ultramarinus – beyond the sea

Posts tagged “Khan el-Khalili

KHAN EL-KHALILI SOUQ, Cairo, Egypt

2006.05.30.

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.

The network of alleyways offered me a delightful labyrinth to wander around.
Most tourists come to Khan El-Khalili for souvenirs, handmade carpets silverware, antiques, stained glass lamps, incense, jewellery, copper-ware, and even gold. I spent most of my time strolling around to take pictures.
For me, the area was a great place to get lost and just watch the bustling actions of local people.
The Mosque Madrassa Khanqah at al-Muizz Street near Bayn al-Qasrayn is a popular spot for tourist photos.
Some aggressive shop owners did approach and invite me to enter their shops.
Sitting at the outdoor patio of a coffeehouse was the most comfortable way foe me to enjoy the bustling activities around.
Despite most shops are now catered for tourists, some still maintain their original character selling daily merchandises and spices.
In Cairo, one of the most sought-after souvenir is the handcrafted metal lantern.
Beyond market stalls and shops, I would from time to time be amazed by some beautiful architecture that had stood for centuries.
Especially in al-Muizz Street where buildings with ornate details have been well preserved.
From time to time, I would unintentionally return to the same spot more than one occasion, including the Mosque Madrassa Khanqah at al-Muizz Street.
Without notice, the sun was getting low and shadows were lengthening.
Despite getting late, the market was still packed with shoppers, tourists and merchants.
From time to time I would hear the loud speakers from nearby mosques calling for prayer.
In the side alleyways away from the main shopping streets, the peaceful neighborhood setting was like another world.
Wandering in the Khan el-Khalili area was a delight for me. Every turn at alleyways or brief stop along the way showed me a unique picture of Cairo from what seemed to be a bygone era.

CITY OF A THOUSAND MINARETS, Cairo, Egypt

2006.05.30.

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.

Every time I ventured out my hotel I would likely go past the historical Midan Square. At the centre of the square stood a statue of Mustafa Kamil Pasha, a nationalist activist in late 19th century and early 20th century.
The Tahrir Square is the most famous public square in downtown Cairo. In recent years, the square is widely known as the focal point for the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and gathered at the Tahrir Square.
Without traffic lights, crossing the traffic circle at Tahrir Square was one of the most exciting experience in downtown Cairo, especially during rush hours.
As the main square in downtown Cairo, Tahrir Square is the most prominent spot for commercial advertisement.
Sometimes referred to as the Paris along the Nile, the 19th century Cairo had undergone a series of urban transformations after Khedive Ismail, the Khedive of Egypt, visited Paris and decided to leave his European mark in the city.
Touring Old Cairo allowed me to appreciate many historical buildings.
Founded by an Austrian merchant, the iconic Tiring Building was department store opened in 1912. However, due to WWI, the Austrian business was forced into liquidation by 1920. Since then, the abandoned building became home to many small business and workshops. The glass globe on the roof has became a well known feature in the neighbourhood.
In Old Cairo, each building is unique and can be photogenic in its own way.
Tea houses or the ahwa are popular in Cairo as the venue for relaxation and social activities.
Bab El Nasr or Gate of Victory, is one of the three remaining gates of the Old City of Cairo.
Traditional brass lanterns are eye-catching highlights for buildings in Islamic Cairo.
Mashrabiya, a projected bay window covered with wooden latticework, is a common feature in Islamic Cairo.
Wandering in Old Cairo was an enjoyable experience if not the overwhelming summer heat.
I spent most of the day walking around Islamic Cairo without a destination in mind.
I passed by a mosque entrance while morning prayer was called.
Then I noticed splendid minarets of Al-Azhar Mosque right in front of me. Al-Azhar Mosque was established in 972 AD as the first mosque of Cairo. The mosque also hosts the world’s second oldest university.
Al-Azhar University is well known in the Islamic world for the study of Sunni theology and Islamic law. Today, the mosque serves as a symbol of Islamic Egypt.
Built in the 15th century, the Minaret of Qaytbay is a prominent feature crowned by a finial top.
The decorative motifs near the entrances of Al-Azhar Mosque are quite spectacular.