Stones are the epitome of solidity, immobility and lifelessness, yet in the Darb El-Ahmar district of Cairo, stones are alive with the memories of those who took part in the bloody drama of Egypt’s medieval era. All were eager to leave behind their mark on stones, buildings and streets, telling a story of passion, rivalries, alliances and betrayal.
With one of the largest concentrations of Islamic architecture in the world, every nook and cranny in Darb El-Ahmar is rich with history, rightfully earning the district a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
An unpaved route takes visitors to the area neighboring the famous Bab Zuweila on Al-Muizz li-Deen Illah Street. Built in 1092, it was named after the Berber warriors (Zuwayla) charged with guarding it and is one of three medieval gates still standing from the original 12. It was first built using blocks of lingering Pharaonic structures.
Making my way down the road, a thunderous voice called out: “Stop right there. I turned to find an intimidating figure dressed like a Mamluk warrior, sword hanging from his side and helmet placed firmly on his head.
“You cannot pass this gate without the secret code issued every night by the Citadel, he said.
He knelt down and introduced himself as Prince Ezz Eldin Aydmar, descendant of Bebars Aldoadar, senior head of state dating back to the marine Mamluks of the 14th century. He spoke of great battles, citadels, patriotism.
I interrupted, saying that I’m not interested in his stories and was simply coming for a tour of this unique area – to which he replied, “This area is totally disconnected from its architecture [and history]. What you will see are mere rocks that have lost their soul long ago.
I tried to dismiss what he said, knowing that there have been major efforts to develop the area with a focus on the residents’ eager participation in the restoration plans. Renovation initiatives have garnered grants worth up to LE 25 million, involving different organizations headed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), the Ford Foundation, the Egyptian-Swiss Development Fund and World Monuments.
I insisted on walking alone, refusing – in vain – the “Prince’s generous offer to play tour guide. He insisted on showing me around and proudly telling me the stories behind the centuries-old structures.
That Mamluk ear was a golden age in the history of Islamic architecture, witnessing the grandest installations, most of which were mosques and schools while others were of a military or administrative nature. Only a small number of palaces and homes have survived the ages.
We came upon the Kheyrebek Complex, which was renovated after a sever earthquake shook the structure in 1884, and Umm Al-Sultan Shaaban Mosque situated in the area surrounding Suq El-Silah (Weapons Market) Street. The mosque was built in 1368 by Mamluk Sultan Shaaban to commemorate his mother Khwand Baaraka’s return from pilgrimage. On the same occasion, he also endowed two madrassas (religious schools), two mausoleums and a sabil (charitable water fountain for passersby).
Unfortunately, most of the restored landmarks are closed, and visitors to Umm Al-Sultan Shaaban Mosque, for example, are yet to be allowed inside. It remains unclear what authorities plan to do with the mosque.
Thoughts of Mumluks lingered in my mind. Once complete strangers to this land, they came as slaves, yet embraced and defended their new homeland loyally – we have them to thank for the surrounding awe-inspiring structures.
I was led to the nearby Al-Razaz house, known for once being the favorite sanctuary hall and seat of Sultan Qaitbey.
This house was built by Ahmed Katkhuda El-Razzaz, a Mamluk prince who pledged to marry his neighbor, a Yemeni princess, after coming home safely from war. The two houses were linked with a hidden passageway that could also be used as a secret escape route. Ironically, it is used today to store coals used to light shisha.
The architectural style is characteristic of the Mamluk era, with a flat roof – due to the lack of rainfall in Egypt – and rooms dotted around the courtyard, creating a current that flows through the surrounding quarters.
The design of the exterior was modeled in a way that concealed the women of the house from the outside world. High windows ventilate without allowing passersby to see inside. The women’s quarters were referred to collectively as the haramlik, and the men’s area was called the salamlik, usually located on the ground floor with rooms spacious enough to entertain and host large receptions.
The towering ceilings are intricately decorated with famous verses and stanzas of poetry from the era. High on the roof, the panoramic view is incomparable, and I stood there contemplating the masterful craftsmanship that turned mere stones into such elaborate architecture.
They may age, grow weak and infected by contaminated ground water or polluted air, even overtaken by modern buildings made of concrete and steel – but they will never fade, these eternal stones of Cairo.