If not the summer heat, wandering in Islamic Cairo around the huge Khan el-Khalili market would be the most ideal way to enjoy Old Cairo. Even without entering mosques or museums, just strolling around to feel the bustling activities, hearing the calls of prayer mingled with the yells of merchants, smelling the shisha smoke and Arabian coffee from open cafes, and searching for the highly decorative details on centuries old building facade was just a pure delight.
As the largest and most famous souq in the region, it is understandable that Khan el-Khalili has been developed into a major tourist attraction in Cairo. It was precisely the souq’s popularity among tourists that made it falling victim as a target of terrorist attacks. In 2005, just one year prior to my visit, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device near the market, killing two French and one American tourists. In 2009, another bombing incident took place at the souq and killed a 17-year-old French girl. These incidents did make some temporary impact to tourism in Egypt. But judging from the tourist crowds that I saw in 2006, just one year after the suicide bombing, the impact was rather minimal. Of course no attacks would make a greater impact to tourism than the Covid 19 pandemic that we are experiencing right now.
In 1996, British director Anthony Minghella adapted Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient into a box office hit and critically acclaimed movie. In the film, the 1940’s Historic Cairo appears to be an untouched medieval Arab city. In reality, the scenes were filmed in Tunisia, as the real Cairo is a much more developed city. Nonetheless, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Historic Cairo, or commonly known as Islamic Cairo, is the “Cairo” that most travellers and audience of The English Patient desire to see: a vibrant neighbourhood full of winding alleyways, souks, fountains, medieval mansions, hammans, and most of all, mosques of different sizes and with them, a thousand minarets that make up the city’s skyline. Established in 969 AD, Cairo was the capital city of the Fatimid Caliphate until the 12th century. Then the city changed hands from one Islamic empire to another, including the Ottomans. Throughout centuries, Cairo was situated in the midst of caravan routes between Africa and the Middle East. From spices, Yemeni coffee to Indian textiles, Cairo has always been a trading hub in the Arab world.
Just like many old Arab cities, my first impression of Islamic Cairo was noisy, chaotic, disorganized, crowded, disorienting, and confusing. However, at certain moment when I stood under the shade of a minaret or took refuge at a tranquil teashop near the souk of Khan el-Khalili, I felt being miles away from the hectic activities and could easily imagine myself being in the Old Cairo of The English Patient.
In the shaded valley of Mount Sinai stands the 1500-year fortified Eastern Orthodox monastery named after Catherine of Alexandria, the Christian saint and virgin who was martyred in the early 4th century in hands of Emperor Maxentius. Monastic life had been known since the 4th century at the Sinai location, in the barren land of austerity and remoteness. In AD 330, Empress Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, built the Chapel of Burning Bush and a small hermit refuge at the site where Moses was supposed to see the burning bush and was named by God as the leader to lead the Israelies out of Egypt. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of the monastery complex that we see today to house the Chapel of the Burning Bush. Amazingly the monastery still remains functioning as a Christian monastery today, and became one of the oldest monastic communities in the world. Due to the site’s significance in the Old Testament, the monastery is considered a sacred pilgrimage site for all sects of Christianity, Islam and Judaism throughout history.
After a sleepless night and hours of hiking in the rugged Mount Sinai, we finally made it to Saint Catherine’s Monastery at around 08:00. From the outside, the monastery resembles a highly fortified defense complex. It was hard to imagine that beyond the high stone walls stand one of the world’s oldest monastery, together with the oldest library in the Western world. The thousand-year-old library contains 3300 manuscripts written in 11 languages: Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Georgian and Slavonic. These manuscripts have became an extremely precious collection: classical Greek texts, medical writing, monastic documents and other texts created in different period in history, including some splendidly made manuscripts with glided letters and illuminations crafted in Constantinople. While the library is off limits to tourists, most visitors and pilgrims who have braved the harsh landscape and remote location of Sinai would find peace and bliss for the real life encounter with the legendary Burning Bush mentioned in the Book of Exodus.
We waited outside the monastery for about an hour until 09:00. Inside the complex, only the main church, a small museum and the exterior courtyard where the Burning Bush stands are opened to the public. At the crowded courtyard, everyone was trying to take pictures of themselves with the legendary Burning Bush. We wandered around the complex for a while and slowly returned to the parking lot of Mount Sinai for the tour minibus. We were quite sleepy and tired by the time we reached Bishibishi. At the hotel we grabbed a quick bite, packed our backpacks, and took the 14:30 bus leaving for Cairo. It was a long journey, passing by the Suez Canal at sunset, and reached Cairo after 8.5 hours on the road. At the bus station in Cairo, we took a taxi to Midan Talaat Harb, a star-shaped plaza at the centre of a shopping district, where our guesthouse was located. It was 23:30 when we arrived, but it felt like 20:00 as most shops and restaurants were still busy. After our hermitic days in the Arabian desert of Wadi Rum and Sinai Peninsula, the vibrant scenes of Cairo almost gave us a little shock.: the way people drive, cross the streets, yell in the shops, and occasionally intimidate tourists for a little tip. This is Cairo, the largest city in Africa, Middle East and the Arab world, with over 20 million of inhabitants who are proud of their pharaohic history.
Near Damascus, Bosra is probably one of the most popular destinations for tourist excursion. As a unique UNESCO World Heritage site, Bosra preserves one of the best example of a Medieval adaptive reuse project, which converted an ancient Roman theatre into a defensive citadel. In the 2nd century BC, Borsa emerged as a Nabatean city. After the Nabatean Kingdom was annexed by the Romans under Emperor Trajan in 106 AD, Borsa became the prosperous capital of the Roman province of Arabia Petraea. By the 5th century, Bosra was turned into a Metropolitan archbishop’s seat for the Christian Byzantine. The Islam Rashidun Caliphate captured Bosra from the Byzantine Christians in 634. From then on, the city served as an outpost of Damascus, and a vital stop of hajj pilgrimage between Damascus and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. After the Seljuks came in 1076, the thousand-year old city underwent a series of dramatic transformations, particularly the Roman theatre was converted into a fortress. Then mosques and Muslim shrines were built to add some religious touches to the complex. In the 13th century, the Ayyubid constructed eight towers at the Roman theatre to consolidate the city’s defense. The various transformations of Bosra have given a unique character to the city, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. Just like many other archaeological sites in the country, Bosra’s Roman Theatre was partially damaged in the civil war.
From Baramke Station in Damascus, we hopped on a minibus for Bosra. After arriving in Bosra’s Agora, we were approached by a local who claimed to be an assistant of a French archaeologist. As a temporary guide, he took us for a quick tour of Bosra, and led us to visit his “aunt” at a domestic home. We took a picture with his “aunt” and parted with our temporary guide at the entrance of the Roman Threater. A bridge led us across the moat into a entry hall of the citadel. Walking through the Islamic citadel to enter the theatre was like walking through a labyrinth of defensive tunnels. It was quite possible to get lost in the underground section of the complex. Steep stairs and dark corridors led to the entryways of the theatre. Under the bright sun, dark volcanic basalt, one of the main construction materials of Bosra, was quite obvious. We stayed at the theatre for about half an hour, found our way onto the stage, and hurried out of the labyrinth-like tunnel to exit the complex. We made it on time to the bus station for the 14:00 bus back to Damascus.
Less than 20,000 residents were still living in Bosra back in 2006.
Dark basalt rocks were used to construct the city of Bosra.
The construction of Bosra was simple and practical.
We walked around the ruins of Bosra before entering the theatre.
There were many examples of incorporating ancient Nabatean and Roman structures into medieval houses.
Ancient Roman materials were either reused or incorporated into new structures.
The fusion came under the Muslim rule when the citadel with eight guard towers was built to defend against the Crusade.
Our temporary guide led us to his aunt’s home, one of the Medieval stone houses.
We said hello to the guide’s aunt before heading to the theatre.
Once a city housing 80,000 in the ancient times, in 2006 Bosra was a small town with less than 20,000 residents living among the ruins.
Crossing the stone bridge on the moat, we finally entered the Citadel Theatre.
The Citadel Theatre is the best preserved remains in Bosra, and a one-of-a-kind adaptive reuse construction. Efforts were made from 1946 onward to clear the 3 storey defensive structures in the theatre area, thus the Roman theatre reappeared once again.
The theatre construction began in Trajan’s time when a 9000-15000 seat theatre was built.
In the Medieval times, the theatre was transformed into a citadel. A maze of covered passageways were constructed to connect the inner theatre with the outer section of the citadel.
The three storey stage backdrop was once filled with marble details and statues. These doors were used for actors to enter the stage.
Five days after entering Syria from Turkey, we finally reached the capital city Damascus, after a quick tour of Aleppo, Crusader castles near Hama, and the ruins in the Syria Desert. Also known as the City of Jasmine, Damascus is one of the most important cultural centre in the Arab world, and one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Large settlement within the city walls dated back to the second millennium BC. The city’s status rose to its peak when it was chosen as the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate, the centre of the Islamic world, from 661 to 750 AD. Today, Damascus is the capital and largest city in Syria. Since ancient times, Damascus has been a melting pot of different Middle Eastern cultures and religions. While Islam is the prominent religion, Christians (Syriac Orthodox, Catholic, Greek Orthodox Church, etc) represent about one fifth of the population. There was also a small Jewish community dating back to ancient times. Nowhere in the Syrian capital can illustrate the complex religious traditions better than Umayyad Mosque, one of the largest, oldest and holiest mosques in the world.
After checking in at Al Rabie Hotel, we ventured out immediately to explore Damascus. We walked through the busy streets and congested traffic, passed by the citadel, stroll through a covered souk, and at last reached the Umayyad Mosque. We took off our shoes and reached the huge courtyard. The marble floor was clean and smooth but quite hot. The Umayyad Mosque (Great Mosque of Damascus) was built in early 8th century by the Umayyad Caliphate. In the Roman times, the site was home to a large and famous Temple of Jupiter. In the 4th century, Theodosius I converted the temple into a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. In 706 AD, construction work began to convert the church into Umayyad Mosque. Christian and Muslim pilgrims continued to come and pay respect to St. John the Baptist. The small shrine which housed John’s head still exists today inside the mosque.
Adjacent to the mosque we found our way to the Mausoleum of Saladin, the famous and powerful Muslim knight who fought off the Crusades and recaptured Palestine from the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Mausoleum is a small stone building in which Saladin’s coffin is covered with a green textile.
Probably built in the 10th century, the Minaret of the Bride on the northern wall is the first minaret built for the Umayyad Mosque.
Located at the southwest corner, the 1488 Minaret of Qaitbay shows a strong Egyptian Islamic influence.
Completed in 715 AD upon alterations from the earlier church, the Umayyad Mosque was meant to establish a jama masjid (congregational mosque or Friday mosque). With a height of 118 feet, the Dome of the Eagle sits atop the main prayer hall.
It was said that about 12,000 craftsmen and workers from Coptic Egypt, Persia, India, Greece and Morocco served as the main construction force. Byzantine artisans were hired for the decorative and architectural details, including the mosaics.
The Umayyad Mosque is a rare example of mosque architecture still maintaining the original design features and structure since the 8th century.
In 1979, the old city of Damascus was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Out of the 125 monuments in the city, the Umayyad Mosque is considered to be the most spectacular.
Mosaic was a common form of art in the Roman and Byzantine era. Along with Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, the mosaics of the Umayyad Mosque is one of the best preserved mosaic art of the Umayyads in the world.
Due to various fire incidents in history, the surviving mosaics only represent a portion of the original mosaics. Most mosaics we see today were plastered over by the Ottomans. First uncovered in 1929, little has been changed to the mosaics since the 8th century.
There are three domes in the main courtyards, including the Fountain for Ablutions in the centre.
Constructed in 780, the Dome of the Clock or Zeynel Abidin Dome at the eastern end of the courtyard. Later erected by the Abbasids in 1247, the Minaret of Jesus (Isa) at the back is the tallest among the three minarets.
Built in 790s, the Dome of Treasury was used to house the mosque’s endowment funds and old manuscripts.
The courtyard is a pleasant open space even just for sitting around to absorb the historic atmosphere.
The outer columns of the main prayer hall contain some beautiful marble decorations.
Other than the main prayer hall, the courtyard is bounded by a series of colonnades.
Decorative marble inlays can be found at both exterior and interior of the mosque. Some columns in the complex were actually recycled from the earlier church at the same site.
This early mosque borrowed a number of features from earlier Roman and Byzantine designs, including the dome, vaults and colonnades. Beautiful windows provide another pleasant feature to the interior of the prayer hall.
The qibla wall with the mihrab niche indicates the direction to Mecca.
The main prayer hall contains three aisles stretching to east and west.
Serving as a pilgrimage site for both Muslims and Christians, the shrine of Saint John the Baptist (Prophet John in Islam), almost like a small building within the prayer hall, situates at the central aisle.
It was only a short walk from Hagia Sophia to the Blue Mosque. During our stay in Istanbul, we passed by Sultan Ahmet Park between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque numerous times. The Hagia Sophia represents the engineering marvel of the Byzantine Empire. 1000 years after the completion of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque was erected to showcase the poetic beauty and the architectural genius of the Ottoman Empire. Unlike Hagia Sophia where the building has turned into a museum, the Blue Mosque remains as an active religious venue frequented by worshipers. Also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, it took 7 years, 5 months and 6 days for Sultan Ahmet I and his architect Sedefkar Mehmed Agha to complete the project. Being an apprentice of Mimar Sinan, the chief Ottoman architect that was responsible for 300+ projects across the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, Sedefkar Mehmed Agha epitomized the high Ottoman architecture with the Blue Mosque. With its 6 minarets, five main domes and eight secondary domes, the Blue Mosque has become a prominent icon of Istanbul’s skyline. Staying in Sultanahmet allowed us to pass by the Blue Mosque at various times of the day, and witness the beauty of the architecture under different sunlight.
Early morning is the best time to photograph the Blue Mosque from Sultan Ahmet Park when there is still a tint of violet in the sky.
Before the arrival of tourist groups, we could still have a moment of peace to photograph the mosque.
At dusk, atmospheric lighting lit up the Blue Mosque in front of the purple sky.
In early morning, we could freely move around and photograph the mosque without tourists.
While some mosques have only one dome, the Blue Mosque has a series of main and secondary domes.
Beautiful sunlight casts an orange tone onto the marble facade of the Blue Mosque.
Wudu is the ritual purification for the Muslims. The process involves cleansing of hands, mouth, nostrils, arms, head and feet. This process is usually done before formal prayers and handling of the Quran. A designated wudu area is provided at the entrance courtyard.
After the wudu area, worshipers enter the forecourt through the raised gateway.
The raised archway bring visitors into the forecourt.
The forecourt is consisted of a fountain in the middle and vaulted arcade around the perimeter.
The vaulted arcade is decorated by a series of domes.
Details of the wood work and metal ornament reveal the marvelous craftsmanship of the Ottoman Empire.
The Blue Mosque is one of the two mosques in Turkey that contains six minarets.
Before dinner, the last activity of our Indian journey 2018 was a guided tour in Nizamuddin Basti, a 14th century community centered around the shrine of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Despite located just ten minutes of walk from the UNESCO World Heritage site Humayun’s Tomb, the Muslim neighborhood is relatively under visited. From online research, we learnt about the local charity organization, the Hope Project, offers tour of the community for anyone who is interested in the Nizamuddin Basti neighborhood. Found by Sufi teacher, Pir Vilayat Inyat Khan, the Hope Project runs a community health centre, a school, vocational training classes, credit program, etc in Nizamuddin Basti. Through email, we arranged a guided tour of the basti with them. Unfortunately, we were running late by the time we left Humayun’s Tomb. We weren’t sure if our arranged tour was still available. After entering the neighborhood, it took us quite some time to locate the office in the midst of busy lanes. Gratefully, the staff there were willing to take us for a walk, despite the mosques had closed. After the walk in Nizamuddin Basti, we took the metro to United Coffee House at Connaught Place for dinner. We had also dined there on the last day of our trip back in 2016.
The first thing we encountered was the outer wall of Kalan Masjid, also known as Kali Mosque or Large Mosque. The mosque was built in 1370.
We passed by the entrance of the Kalan Masjid, but were unable to enter the complex.
All the lanes in Nizamuddin Basti were busy with people and motorcycles.
Basti residents can find everything they need in their historical neighborhood.
Many locals smiled to us while we toured around the 600-year old neighborhood.
Through the historical gateway, we entered to the forecourt of Chausath Khamba, the tomb complex built by Mughal noble Mirza Aziz Koka in 1623 at the time of Emperor Jahangir.
The forecourt of Chausath Khamba was recently landscaped by the Aga Khan Trust.
The forecourt of Chausath Khamba is frequented by children coming to meet friends and play cricket.
The actual Chausath Khamba is a square shape marble building supported by 64 columns.
The marble hall is divided into 25 bays and covered by 25 domes concealed in the roof structure.
Chausath Khamba houses the tomb of Mirza Aziz Koka, his father Ataga Khan, and other unidentified people.
Adjacent to Chausath Khamba stand the Ghalib Academy and Mazar-e-Ghalib, the tomb of Ghalib, a famous 19th century Persian poet. Our tour with the Hope Project ended at Mazar-e-Ghalib.
On our way out of the neighborhood, the street eateries reminded us that it was almost dinner time.
The monumental and modernist Nizamuddin Markaz Mosque is the centre for the Tablighi network. It was busy with evening prayers as we left the basti.
Due to the Sufi request for divine love, rose is popular among locals.
We followed the main road out towards Mathura Road, where we could walk back to the metro.
We then took the metro to Connaught Place for dinner.
Just like two years ago, we sat down at United Coffee House for their local Indian cuisine.
We sat down at a table on the ground floor and took our time to enjoy the meal and ambience of the restaurant.
Another night flight to return home, another wonderful Indian journey completed. We returned back to the Airport Express Station to pick up our backpacks and hopped on an airport bounded train. This concluded the record of our India 2018 trip.
Posts on 2018 Rajasthan:-
Day 1: Jodhpur
DAY 1.1: IN TRANSIT TO RAJASTHAN
DAY 1.2: PAL HAVELI & THE OMELETTE MAN, Jodhpur
DAY 1.3: SPLENDOR OF THE SUN FORT, Mehrangarh, Jodhpur
DAY 1.4: SUNSET OVER THE BLUE CITY, Mehrangarh, Jodhpur
DAY 1.5: SADAR MARKET AND GHANTA GHAR CLOCKTOWER, Jodhpur
Day 2: Jodhpur, Osian, Jaisalmer
DAY 2.1: MARBLE CENOTAPH JASWANT THADA, Jodhpur
DAY 2.2: MEDIEVAL STEPWELLS, Mahila Bagh Ka Jhalra, Gulab Sagar, & Toorji Ka Jhalra, Jodhpur
DAY 2.3: PILGRIM OASIS IN THAR DESERT, Sachiya Mata Temple, Osian
DAY 2.4: SUNRISE AT THE FIRST GATE OF GOLDEN FORT, Jaisalmer
Day 4: Jaisalmer
DAY 4.1: RESERVOIR OF THE GOLDEN CITY, Gadsisar Lake, Jaisalmer
DAY 4.2: ARCHITECTURAL JEWEL OF RAJASTHAN, Patwon Ki Haveli Part 1, Jaisalmer
DAY 4.3: ARCHITECTURAL JEWEL OF RAJASTHAN, Patwon Ki Haveli Part 2, Jaisalmer
DAY 4.4: DESERT HERITAGE, Hotel Nachana Haveli and Thar Heritage Museum, Jaisalmer
DAY 4.5: LAST STROLL IN THE GOLDEN CITY, Jaisalmer
Day 8: Bhangarh, Abhaneri & Agra
DAY 8.1: ON THR ROAD TO AGRA
DAY 8.2: HAUNTED RUINS, Bhangarh, Rajasthan
DAY 8.3: CHAND BAORI, Abhaneri, Rajasthan
DAY 8.4: THE ABANDONED CAPITAL OF MUGHAL EMPIRE, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
DAY 8.5: FRIDAY MOSQUE, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
Day 9: Agra
DAY 9.1: CROWN OF THE PALACES, Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
DAY 9.2: AGRA FORT, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
DAY 9.3: RAWATPARA SPICE MARKET, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
DAY 9.4: SUNSET AT MEHTAB BAGH, Agra, Uttar Pradesh