Islamic Cairo is indeed an open-air museum—one dating back more than 1,000 years when Gen. Jawhar Al-Siqilli led the troops of the Fatimid caliph Al-Muizz li-Din Ilah (the Fortifier of the Religion of God) to conquer Egypt in 969 CE, founding the city of Cairo shortly after.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Islamic Cairo is believed to house the greatest concentration of medieval Islamic monuments in the world. With the Al-Husayn Mosque, after which the district is named—and where it is said the head of the legendary grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Husayn Ibn Ali, resides—the Al-Azhar Mosque and University, one of the world’s oldest higher learning institutions and the leading Sunni Muslim authority in the world, and the famous Khan El-Khalili medieval market, tourists are truly spoilt for choice here.
But Al-Muizz Street—it’s full name, “Al-Muizz li-Din Ilah Al-Fatimi Street”—has an even higher concentration of such monuments than anywhere else in the area. The street, which runs north–south through the heart of the Al-Husayn district from the old northern wall and its famous twin gates all the way down to the tent market, contains more than 30 medieval monuments including mosques, madrasas and water fountains, mostly from Egypt’s Mamluk era during the 13th–16th centuries CE, as well as from the preceding Ayyubid (Saladin’s descendants) and Fatimid periods.
Some of the street’s own marvels from the past include must-sees for any aficionados of Islamic architecture: the dazzling 12th-century Al-Aqmar (“moonlit”) Mosque; the 13-century mosque–mausoleum–hospital complex of Sultan Qalawun, built over an old Fatimid palace and once housing a specialized ward for mentally ill patients; and the Mosque of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim—Al-Muizz’s grandson—which boasts a spectacular open courtyard and the two oldest minarets in Cairo’s much-touted 1,000-plus collection.
In light of this, and the damage sustained to parts of the street due to years of relative neglect, in 2008 the Egyptian authorities decided to renovate the street at a cost of 300 million Egyptian pounds (43 million US dollars), instigating an extensive cleanup operation which included renovating the monuments themselves, leveling some damaged sections of the street, adding signs to the major attractions, beefing up security and closing the street to all vehicles during the hours of 8:00 am and 11:00 pm.
Now the famous street is getting a second, long-awaited renovation having suffered some damage and even looting during the security vacuum that followed the overthrow of longtime president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Cairo governorate spokesman Khaled Mustafa says: “Renovation operations at the . . . street began [last week]. This included the replacement of the sewage network, the extension of rain drainage channels and the installation of fire tap anchorages for emergencies, as well as emptying the area from street vendors and providing a better level of illumination in the street.”
Mustafa adds that Cairo’s Governor, Galal El-Saeed has now also ordered that the street be cleaned, relit, and for electric gates to be installed at the street’s entries and exits to prevent private car entry, except in emergencies. “So far, we have installed five gates at the street’s entries and exits,” says Mustafa, adding: “We see the street as an open museum—not just an ordinary street—in view of the numerous Islamic monuments it contains and the several eras they represent . . . All of this should make the street a real tourist attraction.”
The car curfew will also remain, he says, but will now run from 9:00 am to 10:00 pm. A number of electric cars have also been installed at the street to ease the transport of pedestrians and the elderly.
The renovation of the street comes as part of a plan drawn up by the Cairo governorate and the ministries of culture, tourism and antiquities with the aim of developing the entire district into a closed tourist area, while at the same time bearing in mind the rights and needs of the area’s residents and small shop owners.
Speaking of the renovations, Mohamed Ashraf, a longtime kiosk-seller on the street, says: “We appreciate the roles performed by the [Cairo] governorate and the Ministry of Antiquities, and their great concern about such a historic site. The street is full of monuments from old times, specifically the Mamluk era. Furthermore, taking care of the street as a tourist site is of great advantage to us as traders. This is because the cleanliness, illumination and paving will all encourage Arab and foreign tourists to visit the street again and again to spend a pleasant time with their families and purchase antiques and gifts that carry the scent of history.”