November 6 – 17
We left for the train station and after arriving sat in a café nursing a cold drink until departure time. Boarding and finding our sleeper berth now seemed familiar and we settled in to wait for dinner, which would be similar to that we’d been served on the way to Aswan, although much later this time around.
We quickly finished the meal and watched our porter swiftly set up the compartment for sleeping, which we soon set to as we’d have an early arrival the next morning. It’s interesting to repeat an experience when traveling as a good one can be leavened by a bad one and vice-versa. Such was the case this time around, with one of the two toilets in our coach out of commission and the door not locking on the one that did.
Early in the morning, before the others were afoot, a further delight was discovering there wasn’t any toilet paper (I know I should have looked first before sitting down, but really, who does?) but I improvised with paper towels to save the day. Breakfast was rushed as we neared the station, no lingering in the lounge car for us this time around and we arrived in Cairo with one last shuttle to take us to the AraCan where we’d store our gear until our flight later that night.
Eight of us (Kim, Marty, Paula, Katie, Joanna, Marco, Roberto, and myself) joined Mahmoud for one last tour, this time to the three significant mosque’s in Cairo, those being the Citadel of Saladin, the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan and the Mosque of Al-Refaei. Our first stop the Citadel was impressive from the exterior and given the size of the complex, it took us some time to walk from the parking lot to the entrance gates.
The Citadel is an Islamic-era fortification built by Salah ad-Din (Saladin, 1137 to 1193) and further developed by subsequent Egyptian rulers. It was the seat of government in Egypt and the residence of its rulers for nearly 700 years from the 13th to the 19th centuries. Its location on a promontory of the Mokattam hills near the center of Cairo commands a strategic position overlooking the city and dominating its skyline. It is now a preserved historic site, including mosques and museums.
The Citadel underwent major development during the Mamluk Sultanate that followed, culminating with the construction projects of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad in the 14th century. In the first half of the 19th century Muhammad Ali Pasha demolished many of the older buildings and built new palaces and monuments all across the site, giving it much of its present form. In the 20th century it was used as a military garrison by the British occupation and then by the Egyptian army until being opened to the public in 1983.
We would visit the Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, also known as the Alabaster Mosque, commissioned by Muhammad Ali Pasha between 1830 and 1848 in memory of his eldest son, Tusun Pasha, who died in 1816. It was built with a central dome surrounded by four small and four semicircular domes; constructed in a square plan and measured 135 feet by 135 feet. The central dome is 69 feet in diameter and the height of the building is 171 feet.
The main material is limestone likely sourced from the Great Pyramids of Giza, but the lower story and forecourt is tiled with alabaster up to 37 feet. We entered an outer courtyard and removed our shoes as is the custom. Walking inside the prayer hall, the first impression is how different a house of Muslim worship is from so many of the Christian churches. A prayer hall rarely has furniture; chairs and pews are generally absent so as to allow as many worshipers as possible to line the room. Some mosques have Islamic calligraphy and Quranic verses on the walls to assist worshippers in focusing on the beauty of Islam and its holiest book, the Quran, as well as for decoration.
Throughout our travels we’ve spent a considerable amount of time inside churches, cathedrals and other houses of worship. Some faiths portray the supremacy of their deity through elaborately decorated interiors (frescoes, stained glass windows, etc.), or overpowering architecture meant to humble the worshiper before their god (St. Peter’s in Rome, Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul), or by their age and history (St Martin’s Church in Canterbury or Notre-Dame de Paris). But here the emphasis seems to be on simplicity and the duty to pray. I’m not sure which has the most appeal, leaving it up to the individual to choose.
One the way to our last stop (we visit two Mosque’s there) we stopped for lunch, at a falafel stand of course, and Mahmoud generously bought our orders for us. It would be our last of the trip and a great way to nearly end our last day. We’ll cover that and more in the next post.
Citadel of Saladin: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/citadel.htm
Salah ad-Din (Saladin): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saladin
Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/muhammadalimosque.htm