Thursday, November 1, 2007

Day 6: Spiritual Cairo

This was our last day in Cairo :^(

Today we get to see some of the religious buildings in Old Cairo, but first my inner SCAdian got a thrill: we saw an actual crusader-era fortress!


It's the Citadel of Saladin, who was the archfoe of old Richard the Lionheart (though Saladin only started its construction; it was completed in his successor's reign) and Ihab was an unashamed Saladin partisan in his descriptions. Well, I never liked Richard or his brother John; it was their mom Eleanor of Aquitaine who caught my fancy!

We walked up through the gates and up some stairs to see the eastern facade of the Alabaster Mosque. There are actually several mosques in the Citadel enclosure, including ones which date from the Middle ages:


but the famous one is the Alabaster Mosque, aka the Mosque of Mohammad Ali Pasha, which is much more recent.


It was completed in 1848, and is rather shamelessly modeled on the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

We walked around the outside


to the back, because you have to go in on the West side and come out the East side. The interior was very dark, so it was hard to photograph the beautiful Arabic calligraphy on the ceiling:


The day before, Ihab gave us a heads-up that if we were going to go in the mosque we should be prepared to take our shoes off - I wore my Crocs to make it easy. We should also dress modestly, especially the ladies, but even the guys - no shorts, no bare arms. This didn't faze me because most historic churches I've been in have the same clothing requests, especially if they are still used for worship, which this mosque is. Anyway, you should respect people's wishes about decorum in their religious buildings!

Everyone in our group was fine, but the folks at the Alabaster Mosque are well-prepared for all eventualities:


See the green-cloaked figure in the middle? She showed up in shorts and a tank top, so the doorkeeper just grabbed a cloak off the stack by the door and whipped it over her. There were some Caped Crusading guys in there too. Seems a fairly practical solution! (Interestingly, I just read that green is the traditional color of Islam, so there may be some symbolic meaning to the color they picked.)

The shoe thing is, of course, the norm for mosques everywhere, but it has the practical effect of reducing wear and tear on the carpets. This is worthy of note because the original carpets are still there! Every region of Egypt donated a carpet to this mosque.

Ihab gave us a little talk on the Five Pillars of Islam - sort of the Reader's Digest Condensed Islamic Catechism - and then we had the chance to ask some questions. He told us that he plans to make his Hajj next year if he can - every Muslim is supposed to do this sometime in his/her life. He seems to be a pretty devout guy. Egyptians are mostly Sunni Muslims, but Ihab told us that the differences between Sunni and Shi'a are not at all theological, only political. This seems like an oversimplification to me, but since I know nothing whatsoever about Islamic theology I'll have to take his word.

Ihab was also pretty firm in asserting that Islam demands the exact same thing from women as men - the same requirements for prayer, pilgrimage, almsgiving, fasting, etc. We didn't get into practicalities with him, and actually the Egyptian women we saw didn't seem terribly downtrodden - they were driving cars, going to college, working in the library - but I'm no judge and in such a short visit we couldn't get the big picture anyway.

We went back outside to view the Cairo skyline and for once we got our picture taken together:


Here's the skyline: if you look really carefully through the smog


THE PYRAMIDS are just barely visible in the distance.

Today I discovered one more human activity for which I have a profound lack of talent: bargaining. My youthful experiences at garage sales and antique markets should have given me a clue, but noooooo, I had to try it again. Right about here on the way back to the bus:


I was approached by a pen seller. Now, I wanted to get some little souvenirs to take back to the folks at work, and I thought these nifty looking Egypt pens (probably made in Korea) might be a nice gift. All the vendors in this whole country apparently buy their wares from the same guys, and I'd seen these same pens out at the Pyramids a couple of days before.

The vendors there were trying to price them at $1 each, and my guy here at the Citadel was offering a box of a dozen for $10 or $12. I offered $8 and thought I'd done OK until I got out to the bus where there were guys with the same boxes of the same pens, STARTING at $5 for the box. Sigh. I might as well have SUCKER tattooed across my forehead.

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