• Wednesday, Feb 08, 2023
  • Last Update : 08:54 am

Stranger in the capital of Sultan Saladin

  • Published at 10:52 am March 20th, 2021
Egypt 01

Sultan Saladin was the founder of the Ayubid Dynasty and was the first sultan of Egypt. The city is popularly known as "The city of a thousand minarets" and "Mother of the World".

Cairo is the capital of Egypt and lies on the bank of the Nile River. It is believed to have been founded in the early 4th millennium BC (Before Christ). The Romans established here, the fortress town of Babylon. Byzantine influences can also be seen in the city due to the Coptic Churches. Muslim Arabs migrated here from the Arabian Peninsula in 641 AD (Anno Domini) and used to call the city Al Fustat. Sultan Saladin was the founder of the Ayubid Dynasty and was the first sultan of Egypt. The city is popularly known as "the city of a thousand minarets" and "Mother of the World". Cairo has only summer and winter seasons.  June, July, and August are the hottest months here.

I was fortunate to visit this city as part of my Egypt tour in November 2010. I was accompanied by four of my colleagues. We were travelling by Egypt Air from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. We bought a package of four days online beforehand. The package consisted of accommodation, various sightseeing, all entry fees, transportation cost and guide support. While the aircraft was descending, in dawn light we could see the historic pyramids. After completing all the immigration formalities at the airport we came out and found our receptionist. We travelled by the hired car to our accommodation place which was an apartment. Surprisingly it was the day of Eid Ul Adha. In Cairo, the Eid jamat takes place at a time. There is no provision of a number of jamats.  After refreshing, we came down and had our breakfast in a nearby hotel. The Arabic Khoobs bread with beef was really luscious. Popular desserts here are baqlawa, basbousa, and kunafa. After breakfast, we board on a hired microbus and met our tour guide. He was a very smart teenage student.

The Citadel of Saladin was our first visiting place. It is a medieval Islamic-era fortification with large gateways, towers and high defending walls. The construction work was begun by Saladin in 1176 and further developed by subsequent Egyptian rulers. An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub popularly known as Saladin is well-reputed in both the western and Islamic worlds for his heroic role in wars against Christian crusaders in the Middle Ages. The citadel is located on a promontory of the Mokattam hills. It commands a strategic position overlooking the city and dominating its skyline. At the time of its construction, it was among the most impressive and ambitious military fortification project. It was the seat of government in Egypt and the residence of its rulers from the 13th to the 19th centuries. In the 20th century, it was used as a military garrison by the British rulers. In 1976 UNESCO declared it as a World Heritage Site. Today the site contains multiple Ottoman-era mosques and museums dedicated to the military, police, and historical carriages. We saw a symbol of an eagle emblazoned on the western wall which is now used as a national symbol. The structure also offers amazing views of Cairo and the desert beyond.

Then we visited one of the most sacred and holiest Islamic sites in Egypt the Imam Hussein Mosque. The mosque was originally built in 1154 and located in the area Al-Hussain. It is a mosque and mausoleum of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed.  Following the beheading of Imam Hussain in Iraq during the Battle of Karbala, in 1153 his head was sent to Cairo and it was buried here. The minarets depict an architectural blend of Arab, Italian Gothic and Ottoman style. The latest additions are mechanically operated large canopy umbrellas to protect those praying outdoors from the adverse weather effect. The interior and Islamic calligraphy attracted our attention. Famous Khan El-Khalili bazaar and Al Azhar Mosque are very near to this place. 

After enjoying a sumptuous, Arabian lunch, we visited the Museum of Cairo. The two-storied building has a collection of around 120,000 items of mostly ancient Egyptian antiquities. It houses the world's largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities. It was built in 1901 by the Italian construction company Garozzo-Zaffarani and designed by the French architect Marcel Dourgnon. On the ground floor, there is an extensive collection of papyrus, statues, tables, coffins, and coins used in the ancient world. Here most items are from the time period between 1550 and 1069 BC. Historic statues of King Tutankhamun made of cedarwood and the statue of King Akhenaten attract anyone. On the first floor, there are artefacts from the final two dynasties of Egypt. It contains many artefacts from the Valley of the Kings of Luxor. Special rooms contain a number of mummies of kings and other royal family members. Mummification is a special process for preserving dead bodies for a long time. I was stunned to see the mummy of Fir’awn or Ramesses II. He is believed to be the Pharoah in the time of Prophet Musa. His body was originally entombed in the Valley of the Kings. When we came out the sun has already set. The garden adjacent to the building features a few monuments and busts. Famous Tahrir Square is located very near to it. During the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the museum was damaged and few artefacts were lost.


Figure 1:    Mummy of Ramesses II.

For a short while, we returned to our residence and refreshed ourselves. The last event of the day was a dinner cruise on the Nile River. The cruise provides comfort and elegance as travellers enjoy the exquisiteness of the Cairo skyline at night. We enjoyed an open buffet that features international and Egyptian cuisine. An exotic dance show with folk music followed the dinner. We enjoyed the gentle breeze and surrounding beauty sitting on the open-top deck. The Nile witnessed numerous historic events. So, the cruise experience was inimitable. The crews, journey, food and overall service were superb.  We spent the second day in Giza and the third day in Alexandria. Penning down those memories require a separate write up.


Figure 2: Cairo Tower

On the last day, we visited the Cairo Tower. It is a free-standing concrete tower. It is still the tallest structure in Egypt. It stands on Gezira Island of River Nile. It was built from 1954 to 1961. The structure resembles a pharaonic lotus plant with its latticework casing. The tower is crowned by a circular observation deck and a rotating restaurant. One rotation takes approximately 70 minutes. This tower and restaurant offer magnificent views of the entire city and monuments. We found few coin-operated binocular viewers were installed on the top deck.

Visiting a Papyrus factory was a unique experience for us. This thick paper was first manufactured in Egypt as far back as the fourth millennium BC. In fact, the word paper actually comes from papyrus. Papyrus made from the pith of a plant called Cyperus papyrus. It is a type of reed that grows across the Nile Delta. Apart from writing material, ancient Egyptians employed papyrus in the construction of other artefacts, such as reed boats, mats, rope, sandals, and baskets. Later parchment, which was prepared from animal skin, became a rival of Papyrus as a writing surface. We saw the sticky fibrous inner pith is cut lengthwise into thin strips. There are some natural glue-like toxic chemicals within the plant that need to be released before processing. For this, they are soaked in water for at least 72 hours. The strips are then placed side by side on a hard surface with their edges slightly overlapping, and then another layer of strips is laid on top at a right angle. The two layers are hammered together for mashing the layers into a single sheet. The sheet is then dried under pressure. After drying, the sheet is polished with some rounded object like stone, seashell, hardwood or smooth piece of ivory until it appears to be shinier than it was. Storing papyrus in humid conditions can result in moulds attacking and destroying the material. Papyrus paper can be made from a few alternative materials like banana fibre, wide grasses, and river reeds.


Figure 3: Different ways of cutting papyrus stem and the making of papyrus sheet

In the evening we visited Khan el-Khalili market. It is located in an area known as Bayn al-Qasrayn, in the middle of Cairo's most important zone of economic activity. It was originally the burial site of the Fatimid caliphs. Later this cemetery was demolished to erect a building that could house merchants and their goods at the heart of the city. By the late 15th century area around this place became the major centre of foreign trade, including the sale of slaves and precious stones. Two monumental gates, the Bab al-Badistan and the Bab al-Ghuri, are still available. During the Ottoman period, the Turkish community of Cairo was centred here. Here shops typically sell souvenirs, antiques and jewellery. Several coffeehouses, restaurants, and street food vendors are also found here. The market was a target of the terrorist attack in April 2005 and February 2009. I bought a few papyrus papers and showpieces which will be lasting memories. While returning from the market we noticed many people enjoying leisure by puffing Shisha, or hookah sitting on the street corners. After taking a little rest we were getting ready to catch our return flight.

Due to paucity of time, we could not visit the world's oldest university the Al Azhar which was made in 972 AD. Obviously, with ancient monuments, food and modern lifestyle Cairo attracts millions of tourists from all over the world. For us also it was a memorable trip of a lifetime.

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