40 for 40: Day 20 – Islamic Cairo, Al-Azhar Park and the Cairo Tower

Ultimately, today was a story of two different iPhone apps.

Having had our assess handed to us by Cairo during our Coptic Cairo/Islamic Cairo Double-Feature two weeks ago, I tried to plan today out as best as possible. I knew the major sights we wanted to see were in the southern part of Islamic Cairo, and I found the Metro station that would be the closest for us to walk from. I didn’t want to get stranded without lunch like we did the last time, so I researched some places in Al Azhar Park where we could grab a bite to eat, as it was right in the middle of our intended afternoon destination, the Citadel, where we would grab an Uber back to our guesthouse. As a special pre-game event, I had already looked in to trains we wanted to take tomorrow as we head to Alexandria, picking a few options in the morning. It seemed like a solid plan.

Cairo doesn’t really care about your plans.

So, first obstacle was Ramses Station which is not English-friendly at all. No signage in any language other than Arabic, a stand we guessed was the information desk, and a signboard that switches from Arabic to English very sporadically. Eventually, we figured out where to buy tickets, and I even had our time request done up in Arabic on my iPhone, before making the request to our ticket agent, who was able to tell us in English that nothing was available until the afternoon, so that’s when we’d be leaving. Whole process took a lot longer than expected, but eventually we made our way back to the metro to see our first sight, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun.

One thing about Islamic Cairo is that there is no real convenient metro stop for it. Bab Al Shaaria is a good twenty minute walk from the north end, and we chose Sayeeda Zenaib on the south end for this walk, another solid twenty five minutes. The area around the south end is rough, not in a dangerous way, but more in a run down way. We eventually found a wall of the mosque, but went left when we should have gone right and took the long way around, so extra obstacle there. Once we found the entrance, blown away by what we saw.

Having been built in the late 9th century, Ibn Tulun is Cairo’s oldest functioning mosque, and also the biggest in the city in terms of area. It definitely looks its age, but in the best possible way, with intricate carvings, crenelated walls, and a minaret modelled after the Spiral Minaret of Samarra in Iraq, which was Tulun’s homeland.

Now, for the record, entrance to functioning mosques is generally free, with a donation expected for the guy who takes care of your shoes. Here, it was still free, but the mosque’s head caretaker was high-pressure salesman, showing the place to leave donations, making sure we knew to tip the shoe guy. Also, we were pretty much immediately greeted by a guy who wanted to show us the minaret and how to get up which, without the intercept, could also have been figured out.

After we walked around, Daina, whose stomach had been bothering him, decided to have a break inside the mosque while I went up the minaret, led there by the attendant, who I also noticed had a pistol tucked in to the back of his pants. I made my climb up the mosque, noticing that whole families and a couple of people with local guides were going up without giving this guy anything. Noted.

The climb up was easy, and the view was beautiful, but what made it even more beautiful is that the call to prayer started in multiple mosques while I was at the top! Completely unreal to hear it that high up, stunning acoustics and great timing.

So, knowing I didn’t have to tip this guy, but he felt he was performing a service, so I decided to tip him when I came down, giving him 10 LE. All of a sudden, he started complaining and moaning like I had just sneezed in his hand, and all English he was speaking to me had been replaced by some Arabic lamentations. My response, laughing, was “Hey, all those Egyptians that went up? Free! No pounds! Why did I have to pay you anything?” To which, busted, he had no other choice but to laugh back.

Our walk to the next two mosques gave us a preview of what was to come, as GoogleMaps was registering some winding, run down alleys as streets, in a way that got us there but also made us say “really?” Eventually, we made it to the complex that housed the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan and the Mosque of ar-Rifai.

Hassan’s mosque, built in the 14th century, may rank as the most beautiful mosque I’ve seen, just in the way it wears its age, some of the carvings, the mihrab. It’s considered the best example of Mamluk architecture in Cairo and I’m not arguing. Also interesting was that it was meant as a place of study for multiple schools of Sunni Islam. It was also financed by selling the homes of people who had died of the Black Death, so a bit of a death money element for all that glory as well.

The mihrab of the Sultan Hassan Mosque.

ar-Rifai isn’t quite as impressive, and resembles more modern mosques because, well, it was built more recently (finished in 1912), but it does feature some important tombs, like King Farouk’s and the last Shah of Iran. Word of warning – the carpets aren’t the best in either, and some pigeons have gotten in, so just watch where you step.

Now, here’s where things get tricky. I had picked a place to eat in Al-Azhar Park, with views of the Citadel, and I punched the restaurant name in to GoogleMaps. We ended up going through a metal workers laneway that we weren’t supposed to go through, several roads that kind of weren’t, and a doorway or two. We finally got to a place where it looked like we were getting close to the park, only to have a local tell us it was “closed”, and looking down the road, we believed him.

Thus began a wander that had us using GPS and what looked like roads to get as close to the park as possible, attempting to find an entrance. Occasionally, we’d see as sign saying “Al-Azhar Park” with a beautiful flower on it, but it never seemed to lead anywhere. Finally, a local gave us some basic directions and we found an almost-hidden ticket booth, which then led us uphill to the beautiful Citadel View restaurant, which was fancy enough to give us a rest but not pricey enough to bust any wallets.

At this point, Daina was starting to look a little rough, and the delays of the day had put us back a few hours, to the point where the Citadel would be closing by the time we got there, and while we toyed with the idea of seeing the City of the Dead before heading back, it wasn’t going to happen. So, we made our way out of the park and grabbed our first Cairo Uber.

With only Toronto Ubers (and a couple in London) as a point of reference, we had zero idea of what to anticipate here. Our driver, Ahmed, reached us, and we got in his clean car, with him being quite confused that I didn’t speak Arabic. Guess the tan is working.

I’ve mentioned before how driving in Cairo is insane, and it was no different today. If somebody was driving the way Ahmed was driving today, and we were in Toronto, we’re talking a one-or-two star rating. In Cairo, five stars across the board. We got home in less time than my GPS suggested and the grand total of a half-hour ride was $3.45 Canadian. Not bad.

Daina crashed shortly after getting back to the guesthouse, but I was still in relative adventure mode, so after resting up for a bit, I made my way to the last stop of the day, the Cairo Tower. Much like any observation tower in the world, there were long lines, a cramped elevator, a restaurant and cafe where, if you make a reservation, you get a beat the line pass, and some great views. Cairo’s skyline may lack some distinct landmarks, and you can’t see many minarets behind the new buildings, yet you see three distinct black triangles through the smog in the distance on the Giza Plateau, the Nile is beautiful, and the city shows its life as the sun comes down and it all lights up.

So not a lot went as planned today and, on day two of trying to do too much in Cairo, we’ve learned a couple lessons.

  1. Pace yourself.
  2. The Metro is great, but not for everything.
  3. Uber is your friend.
  4. Ask for help sooner rather than later.
  • I will say, however, during the times we were lost, or wandering, or on a street that was falling apart, we never felt unsafe. People warmly welcomed us to Cairo, said hello, and gave us smiles. Cairo is a big city, it’s a loud city, but it has yet to scare me.
  • I’ve got a lot of time for this place.

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