A walk through southern Islamic Cairo

Yes, that is a week ago but I lead a busy life here in Cairo.On Sunday, September 23, I traversed the Southern half of Islamic Cairo, from Hussein square down to the Citadel. As always, I’ve traced the route on Google Earth and added to it the photos I took, where I took them. You can also see the photos directly on Flickr.

The walk started at the Al Azhar mosque, home of the sheik who is the spiritual leader of all Egyptian Sunnis (which is a big deal to Egyptian Sunnis, which most are). I then percolated through the back alleys towards Bab Zuweila, the mosque adjacent to the southern gate of the walls surrounding Cairo during the Fatimid era. Further along, I came across the Blue Mosque, one of only few in the world adorned with blue glazed tiles.

Al Azhar Mosque This mosque is the spiritual center of Sunni dogma in Egypt. Upon entering the grounds, I took off my shoes, and was approached by a friendly man offering to show me around in English. I was game for a guided tour.

It began well, with a look at the madrassah, and a walk through the different stages of the mosque’s expansion, but there was also an unexpected proselytising edge to the encounter. Upon learning I spoke Dutch, I was given a booklet in Dutch that purported to show how Islam can be proven scientifically. It was, not surprisingly, a cringe-inducing effort.


There is widespread use of carpeting, and the airy prayer hall is cool and peaceful. So peaceful, in fact, that it is littered with the bodies of men taking Ramadan naps. Women, as everywhere, don’t get to hang out in the best bits of the mosque. The sheik prefers male atheists to devout muslim females, it would seem, though I strongly suspect that this has to do with the fact that femininity is a more visible trait than godlessness. We finally made it into the tomb of the mosque’s founder (a recurring feature of mosques, I later found, and one of the main incentives to build them) where, out of sight of everyone else, my guide made his move. He wanted some money for his services. “I won’t name a price,” he said. Anything I wanted to give would be fine.

I had no problem with that. I offered him 5 LE, the equivalent of a taxi fare.

Ah. Well. He looked at the proffered bill, twisted his faces into a grimace, looked really unhappy, and said, “that is only five pounds.”

I happen to know by now what five pounds (USD 0.90) buys. The cleaning lady gets 40 pounds for 5 hours of work. I was being played and above all I felt resentful at being subjected to the hypocrisy of an apparently pious man who just five minutes ago made a serious effort to bring me into the Muslim fold now deciding I was stupid enough to hit up for a cash windfall — for personal gain, mind you.

I also had a sense of proportion, however. As a westerner, this is little money, so I told him that I was willing to give more if we could call it a contribution to the mosque, and that I could give it to somebody official. That made him quite sheepish, and in the end I gave some money to the old guardian at the entrance. Yes, it occurred to me that this might be his plan B in the great tourist-milking conspiracy.

The back alleys to Bab Zuweila are quite remarkable. They are, above all, garbage-strewn, but not in a negative way — at least not if you’re just passing by once. I often found myself pausing at the signs depicting the names of alleys. I now know half the Arabic alphabet, so more and more I can recognize and read fragments in names. Cairo is turning into a huge mathematical puzzle, wherein I get to apply transformational rules to one set of symbols on billboards and street signs in order to try to convert them to a set of symbols I already know — the latin alphabet. Frankly, learning Arabic is great fun, and addictive.

Bab Zuweila This mosque is being renovated, and here too a guardian offered to show me around. He was more businesslike, however, perhaps as I was the only visitor: He named his price, and also advertised the goods on offer; for 20 LE, I could go up to the roof of the mosque.


Bab el Zuweila is quite pittoresque, but even more so is the view — the twin minarets straddling the gate are real masterpieces, and from the roof you can frame them beautifully. It was the best view of Cairo yet — but only because I didn’t know about the view I’d get from the Blue Mosque, just down the road.

Blue Mosque This is a mosque in disrepair, though it is being renovated with ample funds from UNESCO and others. 20070923216.jpgIt has a rogue palm tree in its central courtyard, which made for an obvious photo op. Here too a guardian offered to show me around, though he was quite well dressed and made out to be some kind of official minder of Egyptian cultural patrimony. And he was unfailingly polite and friendly.

The carrot he dangled in front of me was also quite special: A climb to the top of the 76-meter high minaret for a 360-degree view high of Islamic Cairo. It proved to be one of the more memorable Cairo experiences to date. I took some shots in quick succession and later stitched them together inexpertly, though the resulting jumble is quite accurate in an impressionistic way, if you get my drift:

This is when he decided to ask me, out of the blue, whether I had a wife and children. The reason he asked, it turns out, is that it allowed him to segue to the fact that that he had recently had triplets, and that the youngest, a boy, wasn’t doing to well. He just left that hanging there.

After descending from the minaret, it was time to see the founder’s tomb, which appears to be the preferred place in mosques to make one’s pitch for money. Being the good pavlovian that I am, I offered him 10 LE, which still resulted in an unhappy face. And then he brought his unhealthy triplets into it. What to do?

I gave him more in the end, but made it clear I was unhappy. I resent having insufficient information to be able to decide whether I am being take for a ride or whether the suffering is real — and even then, am I paying for a service or alms? Next time I visit (and I will, as this is something I want visitors to see) I will either do the negotiating beforehand, or stick to my own sense of what the tour was worth, and polite protestations be damned. I took me three mosques to (re)learn my lesson: In Egypt, tourists are for fleecing. I can’t wait to learn Arabic properly to better parry the onslaught.

4 thoughts on “A walk through southern Islamic Cairo

  1. I’m all for your voyage of cultural discovery, but isn’t that simply rude, in any language? Cultural norms be damned. (I’m still resentful of the automatic 15% tip concept here. Last haircut, I felt like some beneficent seignuer doling out the cash. The only element missing was the droit de.

  2. Hey, I just happened to stumble upon your site and read your walk through of your journey through Cairo. I kind of felt slightly sick that you were hassled into paying them money for tours of mosques. I just hope you don’t make a judgement on all Muslim people offering you tours of mosques that they are all expecting something out of it (or if they offer any service that they are alsways expecting something out of it). I’m currently in the U.S but I’m half Saudi and visit there often. If you ever find life taking you to Saudi Arabia, I’d be more than happy to give you a free tour of all the beautiful mosques there. 🙂

  3. Stefan, thanks for the tips on Cairo! I left your email on another computer, but glad I found your blog! – Thanks for writing.
    I did a similar walk past the Citadel and on to Khan-al-Kalili. – Jamal at the Blue Mosque was very good at pulling the very subtle insulted look when I handed him 5LE too! Very clever!
    I also was able to watch sunset from the minarets
    at Al Ghoria (nr. Khan-al-kalili). I bargained entry to 10LE and joined some tourists who paid much more. I was able to stay up there until Imam started wailing, and then scurried down to find myself locked in the tower. – That was fun!
    So, Daisy and I were trying to figure out WHY ON EARTH would you want to live here?!?!?!? 4 days here, and I’m so glad to be splitting for Dahab… I should have done that 4 days ago 😉
    Take care.

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