Called once the "metropolis of the universe and the garden of the world" , Cairo has long been on my list of places to visit - that magical location which inspired the Arabian Nights;
the place where you also experience Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Maghreb; and then the vicinity of the ancient Egyptian pyramids
makes it even more tempting. And so, I gave in to the longing, and went.
Unlike the pyramids, Cairo itself isn't all that old - it was founded in 969, which means that it's a lot younger than Paris, London, Kiev, or Cracow.
Either way, it's enormous and hopelessly congested, so if you're going, book a hotel near the centre.
In this gallery, we'll have a look at the Islamic monuments, while the second one will focus more on ancient Egypt and Christian Egypt.
Non-traditional music to accompany this photo gallery is from the Egyptian band Go! Save the Hostages! (thanks to Mostafa for introducing me to this music!):
More exotic than Istanbul, noisier than Rome, less smelly than Fez,
Cairo feels a lot more noble than Amman, and is even more of a twisted labyrinth than Jerusalem. It's incredibly, cruelly exhausting and demanding, but has so much to offer.
Our journey begins in Islamic Cairo (aka Medieval Cairo) - between the inner and outer walls of what might well be oldest surviving mosque in town, the Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Ţūlūn. 
The walls create space that is to separate the pure grounds of the mosque (left) from the ordinary houses outside.
A quick glance outside shows that this isn't such a bad idea. The streets of Islamic Cairo are in a rather stark contrast to the monuments
in terms of maintenance, and although Anthony Trollope said "Poverty, to be picturesque, should be rural. Suburban misery is as hideous as it is pitiable", like Jules Adler, I thought otherwise. Click!
The mosque is where Noah's Ark came to rest after the Deluge (and not Mount Ararat), at least according to a local legend.  Another legend claims that this was where
God spoke to Moses, and where Moses confronted the magicians of the Pharaoh.  If this sounds surprising, you should remember that Islam builds on Judaism and Christianity, and, for instance, Moses or Jesus are considered by the faithful to be Muslims. 
This pre-Fatimid building was created entirely of baked bricks, and its inspiration is almost exclusively Mesopotamian.  It "[...]represents the remains of the city or settlement known as al-Qataic, founded by Ahmad ibn Tulun." ,
so it is effectively pre-Cairo, which in turn was founded by the Fatimid dynasty, and called by them al-Qāhira. 
Please note the stucco on the arches - the geometric design of the decorations of the mosque shows that the craftsmen were using a pair compasses and square grids to create designs.  So if you have a ruler and a pair of compasses, you can learn to drawn similar patterns.
Seen here, is the dikka - a raised tribune from which the Koran is recited , further is the mihrab, inside the hypostyle sanctuary hall. The columns of the hypostyle are said to emulate the original palm trees mosque where the Prophet Muhammad preached.  Please look at the smaller stucco mihrab on the right.
It was probably added in the first half of the 10th century, and has some design elements from the pre-Islamic Sassanian era. The pendant-like star itself is one of the earliest examples
of this star design in Islamic art and architecture. 
What is really interesting about it, is that it shows that at that time the skills of Islamic artists were not yet so honed, as this is only an approximation of the conventional
eight-pointed star. Put less politely - the craftsman screwed up. (See explanation from . Thanks to the author Eric Broug for letting me use the illustrations!)
It is no coincidence that the minaret seen on the left has a peculiar spiral form - the builder of the mosque was from Iraq, where such minarets were unique features of the Great Mosque of Samarra and the Abu Dulaf Mosque ,
and they themselves are copies of the Mesopotamian ziggurat, originated in Central Asia and Afghanistan. 
Trivia: the mosque was featured in the game Serious Sam 3 and in the James Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me".  Also, if you played Diablo 2, Lut Gholein architecture bears similarity to Arab architecture as a whole,
and the entire Act II is heavily inspired by ancient Egyptian architecture. 
As I was sat there, admiring the mosque, I realised that something did not quite make sense. From Wikipedia I knew that ablaq - the architectural style involving alternating rows of light and dark stone,
seen here on the arches of the sabil (ablutions fountain) - originated in 12th century Syria; and yet here I was looking at a 9th century mosque which was already making use of that charming effect...
My OCD immediately kicked in, and armed with my Kindle, loaded to the brim with architectural books, I set out to understand what was going on. Most local people I talked to, fearful of simply saying "I don't know",
made up horribly confusing stories about the origins of ablaq; and I even went to the library of Alexandria to find the answer. All in vain.
But, we shall return to ablaq later.
From what I was told and observed, there are parts of the city where women feel free to wear anything they like (like Zamalek), and then other parts where they have to be covered up for their own safety, whether they like it or not.
In other areas, still, women are nowhere to be seen, and it made me feel horribly lonely, as it felt more like an open prison for men than a capital.
The city scape of Cairo is often as congested as the city streets themselves. Cairo hasn't been able to keep up with the number of newcomers, and we will return to that and how the problem has been "solved" shortly.
Cairo owes much of its splendour to the Mamluk Empire: the Mamluk sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad was a great builder (over 500 constructions in Egypt, including very roughly 200 in Cairo, during his reign), and then out of the three great Islamic cultural centres, only Cairo was spared
the Mongol destruction that befell Damascus and Baghdad, thanks to the squadrons of Mamluk warriors ; and it gladly accepted the fleeing artisans from those two cities, hence all the foreign influence you can still see in what they had built.
The so called Saladin Citadel, where this photo was taken, isn't really much of a citadel now, as it's been heavily modified since medieval times.
I had an interesting encounter there with a local girl (not the one in the photo) giving out brochures on Islam, some of them in Polish.
Not only did she refuse to shake my hand, but she also proudly said that in Islam "women are man's most precious property".
Apart from having the citadel erected, Saladin decided to have a hippodrome built nearby, where Islamic warriors practised the game of polo. 
And this is a sabil. Sabils are facilities originally providing free, fresh water for thirsty people who were passing by.  This one also served as a school for children - that kind of schools are called kuttab.
You may recall the modest sabil Sarajevo had to offer - both are examples
of Ottoman influence. Indeed, under Ottoman rule, more emphasis was put on the construction of secular buildings than of religious ones.  This is not to say the Mamluks didn't build any secular buildings,
which they did, but very few have been preserved to this day, some having been demolished (palaces that inspired The Arabian Nights ) or neglected (hammams, the Islamic heritage of the Roman Empire ).
Well, yes, the Ottomans, with their capital in Constantinople... Cairo's luck ran out when it was taken over by the Ottomans, as that was when the artists and resources were transferred to the city
known today as Istanbul - while the capital of Egypt arguably forever ceased to be a major player in Islamic arts.
The Ottoman Empire could then boast countless achievements in the unthreatening realm of aesthetics (but, like other Turkic Islamic Empires, not so much in the realm of truth ).
Let's now step down, into the bowels of Islamic Cairo...
I was told the sabil was about 10 metres deep. How did it work? "[W]ater carriers drew water from the river, the full cowhides and goatskins were loaded onto camels and donkeys and brought into town,
and the water was poured through openings into an underground cistern and drawn up and distributed at ground level". 
"I have exactly what you're looking for!", exclaimed one of the salesmen, before I even opened my mouth. How precious are noise cancelling headphones when you're out and about in Cairo. If you have them with you...
The Nilometer allowed to estimate the clarity and water level of the Nile, and predict whether Egypt would be affected by famine or floods - or blessed with an optimal amount of water, which altogether helped to regulate taxation. 
It was built by the Central Asian astronomer, Farghani; and also, those happen to be the earliest arches in Egyptian architecture. 
Egypt has always been at the mercy of the Nile: the drought of 1295 was causing 1,000 deaths a day in Cairo alone (the city population was below 200,000).  Today, it is regulated by dams.
It wouldn't have been possible for me to enter the Nilometer if it weren't for the personal charm of this young lady, who sneaked our of her drawing class, and cajoled someone to finally show up with the keys. Shukran!
The Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan (here on the right) is almost 700 years old, while the Al-Rifa'i is a fairly recent attempt of Egyptian rulers to both associate themselves with the glory of earlier periods in Egypt's history,
and to modernise the city. The immediate surroundings are therefore meant to feel European. 
The older of the two mosques certainly feels very impressive and magical. It's ablaq working its magic, you see. In Egypt, the Islamic condemnation of figurative images was taken more seriously than in Central Asia
(at least in the case of religious buildings), so don't expect to see any, but do expect impressive geometric designs.
The mosque is a Mamluk masterpiece, although it has never been finished - it was originally meant to have four minarets. What's more, one of the minarets (the highest in Cairo at 81 metres) once collapsed and killed every single person present on the square. 
That was supposedly 300 children.  In Medieval Cairo, domes and minarets were occasionally knocked down for the fear of collapsing. 
This kind of vaulted space with walls on three sides and one end entirely open is called iwan - that architectural formula came to Cairo from Persia. .
The oil lamps were used during nocturnal prayers.
The enormous iwans are 26 metres tall - that's the height of an eight-storey building.  Also, pay close attention to the floor - that's Byzantine and Roman influence joined with Islamic geometric design.
Photo taken from a shaky ladder to minimise lens distortion (and on shaky knees).
While I was there, a man showed up with an American couple and another woman, their Egyptian guide. He opened the door to the left of the minbar, and I sneaked into what was the funerary chamber, following them.
There was a tomb inside, but the real purpose of that visit turned out to be the superb voice of the man, when he sang a prayer just for us. This would have been so beautiful and impressive,
if it wasn't for the American woman incessantly going "Oh yeah, amazing", "Wow, yeah, cool" every time he paused to breathe in.
It turned out to be one of my favourite mosques, but for all its grandeur and splendour, in terms of geometric design, just like the Ibn Tulun Mosque above, it does contain at least one artistic screw up.
Here, in the prayer niche to the right, the craftsman attempted to squeeze a six-pointed star into a regular octagon, which just isn't going to work. Unless you push it real hard, which is what he did. (See explanation from .)
This mosque is an example of the neo-Mamluk style. It contains a tomb of a man considered to be a saint in his lifetime, Shaykh 'Ali al-Rifa'i, and people walk around it, touch it, and seek his blessed intercessions. Sounds a little pagan to me! There is no evidence
he has ever been to Egypt during his lifetime , but who cares.
The first mosque to be established in Cairo, Al-Azhar, is said to display a fascination with circular design . It suffered various misfortunes throughout the centuries, also at the hands of Saladin, because it is a Shiia mosque;
Saladin, being Sunni, removed its status as a congregational mosque, and denied stipends to its students and teachers.  The mosque could have suffered worse - Saladin had many Fatimid monuments simply destroyed, as he put their domination of Egypt to and end. 
Minaret of Qaytbay visible in the photo.
Materials used in its construction were taken from Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Coptic monuments - possibly also for the columns visible here; sadly, not one of the original minarets or domes has survived. 
The madrasa present at this mosque branded itself as the world's first university, but it's more like one of the world's newest universities, as it only taught religious subjects until 1961. 
Notice the stepped merlons on top of the walls, cutting into the sky - that's Mesopotamian and Achaemenid influence. 
The last flowering of Mamluk architecture, the Ghuriya, was restored following an earthquake in 1992 , and serves as an opening into the Muizz Street.
When admiring the architectural achievements of the Mamluks, we must not forget that due to their rather humble (steppic warriors) origins and lack of appropriate tradition and knowledge, they had to rely on local and foreign, often non-Muslim, experts,
which explains the diversity of their approach. 
They managed, however, to create a genuine style, and not just to copy. It has been speculated that their openness in this respect stemmed from the Mamluks' lack of 'nationalism' - since they themselves were foreigners in Egypt. 
The aforementioned Muizz Street is one of the oldest streets in Cairo, and has the greatest concentration of medieval architectural treasures in the entire Islamic word.  Also, it has one pure Gothic doorway
the Mamluks brought from Saint-Jean-d'Acre after having defeated the Crusaders. 
Notice the projecting mashrabiya (just left of the minaret, with a pitched roof) that provided both ventilation and a way for women to watch the street without being seen. 
On such treasure would be this sabil, which mixes Ottoman, Mamluk, and Islamic architecture styles.  Above it, is the kuttab (school for children, if you haven't been paying attention). The floral forms below the arch were brought by the Mongols from China,
and became particularly popular in Turkish art in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 
‘Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda himself, who the sabil is named after, was a passionate enthusiast of architecture and a patron of arts.
Al-Hakim was an interesting fellow that brought an end to the atmosphere of tolerance: he forbade cobblers to make shoes for women to keep the latter at home, forbade eating of the so called Jew's mallow, and had all the honey dumped into the Nile.
The list goes on.
The gleaming marble floor is not original, and the mosque is considered to be over-restored, having now lost its original character, which is a fairly common problem in Cairo, unless the work is done by archaeological institutes,
whether from France, Germany, Poland, or the US. 
Dervishes were originally men treading the Sufi Muslim ascetic path, and I wrote about them earlier in the Sarajevo gallery. Here's the psychedelic Dervish dance
or rather its version for tourists, which takes place in the previously mentioned Mamluk building of the Ghuriya, which makes sense, as it was the Mamluks who made Sufism a state-sponsored institution. 
Craftsman making shisha/hookah pipes. It's really easy to get lost in that area, a maze of winding little streets, misleading shortcuts, treacherous paths leading to nowhere, and claustrophobic passages.
In this photo, a distributary of the Nile and modern Cairo architecture, which reminded me of socialist architecture - possibly because that's kind of what it is. Egypt had a friendly relationship with the USSR during the Cold War,
and the Russians have historically provided support to Egyptian Christians (both Coptic Christianity in Egypt and Orthodox Christianity in Russia are related through the Byzantine Empire) .
It has seen the Umayyad, Fatimid, Mamluk, Ottoman, French, and British empires come and go, as their power waned - one of the most fascinating areas of Cairo turned out to be... the City of the Dead, or el-Arafa,
the ancient Necropolis that lies in desert sand.
The City of the Dead is a group of vast cemeteries - now, if you are from the West, you probably believe that cemeteries
are for the dead, but in Cairo they are the equivalent of Indian slums - cheap-to-live area for newcomers to the city, apart from serving their more conventional purpose.  This is, indeed, how Cairo has been dealing with the housing crisis.
In the photo, the Complex of Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay, that boasts one of the finest interiors in the Northern Cemetery. 
It has been said that Mamluk architecture is the equivalent of European Gothic architecture, and that certain elements used in Mamluk buildings (pointed arches, ogival vaults, cruciform pillars, etc.) represent the influence of the Crusaders;
and, for instance, Mamluk mosques evolved from those having a vast courtyard to more compact ones reaching higher into the sky, and so more Gothic-like. 
And this is what it looks like today - people still live among the tombs. I was advised against going to the City of the Dead for safety reasons, and while it was intense and a bit rough, and a few women hit me (again!), and it wasn't terribly photography-friendly,
it was overall fine.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/8.0, 1/1000s.
The Khanqah and Mausoleum of Sultan Faraj Ibn Barquq
The sanctuary of the Sultan Barquq Complex with a fountain in need of repair (which here, together with the vegetation, symbolises paradise in the Persian sense). There are two burial chambers on site, one for men and another for women, as it was decided the sexes should be kept separately even in death. 
The motif on the dome is called herring-bone. 
I really liked the canopy in this mosque, complimenting the muqarnas (stalactites) in the pishtaq niche, above the window. The atmosphere was unique due to the Sufi singing you could already hear from the outside.
According to the religion Professor Valerie J. Hoffman, "[t]hroughout the Muslim world, the presence of saints has been a source of comfort to people. The mere presence of a saint’s tomb in the neighbourhood is thought to confer blessings, protection and prosperity." .
However, according to Frederick S. Starr (in reference to Islamic Central Asia), the "laudable search for spiritual guides and moral exemplars ended in a cult of saints [...] that quickly degenerated into superstition." 
Here's a tomb just like that, and of a female saint, as well. To be honest, it felt pretty weird to be squeezing there with my camera, amidst prayers and wailing, as I was probably the only atheist in the area (being an atheist in Egypt lands you in jail these days ;
I only met one fellow godless person during the trip).
And that's the singing. Soon, I was hit on the arm by another woman (again...), because I was standing among the women, as you can see.
Funnily enough, I was somehow dragged among the performers, and, trying not to stand out, ended up singing with them praises to Allah... I think, because I didn't exactly follow the lyrics. That's how I ended up being an atheist dervish in Cairo! Very interesting experience,
and the fact that some people recorded it, terrifies me. Please, don't search for it on YouTube.
I post this photo in defiance of the imam of this mosque, the Sultan Qaytbay Mosque, who would not let me take photos, even though the mosque had been renovated by the European Union, which I am a proud citizen of. This is possibly the most beautiful
mosque I have ever seen (even despite the imam's sense of aesthetics, which allowed him to put plastic chairs inside), and I really regret not being able to spend more time there and photograph it properly.
This elegant building contains rooms for students, a burial qubba, and a sabil for passers-by to drink from, above which a kuttab is located for the schooling of children.  It also features magnificent ablaq,
my favourite element of Islamic art, as you know. Ah, I finally did find the answer as to its origin, and the confusion was caused by... an error on Wikipedia, which I have now fixed. Rather down to earth!
Ablaq originates from Syria, where it was used possibly as early as in the 7th/8th century, and it is based on Byzantine alternating brick patterns.
It is only the term itself which is from the 12th century.  See more ablaq in Islamic Spain?
For all the nicely-sounding facts about the Sufi beliefs, such as less focus on the scripture, more focus on intuition, direct contact with god, psychedelic practices (Islamic hippies?), tolerance, high hopes of Western governments  - the reality of Sufism and dervishes has been historically rather disappointing.
Their opposition to reason and the scientific method has proved disastrous to the Islamic civilisation as a whole, the effect of which we can see to this day everywhere across the Muslim world. 
Finally, the portrait of a woman whose face I am not allowed to show here, but who stepped in and bravely saved me from a somewhat enraged crowd in a mosque, which I very much appreciate - thanks a lot, K.! Being an infidel got me into a bit of a situation,
and this could have been a whole different story if it weren't for her. These random acts of kindness from complete strangers make travelling such an amazing experience.