Sunday, April 25, 2010

Egypt's Hidden Treasures.

The next time you come to Egypt, or even if it's your first time here, try and expand your horizons beyond the pyramids, the museum and temples. Yes I know the pyramids are awe-inspiring, the final resting places of kings who wished for immortality and have-in a way- achieved it should definitely be on your list. After all where else in the world can you see one of the original 7 wonders of the world? But this isn't all this country has to offer, there's so much more than just the Pharaohs and their treasures.

What you won't find advertised as much or on the zillions of cheap tourist tat available is the beauty of medieval Cairo. Known locally as Masr El-Kadima, or Old Cairo it contains Roman ruins and remains of the pre-Cairo capital of Egypt, El-Fustat. El-Fustat was built by the Arab Khalifa (literally; follower or he who comes after) Amr Ibn el Aas after the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century. He built the first mosque in Africa in his new capital city. Cairo itself was not built till the 10th century during the Fatimid rule of Egypt and at that time it was a separate city to the north of El-Fustat. Eventually the cities merged as Cairo expanded and El-Fustat fell into disrepair.

The location of El-Fustat was near the Roman Babylon Fortress, which today is in the area known as Coptic Cairo. This area, as the name suggests, is home to some of the oldest churches in Cairo and is thought to have been where the Holy Family visited during their flight into Egypt. Most of the churches were not built until after the Arab/Islamic invasion of Egypt when Christians were tolerated unlike the persecution they faced under the Romans. The fortress itself has had churches built into or on its walls.

One of these churches is the Hanging Church of Babylon, so named because it was built on the gatehouse of the Roman Fortress, so its nave is suspended, or 'hanging' over a passageway. Due to the construction of the High Dam in Aswan, and the subsequent lack of floods has lead to the ground level rising and so the dramatic effect of the church has been somewhat lost. The church contains icons dating from the 8th century to the 18th and the alter is carved ebony and ivory decorated with coptic crucifixes.

In the Islamic area of Old Cairo has some of the most beautiful mosques in the city one of which is the Rifai Mosque ( el masged el Rifa'i) commissioned by the 19th century rulers of Egypt to complement the 11th century architecture of the Sultan Hassan Madrasah (madrasah literally means 'school' in Arabic but is most commonly associated with the learning of Quraan-Islam's holy book). The Mosque has a beautiful inner courtyard with a central water fountain area for wudu' (the ablutions performed before prayer) and this is surrounded by four areas for prayer. The mosque is the final resting place of, among others, King Farouk-the last King of Egypt.

For pictures of the places mentioned above please click here

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