels of vegetarian flesh. We ended our day with another walk through the streets of Islamic Cairo, ending in front of another Mamluk creation, the Mosque of Sayyidna Al-Hussein. Five hundred years after his death, Al-Hussein's head was delivered to the mosque in a green silk bag, making this mosque one of the holiest in Cairo. It is at this mosque that the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, prays.

With our heads spinning and full of the names, dates, and details of Islamic Cairo, the BikeAbout team headed for the Egyptian Pancake House (see our Food of the Day) only to become even dizzier watching the chef spin the pancake dough over his head. click to view a photograph Surrendering, the group headed back to the hotel to attempt to get some work done and recover from the sensory overload of the walking through Islamic Cairo.

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