The city wakes up late on Fridays. There are leisurely breakfasts of baladi bread and cheese before the afternoon prayers, and the streets are blissfully deserted. It takes me twenty minutes to zip across town to Sayeda Zainab, a working-class neighbourhood with lines of workshops and kiosks that are still closed.
My Uber driver asks a few passersby for directions until we arrive at the entrance of Ibn Tulun: the city’s largest and oldest surviving mosque, built by a slave-soldier who would found a dynasty, and topped with a spiral minaret that was to rival the Abbasid capital of Samarra. My driver says he’s never been inside.
I’m here for a guided tour with Walk Like An Egyptian, a tour company that aims to promote Egypt’s hidden gems and offer visitors an authentic experience. The itinerary includes a tuk-tuk ride and a stop for ful (fava beans), and I’m looking forward to walking around a neighborhood that I don’t normally visit.
Once our group has gathered, we don blue plastic slippers and head inside the mosque and its enormous courtyard. Although it’s a quiet morning, it’s even quieter inside where a cool breeze circulates through the tiny windows built between the mosque’s rows of pointed arches. This is the third largest mosque in the world, measuring 26,318 sq m, built to accommodate Ahmad Ibn Tulun’s entire army during Friday prayers.
Though it’s not always a mosque that most tourists visit. Many itineraries to Cairo, which is known as the city of a thousand minarets, include Amr ibn al-As Mosque (technically Egypt’s first mosque, though the present structure is a reconstruction) or the Ottoman-style Mosque of Muhammad Ali with its towering, pointed minarets.
Ibn Tulun has an entirely different feel than the newer – or sometimes grander – mosques of Cairo. There’s no alabaster or limestone; no golden domes or intricate paintings. Ibn Tulun’s grandeur rests on space and air; it impresses with geometric arches that throw lines of shadow on the ground, and patterns that repeat with a clean consistency.
It revels in its open space in a city where there is often very little. In aerial view photos, it appears as an empty square of calm surrounded by the haphazard rows of Sayeda Zeinab’s apartment blocks.
The mosque was built over three years with red brick, and it is filled with earthy beige and rough textures. A bunch of palm leaves (used to sweep the floors) leans in a corner.
An architectural masterpiece, the mosque was completed in 879 – the same century that saw Beowulf, Charlemagne and Europe’s battles with the Vikings.
And though it’s hardly ostentatious, the mosque isn’t without its ornaments. If you spend time wandering its arcades, you’ll look up to notice the underside of the arches decorated with geometric patterns carved out of stucco – the first time the material was used in Cairo – each different from the next.
I wander around this courtyard and its ablution fountain (built later by a Mamluk sultan) and then walk around the side of the mosque into the narrow enclosed wings (called ziyadas) that surround Ibn Tulun from three sides. They are quiet, surrounded by greenery and palm trees, but once held vibrant Friday markets in the Tulunid dynasty’s heyday.
I walk through the northern ziyada, taking photos of fallen dates underneath a palm tree, and then make my way to the mosque’s famous brick minaret with its external spiral ramp.
Legends has it that Ibn Tulun designed this unique minaret by chance: he was allegedly sitting with his officials and absentmindedly winding a piece of parchment around his finger. When someone asked what he was doing, he replied that he was designing his minaret.
Historians say the minaret was likely constructed later on, by a Mamluk sultan. But other legends surround the building: folklore has it the mosque was constructed on a small hill where the Biblical Noah’s Ark came to rest after the flood.
The mosque was Ahmad ibn Tulun’s first work when he was promoted to rule Egypt as governor, and it was the focal point of the short-lived Tulunid capital of Qataia. The minaret was its crowning glory and set to rival a similar minaret in the Abbasid capital of Samarra (in present-day Iraq). It’s said one can climb up on a horse, though I climbed the long flight of slippery stairs on foot, carrying two cameras, and was sore the next day.
Ibn Tulun’s short rule was characterized by de facto independence: the first time Egypt had been independent since the Ptolemic Pharaohs. By some artful feat, the young Ibn Tulun had managed to evict the caliphal fiscal agent and effectively took control of Egypt’s finances and military. Once those were his, so was complete power.
Sadly, when the Abbasids regained power in 905, Ibn Tulun’s entire city was razed and only the mosque was spared. As the city center shifted, the mosque fell into neglect and was used by pilgrims in the 12th century for shelter. When a Mamluk Sultan used the deserted mosque as a hiding place after he’d conspired in an assassination, he vowed to restore it if he escaped alive.
The views from the top of the minaret are of the modern, bustling neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab. A group of men get freshly-baked bread for their breakfast, a woman hangs the laundry. There’s nothing to indicate this was once the center of a city that rivaled the Abbasid empire.
I climb down the minaret and the group gathers again to head together for breakfast. A few of us squeeze into a tuk-tuk and take a short ride through the crowded streets to El Gahsh (The Mule) a local restaurant well-known for its ful (fava beans).
Plastic chairs and long rows of tables are lined up outside, and a man rapidly drops balls of falafel into sizzling oil. I sit down with a friend who runs a food blog, and we order a smorgasbord of Egyptian classics: ful, of course, but also plates of arugula and green onions, potato wedges, falafel (or taamiya as it’s more commonly called in Egypt) and baba ganoush (eggplant dip).
My friend reminds me a few times to watch my purse: Sayeda Zeinab is a working-class neighborhood where tourists seldom wander.
A man with a long beard and a scruffy sweater walks towards us, and I wonder if he’d spent last night outdoors or inside. I feel a bit guilty about our lavish spread, but the man only glances over our table and says: “Welcome to Egypt.”