In this trip report, we will explore the medieval old town and Islamic history of Cairo.
When people think of Cairo, they often think about the Pyramids of Giza. Although this is indeed Cairo’s number one sight and certainly well-worth to visit, it would be a great shame if you would only focus on ancient Egyptian history while visiting Egypt’s capital city.
During the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, Cairo was perhaps the most important city in the entire Islamic world apart from Mecca and Medina.
As the capital of some formidable empires which ruled great swaths of land all over the Middle East and North Africa, some of the finest mosques, madrassas and other buildings were constructed in Cairo in medieval times.
It’s perfectly straightforward and safe to visit all of these sights by yourself and it’s as much of a fantastic experience as visiting the pyramids.
In this trip report, we will discover the most important medieval sights in the Islamic old town of Cairo. Do note that you require at least one full day (preferably one-and-a-half or two days) to do all these sights justice, and remember there is plenty of more to see and visit ffor which I unfortunately didn’t have the time.
The old town walls
During my time in Cairo, I was staying at the excellent Sofitel Nile El Gezirah on Zamalek Island. Although it’s located in the heart of modern Cairo, the Islamic old town is still a short distance away.
Instead of taking a taxi, I decided to use public transport as there was a metro station close by my hotel.
Even though there is no metro station right inside the heart of the Islamic old town of Cairo, there are several stations just outside the old town.
I decided to take the metro to Bab El Shaariya station, which is just a short walk away from the old town walls and some of the original entrance gates.
From the station, I walked for some ten minutes to the two northern gates: Bab al-Futuh and Ban El Nasr, through which I entered the old town.
Exploring the old town
Although there are quite a lot of major sights scattered through the old town, most of the charm and fun lies in wandering randomly around the streets and alleys.
The southern part of the old town is by far the most crowded and hectic as this is where the big souqs (bazaars) are located.
In contrast, the northern part of the old town feels much more quiet and makes for a better place to walk around at ease without being bothered much by shopkeepers, tricksters and touts.
It’s a delightful area to soak up the local vibe and watch the locals visiting the shops and tea houses of the area.
Although the most famous of medieval Cairo’s sights are located further down to the south, there are a couple of noteworthy places in the northern part of the old town too.
One of them is Bayt al-Suhaymi, located on one of the oldest streets from the era of the Fatimid Caliphate (909 to 1171 AD).
Bayt al-Suhaymi is the only complete surviving house representing the architecture of the Ottoman era, with its southern half being built in 1648 and northern half in 1797. The house is named after the last inhabitant who lived here, namely Sheikh Muhammad Amin al-Suhaymi.
King Fuad issued a royal decree in 1930 to buy and conserve the house and turn it into a historic sight. For a minor fee of around 1-2 EUR, you can explore the grounds and see how Cairo’s elite used to live in the Ottoman era.
Khanqah of Baybars II
After visiting Bayt al-Suhaymi, I walked a bit more through the surrounding streets. When I stopped at the entrance of what appeared to be a mosque, the shopkeeper of the falafel stand opposite the building approached me and asked whether I wanted to have a look inside.
Even though the door was firmly shut, he said that he knew the keyholder and explained that if I wanted to have a look he could just call him.
I accepted the offer, and within 20 minutes the elderly caretaker of the building arrived with the keys and let me in.
The building turned out to be the Khanqah of Baybars II and was actually a much more interesting historical sight than I thought it would be. Built in 1309, this is the oldest khanqah (some kind of medieval hostel) which has survived in Cairo.
At its heyday, it used to house around 400 Sufis (followers of Islamic mysticism) as well as children of Mamluk warriors.
Of course, both the falafel man and the old gatekeeper wanted some ‘baksheesh’ (a tip or a bribe) for this, which is part of the lifestyle in Egypt and expected for every kind of favour or bit of help.
Think of it as part of the local culture and have plenty of small banknotes ready. In most of these cases, a small bit of baksheesh of around 1 to 2 euro will definitely be sufficient depending on the situation. Some cheeky locals might demand more, but you should certainly not feel obliged to throw around your Egyptian pounds way to generously.
Although some westerners might find this baksheesh culture and the constant hassle from locals trying to get some money from you annoying, it really can have its benefits as some small amounts of money can open doors which normally remain closed, which was literally the case in this situation.
If you are not interested in the proposals of Egyptian locals or shopkeepers trying to lure you into their business, a firm but polite ‘la shukran’ (meaning ‘no thank you’ or ‘I’m not interested’) will suffice. It’s the key word to learn when you are in Egypt!
Deeper into the old town
From the Khanqah of Baybars, I headed deeper into the old town. The main north-south street running across the entire old town is al-Muizz Street (full name: Al-Muizz li-Din Allah al-Fatimi Street), and many landmarks of Islamic Cairo are located along this main artery.
One of the most notable buildings is the Sabil-Kuttab of Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda, which compromises a fountain (sabil) and Quran school (kuttab).
The main sight on Muizz Street – and my favourite sight in the entire Islamic old town of Cairo is the Qalawun Complex. This complex exists out of multiple buildings such as a madrasa (Islamic religious school), a mausoleum and an old hospital.
For a minor entrance fee of around 2 euro, you can visit both the Qalawun mausoleum as well as the Barquq madrasa and mosque inside the complex.
The Qalawun Complex is regarded as one of the finest examples of Mamluk architecture and it truly is a place which will blow your mind away.
The complex was built under the reign of Sultan Al-Mansur Qalawun (1222-1290), one of the Mamluk sultans of the Bahri dynasty.
By far the most beautiful part of the Qalawun Complex is the mausoleum of Sultan Al-Mansur Qalawun is buried. Apparently, this building was supposed to become a mosque but was finally turned into a mausoleum when Sultan Qalawun died.
The mausoleum is famous for its stunning Mihrab, a half-circular niche in the wall of a mosque or other religious building which indicates the qibla, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca which Muslims should face when praying.
The mausoleum features plenty more fine mosaics, gorgeous calligraphy and stained glass windows to admire from up close. I especially loved the way how the sunlight illuminated the spacious mausoleum, as it made it such a magical and extraordinary peaceful place.
Sultan Barquq mosque and madrasa
The Sultan Barquq mosque and madrasa is located at the other end of the Qalawun Complex.
The Barquq mosque and madrasa was commissioned as a school for Quranic education by Sultan al-Zahir Barquq and while arguably still beautiful, the architecture feels less opulent and more sober than the Qalawun mausoleum.
When I was about to exit the Qalawun Complex I was approached by one of the caretakers whether or not I was interested in having a look on the rooftop.
Of course, some baksheesh is expected, but I gratefully accepted the proposal to see more of this fabulous bit of Islamic architecture in Cairo.
Some moments later when nobody was looking, the man opened a small wooden door. He told me to follow his own son upstairs, as he would guide me around the rooftop.
From the rooftop there are not only some fabulous views over the old town of Cairo, but through some open windows you can also peek down inside the Sultan Barquq mosque and see this architectural delight from a completely different angle.
When I stood on the rooftop, the adhan (Islamic call to prayer) was broadcast from multiple Cairo mosques by their muezzins (person who chants the call to prayer). It was the perfect end to my visit of the wonderful Qalawun Complex.
If you walk south from the Qalawun Complex, you will enter the large Khan el-Khalili souq (bazaar). Although it’s certainly bustling with people and shopkeepers trying to lure you into their shops, I found the area to be a little bit of a disappointment.
Sure, this was partly due to the corona pandemic as about half the shops and tea houses were firmly closed and I can only imagine that in normal times the area is twice as lively and fun to explore.
That said, I thought that Khan el-Khalili just lacked the charm of some of the other famous souqs and bazaars in the Islamic world such as those in Aleppo (Syria), Esfahan (Iran) and Istanbul (Turkey) which I’ve all visited before.
Still, Khan el-Khalili makes for a nice area to walk through and I can certainly recommend visiting it. Be however prepared for lots of touts and persistent salesmen in this area.
Cafés and teahouses
If you want to stop for a drink in the old town, you can find some good cafés on Al-Hussein Square and the alleys of the souq immediately to the west. El Fishawi is arguably the most famous of all of the Khan el-Khalili cafés.
Unfortunately, when I was visiting none of the cafés were allowed to serve shisha, as smoking hookah had been temporarily banned in the entire old town of Cairo due to the corona pandemic and new fire regulations! It was an even greater surprise to hear that this was actually strictly adhered to by the Egyptian café owners as policemen apparently patrol the area regularly.
That I was disappointed by this was quite an understatement, as to me smoking a bit of shisha is a quintessential aspect of travelling through the Middle East.
Luckily, a café owner invited me to sit in a backroom to smoke some shisha there, away from spying eyes on the square. In fact, he was secretly smoking some shisha himself there!
Opposite the busy boulevard on the southern edge of Al-Hussein Square you can find the Al-Azhar Mosque. Inaugurated in 972 AD, the Al-Azhar Mosque is the best-known of all of Cairo’s mosques.
In the 10th Century, Al-Azhar also became a thriving university and one of the greatest centres of learning in the entire Middle East.
Although the campus has since moved out of Cairo’s old town and away from the mosque, Al-Azhar is nevertheless seen as the world’s oldest university still in existence and the mosque remains its spiritual heart.
Built in Fatimid style, the Al-Azhar Mosque is certainly a gorgeous to look at with its striking white marble floor, towering minarets and the blue carpeted indoor prayer area.
The name of the Al-Azhar Mosque is thought to be derived from “az-Zahra”, which means “the shining one” in Arabic. This doesn’t refer to the shiny white floors of the mosque, but it rather is the title which was given to Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammed.
You can freely enter the Al-Azhar Mosque provided that you take off your shoes and dress modestly.
From the Al-Azhar Mosque it’s a short 15 to 20 minute walk to the main entrance of Al-Azhar Park. Although strictly not inside Cairo’s old town anymore, this place is an easy and worthwhile addition to any old town itinerary.
There is a minor entrance fee of around 1 euro if you want to access Al-Azhar Park, but it certainly is a fresh change of scenery to walk around these beautifully landscaped grounds as the quietness and relaxed vibe is the mirror opposite of the hustle and bustle of Cairo’s old town.
As Al-Azhar Park is located on a hill, there are some great views back over the old town, as well as some other landmarks to the south such as the Cairo Citadel.
There are several cafés and restaurants inside the park which look like inviting places for a drink or a meal, although I didn’t try out any of them myself.
City of the Dead
From the east side of Al-Azhar Park you have some good views over the so-called City of the Dead, which is also known as the Cairo Necropolis or the Northern Cemetery.
The City of the Dead is home to thousands of graves of commoners, but also to elaborate mausoleums of historical rulers and Cairo’s elite.
When looking out over this area from the hill you may ask yourself: “Where is the cemetery?”
This is because the area looks like any other residential neighbourhood from a distance. Besides a city of the dead, the Cairo Necropolis is as much as a place of the living!
Historically, people such as gravediggers, tomb custodians, Islamic scholars, Sufis and others tied to the cemetery built their houses right between the graves and mausoleums. They were later supplemented by all kinds of slum dwellers seeking cheap lodging when Cairo began to urbanise rapidly in recent decades.
It’s apparently a fascinating, off-the-beaten-track area of Cairo to discover, but unfortunately I did not have time to actually go into the City of the Dead and had to do with viewing it from a distance.
Back to the old town
From Al-Azhar Park and the City of the Dead I walked back to the old town of Cairo.
The area directly south of the Al-Azhar Mosque is well-worth to explore as well as it has lots of local life. Here, you can find some farmers’ markets and all kinds of shops selling books, spices, meat and other foods.
Another fun area of Cairo to explore is the southern part of Muiz Street, which runs from Nafak Al Azhar (Al Azhar Street) to the Zuwayla Gate at the southern edge of the old town.
This is a basically a giant souq area just like Khan el-Khalili directly to the north of Nafak Al Azahar.
There are some stark differences however between these two souqs. While Khan el-Khalili contains many tourist shops, this bustling souq is definitely more of a local shopping area where you can buy clothes, shoes and even building materials.
It’s certainly worth it to walk the entire stretch of southern Muiz Street all the way to Zuwayla Gate, which happens to be the most beautiful of all the old town gates as well.
For many tourists, Cairo is all about the Pyramids at Giza, although that would do the capital of Egypt a great injustice.
It were not the ancient Egyptians who turned Cairo into the the thriving, modern-day metropolis it is now, but rather the great Islamic rulers and empires of the medieval era such as the Mamluks, whose gorgeous monuments can be seen all over the old town.
You need at least a full day to explore the bustling souqs and beautiful mosques and madrasas in the old town of Cairo. Some of these sights, such as the Qalawun Complex, are among the most stunning examples of Islamic art and architecture which you can find in the entire Middle East.
It’s perfectly safe to wander around the old town all by yourself. Just be prepared for a lot of hassle from shopkeepers and touts – especially in the Khan el-Khalili bazaar – so practice your ‘la shukran’ (‘no thank you’) in advance and make sure you have your map and GPS on your phone ready so you won’t get completely lost in the labyrinth-like streets and alleys of Cairo’s old town.
That said, wandering around aimlessly and getting lost is also what part of the charm is of this area, as the Medieval old town of Cairo is so full of colour and local life that it will surely leave some lasting impressions.
Trip report index
This article is part of the ‘Walk Like an Egyptian: A Grand Tour of Egypt‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:
1. Red-Eye Ramblings of a Late Night Flight to Cairo
2. A Visit to the Pyramids of Giza by Camel
3. Review: Sofitel Nile El Gezirah, Zamalek, Cairo
4. Exploring the Medieval Old Town and Islamic History of Cairo (current chapter)
5. Visiting the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo
6. Mar Girgis: The Churches of Christian Old Cairo
** rest of the chapters to follow soon **