El Sayeda Zeinab is one of Cairo’s districts with numerous local historic and religious stories to discover.
A walk in El-Khalifa street will allow you to indulge yourself in a remarkable experience of Islamic Egypt; the street hosts the Ahmad ibn Tulun mosque, one of Cairo’s oldest and most well preserved mosques.
According to religious stories, the mosque was constructed on a small hill called “Gebel Yashkur”, The Hill of Thanksgiving.
As the legend goes, this place is where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the deluge, instead of at Mount Ararat.
Ahmad ibn Tulun, the Abbasid governor of Egypt from 868 to 884 commissioned the mosque during his governance period, as the tradition at that time was for new governors to build a mosque at the beginning of their reign.
The mosque’s design was built according to the famous Abbasid architecture, similar in style to the Samarra mosque in Iraq, but the latter was destroyed, leaving the former as the only remaining mosque built in this style.
According to history books, Ahmed ibn Tulun ordered the building of a mosque strong enough to face water and fire. He said, “if Egypt drowns or burns, this mosque will survive”
The grand congregational mosque was intended as the focal point of ibn Tulun’s capital, Al-Qata’i, which served as the centre of administration for the Tulunid dynasty. The mosque was originally connected to ibn Tulun’s palace, with a door which allowed him direct entry to the mosque. Al-Qata’i was razed in the early 10th century and the mosque is the only surviving structure.
One of the street’s prominent stories is about Khumarawayh and his legendary garden.
Khumarawayh ibn Ahmed ibn Tulun was a governor who took the crown at 20 years old and was killed at the age of 32. He was known for being a lavish ruler. He had a lion named Zora’a, which translates to bluish, because the lion had blue eyes.
Khumarawayh was suffering from insomnia, so he built a garden which included rare trees and animals. It also had a mercury lake, which he specially ordered for his insomnia. In this lake, he put a bed so the mercury would sway his bed and he could fall asleep. Mercury was the most expensive material in that era.
After wasting his father’s wealth, Khmarawayh died at the age of 32. This wealth was wasted on his daughter Qatr al-Nada’s wedding, which took place in Baghdad, so he built houses for her along the way, so she could feel as though she was home.
Moreover, El-Khalifa street was the place were Egypt’s famous historical legend about queen Shajar al-Durr took place. She was the wife of Al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub, Egypt’s sultan during the Ayyubid dynasty, and later Izz al-Din Aybak.
Shajar al-Durr took the throne of Egypt for 80 days with the allegiance of the Mamluks, after the death of Sultan Ayyub, and then relinquished the throne to her husband Izz al-Din Aybak in 1250. She played an important role during the seventh crusade against Egypt and during the Battle of Mansoura.
The legend is about Shajar al-Durr’s grave. The story goes that she built her grave in this street, as she wanted to be buried beside good and holy people buried there.
However, she was later beaten to death by clogs and no one knows where she was actually buried.