Monday, December 24, 2007

Al Fustat 640-868 AD

Just as I knew little or nothing about Jesus in Egypt, I knew even less about how Islam came to the region. Amr Ibn Al'As was a companion of the Prophet and the leader who conquered Egypt. Al-Fustat was the name of the new capital, located in an area now referred to as Old Cairo. Considering how much history occurred there well before Christianity or Islam arrived... it was probably referred to as Old Somewhere back then as well.

He built a mosque, of course. The first in Egypt, and by extension, Africa. It is an elegant structure that has been destroyed, rebuilt, restored, extended and ultimately functions as a busy place of worship, thousands of years after its first stones were laid.

We stumbled upon the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-'As as we were leaving Coptic Cairo. We arrived just after Isha (the final prayer of the day) and I think they were preparing for a wedding, so we didn't go in. I did sneak a peak at the ladies all dolled up in the reception hall and a few men (also dolled up) smoking cigarettes outside, waiting for the wedding procession to arrive.

The grounds surrounding the mosque are extensive, so we took a stroll. The lighting showed off the beautiful carving, lattice work and lamps. And unlike some of the other mosques we've visited, this one - though beautiful - was obviously very functional, buzzing with activity and not only for show.

All the guide books say that Cairo is the city of a thousand minarets. I can testify that you are never more than a few footsteps away from a mosque. Some are humble holes in the wall, while others are grand beyond imagination.

Praying is just a normal part of life here. While breezing by in crazy mid-afternoon traffic, I have often seen spontaneous lines of worshipers on the grassy traffic median or sidewalk, praying for a few minutes and then carrying on to their destination or resuming their work. Because there are mosques everywhere (literally), I have often wondered: is there a spiritual difference between praying in a cool, clean, airy mosque rather than chewing the exhaust and pollution of the hard Cairo street? Part of me really likes the grittiness of the latter. (having said that, you are not likely to catch me kneeling on broken cardboard on the main drag at rush hour any time soon...)

Just a few days ago, we visited the mosque of Ibn Tulun (the oldest existing mosque in Egypt - you can check out Yasir's blog for fabulous photos and more info. Archive: August or early September). Not the least bit gritty -- Ibn Tulun was peaceful and beautiful. Stepping through the giant front doors and into the main courtyard, it was hard to believe that we were still in Cairo. The stillness felt more like the middle of the desert. We arrived in the late afternoon, just as the sun was setting. The light was spectacular. Hanging alabaster lamps, perfect symmetry and the most extraordinary minaret with a spiral staircase. The mimber (pulpit) was decorated in ornate wooden carvings and gold tiles. I only wish I had remembered to bring a camera. Our friends Greg and Anna promised us copies of their photos, so I'll post them as soon as I get them.
All photos and text copyright Sufia Lodhi 2007

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