Posts Tagged ‘minarets’

After an incredibly relaxing day in Rumi and Andrea’s flat — interestingly labeled “el-Faradaws,” the word for Paradise — I decided by Day 2 in Cairo that it was time to get out.

The goal was to walk down south from Bab Zwayla, the southern gates of the 11th century Fatimid city, through the quarter known as Darb al-A7mar, or “the Red Road.”

By now you know I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and here’s one of the many reasons I love Cairo: the city is still marked and known by these same elements of nostalgia. Going to the camel market? Good luck: nine-tenths of all cab drivers will bring you to Shaar3a sou5 al-gamal, on the way to Imbaba, where the camel market has been for centuries (and before the present government relocated it to the tiny village of Birqash some time ago) or Shaar3a Sudani, where camels were driven up from the south from the Sudan. Much of the city is marked in very much the same manner, and the names alone are rather evocative, even if the markets have changed: the area between the complexes of al-Azhar and al-Ghuriyya (called Butneya), is pocketed with what are still called “stitches” (ghorza in Arabic), tiny blind pockets where hashish was smoked and illegal business transacted. Nowadays, it’s where the men retreat for their sheeshas.

The word darb is actually a pretty neat one, I think, and I always get excited when I see it on a street sign. There are a couple names for roads in Arabic, and all of them have specific connotations, the most commonplace one being  the word for street, shaar3a, (which incidentally, linguists, carries the same root as the word for Islamic law, shar3ia). Darb, however, is a path cut specifically across desert — a camel road — and you almost exclusively hear it out in the desert when locals are describing unpaved paths that connect oasis towns with one another. The Darb al-A7mar was one such road, leading from the southern gates of the old Fatimid city past the southern City of the Dead to join up with trade routes to the south. Though not entirely devoid of tourists, the quarter is enough of a network of labyrinthine alleyways and medieval staircases that you usually lose the aganib with the cameras and big hats sometime around Bab Zwayla.

It’s been blazing hot in Cairo, and yesterday was dusty in particular. I caught a cab to the Ghuriyya complex, which has a stunning, high covered entrance and is about a couple hundred yards before al-Azhar. Most of the complex is original and currently rented out to local artists as studios (but God: it’s hot in there). Ghuriyya lies in the exact center of Shaar3a al Muizz,one of the central points of interest in downtown Cairo. Most of the really spectacular stuff is more towards the Coppersmiths’ Bazaar (see what I mean about names? How evocative is that!). It runs about half a mile from the Northern Gates (or the “Open Gate”) near the mosque of al-Hakim (more on him later) and continues until the Tentmakers’ Market.

Entrance to the Ghuriyya caravanseri and palace: formerly, the whole street behind was covered and was the haunt of cloth merchants and thieves.

You turn left from Bab Zwayla onto Darb al-Ahmar, which has three names, depending on what part of the quarter you’re in: Tabbana Street, Bab al-Wazir, and the so-named Darb.

I’ve come to regard mosque-hopping as something of a hobby — back in the States, I’d stop into Catholic churches on long drives just to get out and stretch and have myself a little prayer, look at the statues. I kind of find mosques a nice place to relax: invariably, they are beautiful, cozy, and no one really bothers you if you look like you’re just there to take a load off.

Naps, therefore, are a big thing on such excursions. Because everyone takes off their shoes, the carpets are prime targets for a snooze, and most of the locals oblige themselves in the afternoon.

Inside the mosque of al-Maridani

Old men with the right idea.

I also like mosques in particular for their facilities: in contrast to most lavatories in Cairo, bathrooms are at a premium in Islamic Cairo, at least for men. Not only can you find yourself a clean toilet, but practically take a bath for free due to the ablutions fountains everywhere. And truth be told, there’s something to the practice of wudu5, which is incredibly refreshing after a jaunt through the dustiest of quarters.

“Have you prayed the 3asr?”

No, sorry, I’m not Muslim.

Ah! You are American?

I said I wasn’t Muslim. Not that I didn’t speak Arabic.

This was how I met Gamal, who is the supervisor for three of the local mosques in Darb al-A7mar. Not only did he get me up into minarets, but the man opened the door to the still-being-renovated Qasr al-Azraq, the Blue Palace of Sultain Qait Bey.

Inside, stained glass windows and mashrabiyya inserts.

Tunnel that led to the Citadel; sultans flee underground, Da Vinci style!

The palace formerly known as Blue.

Courtyard, funded by American grants. In background, the crumbling ruins of the third wife's wing, and what it used to look like. From the roof.

Inside Qajmas al-Ishaqi, first mosque on the Darb al-A7mar.


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Rumi tuned me in yesterday to the controversy surrounding the Swiss popular vote to ban minarets. As usual, there’s what he termed “twitrage” about the decision, though for me, it raises some interesting questions about churches here.

Naturally, I’m outraged.

Interestingly, the character known to me only as “Sandmonkey” (see his amazingly crazy rants here) twittered in response to the ban: “Switzerland is banning the phalic extension of a mosque. Not building the mosque itself. Muslim countries do that, to churches.”

Kind of what I think.

Fadhila posted a really level-headed article by Tariq Ramadan of The Guardian on the ban’s motivation by fear: the Swiss fear “Islamization,” and that a variety of Islamic symbols are targeted as a result of fear — which is implied to be the product of ignorance among non-Muslims. I’m a fan of Ramadan’s articles in general (not his one on Benedict XVI, though), but I think that his assertion that the Swiss have voted “not against towers, but Muslims” is taking the matter entirely too far. And again, I’m outraged. I really am. I hate having to censor myself, I hate that I can’t hear church bells. I hate that being Christian in a Muslim country makes me feel a little under siege. And I don’t want anyone to experience that — ever — in any other country. But I’m not really asking if it’s really ethical, because we all know it’s not; I’m asking if we’re at all surprised at the decision.

When Hamas won the majority vote in the Palestinian legislative assembly in 2006, the rest of the world trembled a little, fearing that the election of the party would escalate the already simmering issue of Palestine. During the Bush administration, the atmosphere surrounding such election results was made to sound like evil was slowly taking over; that within years, the US would become embroiled not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in some tragic, painful conflict in Palestine. But no one interfered. Interference would mean compromising the electoral principle that, when people vote, they vote for a reason: neither the United States nor anyone else could eliminate that fact. Does the same principle apply? (Serious question)

When authors cannot freely publish critical books without incurring death threats and are forced into years of hiding (Salman Rushdie)…

When the publication of the positive portrayals of Islam in The Jewel of Medina (about the life of Aisha) is cancelled and delayed for fear of outcry against the publisher and threats against the author

When the director of (an albeit tasteless) film criticizing the verse from the Qur’an that a man has a right to beat his wife if she is disobedient is murdered in reaction to its release

Protestors outside the Danish embassy in London, c. 2006 following the cartoon controversy

When protesters to the Danish cartoon controversy react with violence against the cartoon depiction of Muhammad, portraying Islam as a violent religion….

When filmmakers are afraid to destroy the Ka’aba in a stupid blockbuster about the end of the world but are more than willing to topple the Basilica of St. Peter’s…

When underage girls in Antwerp feel as though they need to veil and be accompanied by their brothers to be socially accepted by their classmates…

When the display of Christian icons, crosses (even on one’s person!), or the open worship of Christianity is expressly forbidden by law and carries a prison sentence…

When all this happens, are we surprised by Ramadan’s assertion that such a controversy is “fuelled by fear”?

Of course it’s fueled by fear. Fear that we cannot criticize, fear that we cannot unveil, fear that we cannot protect our right to free speech. The public face of Islam is one that advocates itself as the True Faith and a unifying religion of peace; and yet, these items are at odds with the idea of free speech contained within liberal democracy. Shari’a law does do permit public worship of other religions, it requires other adherents to pay taxes: where Christianity conceives itself as a separate political identity (“Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…”), Islam is conceived as an umma, a nation of believers that is spread in a diaspora across the world, to be governed ideally by a caliph under shari’a law. Hence, as Bernard Lewis notes:

The penalty for apostasy, in Islamic law, is death. Islam is conceived as a polity, not just as a religious community. It follows therefore that apostasy is treason. It is a withdrawal, a denial of allegiance as well as of religious belief and loyalty. Any sustained and principled opposition to the existing regime or order almost inevitably involves such a withdrawal.

I too am a little afraid. When such potentials are so essential to the practice of the religion, what is the religion itself? Is Islam really how the theologians would have it? Or is it how the people practice it — how it is visible, perceived, and read?

Isn’t that always the question in religion?



Bikya’s article on the ban makes me SO ANGRY in that it fails to address similar issues within Egypt:

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