Cairo – mosques, markets and the Citadel

One of the largest cities in the world, home to over 20m people, Cairo was a far more enjoyable and varied experience to visit than I was expecting. It probably doesn’t feature alongside Istanbul or Marrakech as a prime tourist destination for most people, but there is much to see and enjoy in this vast city.

I only spent a day exploring the city (and a second day visiting the pyramids and Egyptian Museum) but have plenty for two posts covering the many mosques, churches, parks and other sights visited. The secret I discovered (when contemplating trying to cross a busy motorway that lacked any pedestrian bridges) was to use Uber extensively. It is incredibly cheap in Cairo, most trips cost about $1, and it saved me time, energy walking in the tiring heat of Cairo in early May (before the really hot weather), and the dangers of crossing the road!

I started my day at the Citadel, a landmark of the Cairo skyline started by Saladin in 1176 and added to over the years. There are a number of mosques and museums in the complex but the best thing about it is probably the expansive views across the city.

The 19th century Mosque of Muhammad Ali appeared to be the main attraction for most visitors judging by the numbers at 9am.

It is an Ottoman style mosque, similar to many in Istanbul, though felt more overblown with the decoration.

Close by is the more restrained 14th century Al-Nasser Mohammed Ibn Kalawoun.

I didn’t go inside the National Military Museum of Egypt but enjoyed its collection of hardware outside.

One of my two highlights of the day was visiting the incredible 15th century Sultan Al-Ashraf Qaytbay Mosque and Mausoleum, in the so called City of the Dead, an area filled with tombs and more recently with homes.

In complete contrast to the Citadel I was the only person there, and climbed the narrow minaret for increasingly good views of the exterior of the mosque and the surrounding landscape.

The many towers on top of neighbouring buildings are to attract pigeons, which are eaten as a delicacy in Egypt.

The interior was relatively small and restrained, shared with a local family.

The other highlight was the overwhelming Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hassan, one of the greatest mosques I’ve visited. Built in the 14th century, there are two buildings, the mosque, and the madrasa (school). Both are epic in scale, with huge walls, functional on the outside, more decorative inside. The mosque had a medieval atmosphere and play of light.

The madrasa was open in the centre, and had an impressive tomb off to the side.

Khan el-Khalili is just as old though it was largely rebuilt in the 16th century. It is a huge market, selling anything locals or tourists could want, though as with every other place that attracts tourists in Egypt it is somewhat exhausting to be approached every few metres by a salesperson.

At one end of is Khan el-Khalili is Al-Azhar Mosque, one of the largest in Cairo, which unfortunately didn’t have quite enough time or energy to visit inside.

To finish with the mosque by the market that I did visit, the Mosque of Sultan Al-Ashraf Barsbay.

Author: jontycrane

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