Our Egyptian tour started and finished in Cairo. Cairo is huge! The population of the metropolitan area is about 28 million, 7th largest in the world. We were only given a glimpse of this immense place. Here are views from our hotel, day and night. 

It was hard to get the temperature of our hotel room up to something not frigid; we tried to open the balcony door, but we were assaulted by the noise and pollution from all that traffic. As you can see, Cairo traffic is atrocious. We noticed that there seem to be no traffic lights or stop signs, nor lane lines. Just endless flow or jam of cars and trucks, and intrepid pedestrians and carts that weave through it all.

On the mornings when we needed to get up early to be ready for the day’s activities, the sun greeted us through thick air. Unfortunately, Cairo’s air pollution is among the worst in the world. The primary sources are transportation, industry, and burning of organic waste.

Let’s leave the clogged present and go back in time. We visited two impressive, and very different, mosques.

The Mosque of Muhammad Ali sits within Cairo Citadel — The Citadel of Sultan Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin). Construction of this fortress began in 1176 CE. One of the main objectives in establishing this citadel was to prepare for European crusader attacks. The Fifth and Seventh Crusades (1218-1221, and 1249-1250) did target Egypt, but the crusaders never made it to Cairo Citadel.  

Between 1830 and 1848, Muhammad Ali Pasha had this mosque built in the Ottoman style. At first the Ottoman governor of Egypt, by 1805 Muhammad Ali had established himself as the supreme ruler of Egypt. His goal was to liberate Egypt from the Ottoman empire. He set about to reorganize Egyptian society, streamline the economy, train a professional bureaucracy, and build a modern military. In doing so, invented modern Egypt.

This mosque is more a political and imperial place than a religious one. Muhammad Ali built the mosque as a monument to himself! It’s certainly grand, although also heavy and lacking in grace — at least compared to Ottoman style mosques elsewhere. Building a huge mosque in the Ottoman style, Muhammad Ali challenged his former masters in Istanbul.

The second major mosque that we visited is the Sultan Hassan Mosque. Sultan Hassan commissioned this mosque, along with its madrasa (school), mausoleum for himself, and other buildings between 1350 and 1380 — 500 years before Muhammad Ali! It was a time of crisis, with plagues, Nile floods, and famine. This complex of buildings was a means for Sultan Hasan—a young and weak ruler—to express his power and piety.  Political, like the mosque of Muhammad Ali, but also deeply religious.

The design of Sultan Hassan mosque is very different from that of the Ottomans. Ottoman style developed from late Roman round domed temples. (See Hagia Sophia in Constantinople / Istanbul.) This design of this mosque follows from the architectural and institutional innovations of the Seljuq period, before the rise of the Ottomans. Seljuq style came from open-air square courtyards in Persia.

As is usual in Seljuq mosques, the worldly face of the mosque includes a monumental entry portal. Amid the elaborate carvings, there are some Chinese decorative motifs. Chinese designs were transmitted to Egypt, alongside with Chinese goods, on the silk roads.  

Behind this grand portal, you find a modest dark reception chamber. Instead of entering immediately into a grand colonnaded courtyard like you do at the mosque of Muhammad Ali, you follow hints of brighter light along a simple stone corridor. The corridor turns a couple times, and ascends.

Then, dramatically, you emerge into large open-air courtyard. An ablution fountain occupies the center of the courtyard. 

Great three-sided arched chambers open into the courtyard. These are called iwan. The main iwan, slightly larger than the other three, and facing Mecca, served as the main chamber of devotion. The others were multipurpose spaces for devotion and study; this was a large madrasa after all.

Hassan had his own mausoleum built just behind the qibla (the wall indicating the direction of Mecca). This choice probably comes from that fact that worshippers would pray toward Mecca — and therefore toward the tomb of Hassan. Alas, Sultan Hassan was assassinated and his body lost, so he never made it to this mausoleum. 


It’s almost a three-hour drive from Cairo to Alexandria. Along the way, we passed through desert as well as some of the famous fertile Nile Valley.

We also passed these pigeon dovecotes. They look at once thoroughly traditional, while also looking modern in their abstraction.

[K]nown as dovecotes or pigeon houses, these “earthen chimneys” are one of Egypt’s signature sights, looming higher than the squat, red-brick buildings in their periphery.

Used as a means for both farming and raising pigeons, dovecotes have featured in local history as far back as ancient Egypt. Between the need for manure for grain farming, and the staple addition of pigeon to the Egyptian diet, locales such as Mit Ghamer, and Roman-remains of Karanis have featured them in prolific numbers.

Constructed from mud-brick, dovecotes are artificial formations that emulate mountainous topographies. [Most are] stand-alone [towers that vary] in size, color, and type. Designed to allow air through, the spacious interior allows birds to fly through and nest comfortably.

Over the centuries, they have become integral to Egyptian urban planning, particularly given the scarce nature of arable land.

Although infamous as pests in other countries, Egyptians have a lingering fondness for pigeons; they are useful and resourceful creatures in local lore. Pigeons are allowed to linger on farmlands, seen as a “special voice” of wisdom and family structure. They are taught to recognize dovecotes as their home through regular feeding and friendly interaction, where they are socialized to more domesticated forms of living. (source)


We’d always been intrigued about Alexandria. What a history! What legends! Founded by Alexander the Great around 331 BCE. Home to Cleopatra, and the Great Library of Alexandria, and the great Lighthouse of Alexandria. We’d also, quite a long time ago, enjoyed reading The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell: seductive, exotic, problematic stories that nonetheless paint a lush picture of Alexandria.

The construction of Alexandria
Alexander the Great was well aware of the strategic and commercial potential of this site that he chose for his capital city. Most of the ancient sources agree that he must have passed by this area on his way to the oasis of Siwa. The location was probably also selected because there was a good supply of fresh water. In addition, Alexander wanted Alexandria to be like any other Greek metropolis, and needed a naval base to enable him to conquer the east Mediterranean, and another commercial port, as he had conquered the port of Sidon on his way to Egypt. Dinocrates of Rhodes was chosen to plan the city, and followed the general layout of Greek cities of the time by designing a grid of streets, a type of plan known as hypodamic. There were two main roads at right angles to each other, the east-west road known as the Canopic Way, and the north-south road which extended from the island of Pharos to Lake Mariout. At the intersection was the largest square in the city. (from exhibit in the Alexandria National Museum)

Now, the opportunity to see a bit of Alexandria for ourselves. Well… more complicated and worn than expected.

City streets full of cars, debris, deteriorating walls.

Ad hoc marketplaces.

Roman monuments amid jumbles of apartment buildings.

Catacombs that mash up Greek and Egyptian iconography. So much less elegant than their ancient Egyptian predecessors.

The fifteenth-century Citadel of Qaitbay guards the harbor. It sits exactly on the site of the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria. Earthquakes between 956 and 1323 bit by bit brought the tower down. Some of its stones were used to construct the citadel. Promising history, yes? Sadly, other than the exterior walls, there’s nothing to see there.

Finally we wanted to visit the famous corniche of Alexandria. The corniche is a great 10-mile long arc of waterfront promenade. The story is that Lawrence Durrell stayed in the Hotel Cecil here in 1942, and surely strolled along the corniche. Reality is a bit less romantic. There is plenty of traffic; there are lots of people on both sides of the boulevard. 

Long sequences of tempera.  Light filtered through the essence of lemons.  An air full of brick-dust—sweet smelling brick dust and the odour of hot pavements slaked with water.  Light damp clouds, earth-bound, yet seldom bringing rain.  Upon this squirt dust-red, dust-green, chalk mauve and watered crimson lake.  In summer the sea damp lightly varnished the air.  Everything lay under a coat of gum.

from The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

Alexandria definitely requires slower more deliberate exploration. Next trip…

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