Why the Oldest Operating Street in Cairo Is a Secret Historical Gem
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This little-known street has the largest collection of medieval architecture in the Islamic world.
By Stephanie Vermillion
Bikers whiz past me as they balance bread on their heads and craftsmen bellow greetings in a game of “who can talk loudest” and I realize I’ve found it. This blend of chaos and machismo bustling beneath massive Islamic monuments … it’s the Cairo they don’t write about in history books or that isn’t trending on Instagram. It’s the raw and unscripted Cairo I’ve traveled thousands of miles to see.
The pyramids and the Sphinx of Giza may draw Egypt’s biggest crowds, but a half-mile stretch of medieval architecture — recognized by the United Nations as the largest collection in the Islamic world — is the best place to learn about past and contemporary Cairo. Even better? While popular among locals, this fascinating, historic street remains mostly unknown to tourists.
Al-Muizz Street, located in Cairo’s Islamic neighborhood, is the oldest operating street in Egypt’s capital. This 10th-century path stretches between two of three remaining gates in the old walled city of Cairo. In the 10th century, only the high-class Fatimid royalty (the ruling Shi’i Muslims from North Africa), could access the interior of the gated city. But after slave soldiers (the Mamluk) seized the country in 1250, they opened the gates to all Egyptians. In 1997, Egypt’s government caught on to the historic treasure trove, and dedicated over 10 years of renovations to turn this neglected piece of Islamic history into a highly trafficked “open-air museum.”
It’s safe to get lost gazing at sky-high stucco carvings and wooden lattice-adorned mashrabiya.
“Egypt’s Islamic history spanned the seventh century to the Ottoman period, and this street reflects those 1,000 years of our country’s past,” says Asma Khattab, Egyptologist and founder of Walk Like an Egyptian tours (one of the first to have Al-Muizz Street as a stop). “Today, many Egyptians like to visit the street to walk with this history surrounding them.”
Thanks to (loosely followed) pedestrian-friendly regulations, it’s safe to get lost gazing at sky-high stucco carvings and wooden lattice-adorned mashrabiya (windows jutting out from the walls) throughout this maze of medieval architecture. “During the Mamluk period, this street was part of the main parade route for the ruling sultan,” Khattab says. “Everyone was competing to build on this street, which is why you find some of the most beautiful monuments here today.” Khattab rarely misses the chance to take clients to the mausoleum of Sultan Qalawun, one of the most elaborate masterpieces of Mamluk art and architecture along Al-Muizz Street. On the outside, a pair of Syrian-style minarets with carved stucco tower above the entrance, which opens to tile-mosaic walls adorned with mother-of-pearl detailing.
One of the best examples of Fatimid architecture is Bab Zuweila, the only remaining southern gate from Fatimid rule. It now operates as one of three entrances to old Cairo and is open for the public to climb. While the elaborate, minaret-topped structure is a work of Islamic art, this gate has quite the gory past. Rulers turned Bab Zuweila into an execution ground in the 19th century; severed heads adorned the nearly 100-foot walls as a gruesome crime-preventing strategy.
That’s only the beginning of more than 50 colossal structures along this historic stretch, but the vibrant and frenzied Al-Muizz Street has become so much more than its monuments. Ahwahs (coffee shops) cloud the cobblestone path in an inviting shisha (flavored tobacco) haze. Food carts lure lunch crowds with the aroma of fresh bread and ful (fava bean stew). As merchants beckon visitors with colorful crafts at a “special price,” it’s hard to even know where to look.
Still, this historic half-mile has seen its fair share of struggles. In 2011, the Egyptian Revolution led to plummeting tourism numbers. But the efforts of one Al-Muizz Street shop owner brought attention back to the street from a previously overlooked source: local Egyptians. Via a Facebook page, Ahmed Saber organized free tours about the street’s history and through the markets. The marketing magic worked. “When Egyptians started posting pictures from the street, other Egyptians wanted to go and take these photos,” Khattab says.
But this cultural experience hasn’t fully caught on. The bulk of Khattab’s clients think the Sphinx and pyramids are enough for their trip to Egypt. Which at least means the dazzling Al-Muizz Street can be our crowd-free, authentically Cairo secret. For now.
Go There: Al-Muizz Street
- Location: Al-Muizz Street is located in Islamic Cairo. Bab al-Shaariya is the closest subway stop. For Uber or taxis, get dropped off at the Bab al-Futuh gate and walk south along Al-Muizz Street to Bab Zuweila.
- Grab a bite: Farahat is famous for its massive stuffed and grilled pigeon. Or, at one of many small stands along Al-Muizz Street, you can sample a savory street food whose history predates every building on the street: feteer (similar to a pizza). “It’s commonly eaten with salty cheese, but it can also be eaten sweet,” explains Laila Hassaballa, co-founder of Cairo food tour company Bellies En-Route. The modern version is called a Middle Eastern pizza.
- Best time to visit: October through April — it’s tough to stay out long in the intense summer heat. In May, Ramadan brings locals here for daily celebrations at sundown.
- Pro tip: Check out the Sharia Khayamiya (Tentmakers’ Market) one block south of Bab Zuweila. The covered market happens to be one of the last covered medieval streets in Cairo. Local artisans sell authentic decorative applique khayamiya, a textile often used for pillowcases and quilts.
- Stephanie Vermillion, OZY AuthorContact Stephanie Vermillion