Coming out of Cairo’s Khan El Khalili Market after dusk and heading west toward El Muezz El Din Street, first-time visitors will not be prepared for the breathtaking splendour awaiting. Walking north on El Muezz Street past the perfumes, spices and copper markets towards Bab El Futuh, you will slowly come across what was the walled city’s major thoroughfare, filled with floodlit domes and minarets recently restored to their former glory.
El Muezz Street is named after the Fatimid caliph who conquered Cairo in AD 969, and whose successors built the monuments still standing today. Though severely damaged in the 1992 earthquake, the restoration is now complete and many of the buildings are looking better now than they did before the quake. The area directly between the copper market and Sabil Kuttab in the middle of the street is called Bayn Al Qasrayn, named after the beautiful palaces that once stood there during Fatimid times. After their ruin, they were replaced by three spectacular madrassas during the Mamluk era, which are the highlight of the street now and part of Cairo’s most impressive streetscapes.
Bayn Al Qasrayn used to be a place for couples to stroll through at twilight. It now features the area’s three most prominent buildings built by three of the most prominent Mamluks. The first is the madrassa/hospital/mosque/mausoleum of Sultan Qalawun (simply the Qalawun Complex), which is by far the most grand of all three. Built in 1279 in only thirteen months; it is the oldest and most ornate of the buildings. Combining Syrian and Christian crusader architecture, its interior is a splendid array of detail featuring mashrabeya, stained glass and painted ceilings, as well as marble walls, pearl and glass mosaics. Symbolic representations of stars, shells and flowers are dotted throughout the building. At its height, the hospital provided free medical care, storytellers and musicians to brighten weary spirits, and even doled out money to patients upon discharge to help with lost wages. Today, there is a modern eye clinic in its place.
The second building is the madrassa and mausoleum of Caliph Al Nasir, built in 1304 by Qalawun’s second son, who ruled at the height of the Mamluk dynasty. Nasir was a lover of public works and built 30 mosques, an aqueduct and a canal during his rule. This Madrassa’s gothic doorway was brought back from a church in Israel after his army defeated the Crusaders in 1290 (notice the Islamic modification at the point of the arch– reading 'Allah'). The mausoleum is dedicated to his mother and favourite son.
The third building is the madrassa and monastery of Sultan Barquq, a Sufi school and monastery completed in 1386. The highlight of this building is the colourful ceiling, especially in the sanctuary, where it is beautifully decorated in blue and gold. The mausoleum was built for Nasir’s daughter, and you can climb up the minaret for some amazing views of the old city.
Continuing north up El Muezz Street, you will come to the striking Sabil Kuttab in the middle of the street at a fork in the road. The fountain/school was built in 1744 by an emir seeking forgiveness for his sins by providing locals with water and religious education; it is one of the most recognisable landmarks of Islamic Cairo and has been depicted in innumerable paintings and lithographs of the old city. Inside is beautiful blue ceramic work that can be viewed up close, if you can track down the keeper.
Keeping to the left of the fork, the Mosque of El Aqmar is the next building to note. With its decorated stone façade, it was the first of its kind in Cairo and is the oldest stone-façade mosque in Egypt. Built in 1125 by one of the last Fatimid Caliphs, it’s named after the way that it shines in the moonlight.
Just off of Muezz Street to the right on Darb El Asfar is Beit El Suhaymi, a great example of the life of the wealthy at the time. The family mansion and merchant’s inn was built in 1648 and features extensive mashrabeya, a tree-filled courtyard, and a haramlik with stained glass and painted ceilings. For more information on Beit El Suhaymi, see our museums article here.
Finally, just before Bab Al Futuh and the end of the street is the El Hakim Mosque, which shares a wall with the old city’s fortifications. Built in 1013, it is one of the oldest mosques in Cairo, though it’s been used for anything but worship (prison, stable, warehouse, school, asylum) until recent renovations by Shiites from Brunei in 1980, who revere Caliph Hakim as part of the Druizm that he inspired. Adding many new features such as chandeliers and a new mihrab; the wood beams and minarets are the only remaining features of the original.
Bab El Futuh marks the end of the street. Built in 1087, the gate was one of the two main entrances to the Fatimid city of El Qahirah– the other being Bab El Nasr just to the east. The annual caravan of returning pilgrims from Mecca used to enter Cairo from here. The stones to build the gate were taken from the ruins of Memphis, while carved animals and Pharaonic figures can still be seen on some slabs.
The street is chock-full of history and the remnants of the lives that built the foundation for the modern city. Also in the area, the Egyptian Textile Museum (located in the 19th century Sabil of Muhammad Ali) is open daily from 9AM to 4:30PM and includes many Coptic and Islamic textiles.
What better time to go discover a fascinating part of Egyptian history, whose influence can still be seen on Cairo’s streets today?
* El Muezz Street is pedestrian-only until 8PM, and many of the monuments are open daily from 10AM to 10PM.