On Thursday, February 19, 2009 I wanted to go to the Al-Azhar mosque and the Coptic Church of St. Mary – The Hanging Church. The hotel concierge discouraged me from going; she didn’t think I could get in. I asked her about taking the subway back to Tahrir Square from Coptic Cairo and was advised not to attempt it. As these were the two places I most wanted to visit in Cairo, I decided to try anyway. I got a taxi to Khan al-Khalili from the Hotel Cairo Marriott, arriving at about 3 PM – 30 minutes before Asr prayers. I was immediately invited to tour the mosque by a local, so off came my shoes in the passageway and in we went.
My guide took me in and showed me inside the Aqbaghawiyya madrassa. Al-Azhar, founded in 972 AD, is one of the world’s most important centres of Islamic theology and boards students from all over the world. It has two madrassas.
Arabic script comes in many different styles. Perhaps one of you readers can explain what these panels, in a large wooden frame on a pillar in the prayer hall, mean. Arabic is read from right to left.
The presence of someone’s backpack and sandals didn’t add to the aesthetics of this photo. The entire, huge prayer hall, the centre of Egypt’s devotion for over a millennium, is carpeted like this.
Many of the archways in Al-Azhar are framed in a form of script developed by priests in Kufah, an Iraqi city formed in the second decade of the Islamic era. Our guide pointed out this window with great respect. Low light necessitated using my low resolution camcorder to take this still. We walked out into a beautiful courtyard. He then asked me if I wanted to climb one of the minarets, so we entered through a locked courtyard door, and when we came out on a roof the Asr prayers started. My guide sang as we walked.
We didn’t climb to the top of the minaret, but I was able to see the courtyard below this wall and out across the street to the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, much quieter during the day. I was told that on Friday, the following day, there would be thousands of worshipers here. Hearing the beautiful singing of the prayers made the visit much more vivid.
To give you an idea of how meditative the music can be when sung well, here is the singing of the Opening of the Quran, from Chapter One.
Having visited one of Cairo’s most holy places, I was ready to visit, hopefully, another in a more ancient place: Coptic Cairo. The Church of Saint Mary, called the Hanging Church because it is built on top of the twin towers of a Roman fortress built in 98 AD by Emperor Trajan. The centuries caused the original fortress to be buried in thirty feet of soil. I took a taxi from Islamic Cairo to Coptic Cairo. Coptic Cairo is the subject of a future post.