Exploring Islamic Cairo By Night

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What’s the best way for boomers to overcome jet lag? Dive right into exploring your destination. On a small group cultural tour to Cairo, Egypt, with AuthentiCity Travel, rather than resting from the long flight, our group forged right on, exploring the Muslim Quarter on a nighttime visit to Al-Hakim Mosque and the Khan el-Khalili market.

Bab al-Futuh Gate

Traffic, noise and the busyness of the Muslim Quarter surrounded me when I stepped out of the van in Islamic Cairo. Men sat at café tables, practically in the street, smoking cigarettes and chatting with friends over cups of tea. The walls of old Cairo, built in the 9th century by the Fatimids, loomed ahead.

Entering through the Muslim Quarter wall at the Bab al-Futuh Gate — also called Gate of Conquest — was like walking back in time. The narrow, cobblestone al-Muizz Street, pedestrian only from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., promised all sorts of ancient discoveries.

Al-Hakim Mosque

When our group approached Al-Hakim Mosque, Thursday night services had just ended. After worshipers exited the mosque, we paid a visit inside the building that dates to 990. Visitors must be dressed conservatively wearing clothing that reaches to below the knees and a scarf to cover the head and shoulders for women. After depositing our shoes at the front entrance, we walked into the extensive marble-floored courtyard. A fountain near the center of the space offered a place for worshipers to wash their feet — a good practice since prostrating on the floor brings one in close proximity to the next person’s feet. The prostrate prayer position is also why women who choose to do so can worship in a segregated space.

This was my first visit to a mosque. I didn’t expect to find worshipers lounging around the interior, children scampering about as their parents visited or teenagers hanging out. In the main building, carpeted floors included individual boxes with an arrow pointing toward Mecca — the exact size for one person to kneel and pray. Overhead elaborate chandeliers lit up the space. In a far wall, a gilded niche offered a second way to know the direction to Mecca.

Light shop in the Khan el-Kahili Market

Our walking tour continued but we were no longer on pedestrian only streets. Negotiating the narrow lanes as trucks and motorbikes whizzed by required careful attention by this boomer traveler. As we approached the actual Kahn el- Khalili market, another no-cars-allowed area, vendors called out, “How can I take your money?” Baskets of fresh vegetables lined the street in front of one shop; another held intricately designed lights while paraphernalia for smoking shisha — flavored tobacco smoked in a water pipe — crowded the shelves of a stall across the way. Arabic music blared from some of the shops adding to the I’m in another culture feel.

At Nagib Mahfouz Restaurant, named after Egypt’s 1988 Nobel Literature prizewinning novelist, provided an air-conditioned respite from the humid evening. After our group was seated in the formal dining room with intricate mosaic ceilings, dishes of hummus and other dips complemented by warm pita bread appeared on the table. The food kept coming with lentil soup, followed by falafel appetizers and a mixed grill main course all served by waiters wearing fez hats. Rice pudding ended my first Egyptian meal. I could hear locals in the adjoining lounge singing songs in between puffs of shisha and sips of tea.

Khan el-Khalili market

Visiting the Muslim Quarter was an exotic start to a week filled with cultural insight. And on the last day in Cairo, our group returned on a daylight visit to Kahn el-Khalili to purchase some of the treasures that we had eyed during our nighttime introduction. After all, we couldn’t go home without taking a piece of Cairo with us.

Have you visited Islamic Cairo? Did you purchase anything in the Kahn el-Khalili market? Join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook or send us an email with your comments or questions.

Disclosure: AuthentiCity Travel provided this travel experience.

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