Bab al-Wazir, an authentic testimony to Cairo’s unique Islamic heritage

The ancient hospital in Bab al-Wazir

CAIRO - Bab al-Wazir — the Minister’s Gate — is among the few remaining gates of old Cairo and part of a gigantic fence built by the Mamluks, who ruled Egypt for almost 300 years, to protect the city against invading armies.
Inaugurated in 1341 by Mamluk Minister Negm al-Din Muhammad, Bab al-Wazir has been restored dozens of times since then.
Behind the gate, clocks seem to have stopped ticking. The buildings are the same, even as they were refurbished several times, giving visitors an insight into life in old Cairo.
“This area will continue to bear witness to life in Cairo hundreds of years back,” said Mohamed Khalil, the head of the Downtown Cairo Section at the Ministry of Antiquities. “It defied time and the changes that have affected every aspect of Egyptian life.”
The alleyways, the homes, the buildings and the names of places have remained the same since they were constructed.
Among the landmarks is Abu Heriba Mosque, which was built in 1480. Named after one of the sheikhs who looked after it and was buried under its dome in the 1850s, the mosque is featured on the Egyptian 50-pound note.
It is one of Islamic Cairo’s architectural wonders. Its mausoleum and dome are on its right side and the building was designed in harmony with surrounding roads and alleyways. This explains why some parts of the mosque, including the ablution area and the library, are opposite the building.
The interior of the mihrab (a semi-circular niche in mosque wall that indicates the prayer direction) is adorned with colourful pieces of marble and verses from the Quran.
The minbar, the mosque pulpit where the imam delivers sermons, is made of wood and decorated with ivory.
“These are historical wonders in the form of buildings,” said Mohamed Abdo, a history researcher who gives tours to visitors. “I have seen nobody who came to this area and was not infatuated with the amount of history, art and beauty it exhibits.”
Many visitors to Bab al-Wazir district, which is only half an hour drive from the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo and the Saladin Citadel in the southern part of the city, are Egyptian history and art students. The gate is in Cairo’s most crowded part near al-Azhar Mosque and the ancient Khan al-Khalili bazaar.
“Nowhere in Egypt — and probably in the world — is there this over-concentration of (Islamic) history and art,” Abdo said.
The public fountain built in 1744 and the nearby madrassa of Katkhuda are among the must-visit landmarks in the area. The two constructions are bright models of Ottoman and Mamluk architecture. Known to Egyptians as the “Sabil of Katkhuda,” the fountain was made to provide fresh water for passers-by.
Built on two levels, the fountain’s facade is covered with grey and white stones protruded by pieces of marble, a Mamluk style that continued to be an architectural norm, even during the subsequent Ottoman era.
Volunteers would go to the fountain every hour, fill their leather bags with water and tour the district to give free water to thirsty people passing by or workers in the shops.
Other landmarks of Bab al-Wazir district include the mosque of Amir al-Tinbugha al-Maridani. When it was built in 1340, the mosque had the first fully octagonal minaret in Cairo and an unusually large dome.
The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities recently announced the completion of a multimillion-dollar restoration process of some buildings in the district.
However, many buildings remain in need of restoration, having been neglected for decades. Khalil said their restoration would take place as soon as the necessary funds were secured.
Eman Mahmud, a 19-year-old art student, says she only comes in contact with Cairo’s Islamic history when she visits Bab al-Wazir.
“It is a real joy to visit this place and immerse in all this history,” Mahmud said. “It costs almost nothing to visit Bab al-Wazir but such a visit is always an eye-opener and enjoyable.”
Several cafes and arts centres that popped up in the district recently offer space for Mahmud and other students to sit comfortably while making sketches of the old buildings.
With her classmates, Mahmud spends hours admiring the buildings and strolling in the alleyways. “Every visit is a memorable time and an opportunity to plunge into Islamic art,” she said.
The public fountain built in 1744 and the nearby madrassa of Katkhuda are among the must-visit landmarks in the area.
Ahmed Meghid
is an Egyptian reporter based in Cairo.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.