Saladin’s Cairo and a Day Trip to Alexandria

The Cairo Citadel is one of Cairo’s most splendid examples of Medieval Islamic architecture. High up on the hill tops, overlooking the bustling city, the Qala at Salah ad-Din boasts the most spectacular view of Cairo below and the pyramids at Giza in the distance. The Citadel was built by Ayyubid Saladin, the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, famously known for his battles with Richard the Lion Heart in capturing Jerusalem during the Crusades.

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The Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali – an Ottoman (Turkish) mosque built in the Citadel, it towers above all other mosques in the Citadel and Cairo. I was very pleased to leave the heat of the sun outside as I entered the mosque. One only needs to look up in order to face what to me would represent the heavens, the beautiful gold gilt decoration of the five domes and especially the central copula. The interior is engulfed by dark blues and golds, truly immitating the heavenly night skies. I was particularly taken by the Turkish minarets, like two spears piercing the blue sky above. In the courtyard stands the most beautiful Baroque style ablutions fountain. Islamic students sat hidden amongst the pillars of the covered courtyard, perfectly shielded from the harsh sun rays. I felt a sense of peace, tranquility and architectural harmony which I haven’t felt since my trip to Venice.

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Wondering through the Citadel I came across (rather excitedly) my first Mamluk mosque, the Mosque of Sultan Al-Nasir. I love Mamluk architecture and I’ll hopefully be making connections between Western Gothic architecture and that of the Mamluks of Egypt during my academic research. I walked into this mosque and the first thing that hit me was the unbelievable amount of space that was dedicated to the courtyard. The muqarnas (though not gold gilt but naturally wooden) and crenellation speak for themselves. The black and white ablaq transported me back to a Medieval Cairo which I could feel surrounding me whenever I closed my eyes. Looking up and out into the courtyard I caught a glimpse of the Muhammad Ali Mosque.

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I haven’t been back to Alexandria since a brief visit in 2007. During my undergraduate studies a picture of Alexandria was painted by my lecturers as a Greco-Roman religious, cultural and academic center, the great city founded by Alexander the Great, maintained by the Ptolemies and Cleopatra as well as the initial seat of the See of the Coptic Egyptian Church. I pictured Roman roads and the Temple of Serapis in their splendor. Alexandria today is very much a post-revolution city. Though not as busy as Cairo, Alexandria’s backstreets are packed with locals doing their daily shopping in bazaars and markets. If Cairo isn’t attracting the throngs of tourists it has been used to over the years then Alexandria doesn’t even expect tourists at all. Locals were fascinated by us, touching my clothes and asking to shake our hands, repeating the simple English they must have learnt at school. Never before have I experienced such a warm welcome!

The Great Library which once housed some of the most important works of literature in Antiquity stands tall, modern and empty. I had the library to myself and the strange mix of contemporary Islamic architecture, pyramids and Greco-Roman style blend together, working in aesthetic harmony.

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The most splendid attraction in Alexandria is the corniche. This waterfront promenade took my mind back tothe waterfront of  Rio de Janeiro. The water is beautifully clear and fishermen spend their time fishing and taking in the sea air. It was refreshing to taste the salt on my lips as I walked along the promenade. As I walked along I imagined what the lighthouse that once stood in the location of the Citadel of Qaitbay would have looked like.

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Towards the end of the afternoon we made our way to the location of what once stood the temple complex known as the Serapeum. The pagan god Serapis was introduced by Alexander the Great as a new god, a combination of Osiris and Apis in  humanized form. Serapis the syncretic god would bring together the Ptolemaic Greeks of Alexandria and the native nation of Egypt. Not much stands of the Serapeum today as it was destroyed by Alexandrian Christians in the 4th century AD. Today the only surviving remnants of the complex exist underground and above ground a collection of columns, headless sphinxes and other such finds from late Antiquity are on display in the heat of the sun. The same can be said for the remains of the Greco-Roman catacombs which are a 5 minute walk away from the temple complex. We weren’t allowed to take pictures at the catacombs so the splendors beneath the ground were enough to any aspiring art historian or archaeologist in awe. Hopefully once the country stabilizes more will be done to present cultural heritage to the nation as well as to tourists.

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