Naser-e Khosraw in Fatimid Cairo: From “One Thousand Roads to Mecca” Edited by Michael Wolfe

FROM MICHAEL WOLFE’S INTRODUCTION: “…By his own account, Naser-e Khosraw overindulged in the most un-Islamic vice of alcohol until in the fall of 1045 he had a dream. He had been traveling for about a month, and drinking steadily, when a figure appeared in his sleep one night and advised him to seek wisdom. When Khosraw asked where wisdom lay, his visitor pointed toward Mecca and disappeared….” — an excerpt from Simerg’s first instalment on the travels of Naser-e Khosraw, reproduced from One Thousand Roads to Mecca, introduced and edited by Michael Wolfe.

Following Wolfe’s excellent introduction in the first part, we are then treated to Naser-e Khosraw’s own account about the journey which takes him from Persia to his arrival in Egypt. Please read the first part at One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Naser-e Khosraw’s Writing About the Muslim Pilgrimage before proceeding to the following second instalment where Khosrow gives us a vivid description of Cairo during the golden reign of the Fatimid Imam, al-Mustansir Billah.



On Sunday…. [3 August 1047],… we were in Cairo.

The city of Cairo lies between the Nile and the sea, the Nile flowing from south to north into the sea. From Cairo to Alexandria is thirty parasangs [a parasang is three and a half miles – Ed.], and Alexandria is on the shore of the Mediterranean and the banks of the Nile. From there much fruit is brought to Cairo by boat. There is a lighthouse that I saw in Alexandria, on top of which used to be an incendiary mirror. Whenever a ship came from Istanbul and approached opposite the mirror, fire would fall from the mirror and burn the ship up. The Byzantines exerted great effort and employed all manner of subterfuge, until they finally sent someone who broke the mirror. In the days of al-Hakim, the Sultan of Egypt, a man appeared who was willing to fix the mirror as it had once been, but al-Hakim said it was not necessary, that the situation was well under control, since at that time the Greeks sent gold and goods in tribute and were content for the armies of Egypt not to go near them….

Whoever wants to go to Mecca from Egypt must go east. From Qolzom there are two ways, one by land and one by sea. The land route can be traversed in fifteen days, but it is all desert and three hundred parasangs long. Most of the caravans from Egypt take that way. By sea it takes twenty days to reach Jar, a small town in the Hijaz on the sea. From Jar to Medina it takes three days. From Medina to Mecca is one hundred parasangs. Following the coastline from Jar, you will come to the Yemen and the coast of Aden; continuing in that direction, you will eventually wind up in India and China. Continuing southward from Aden and slightly westward, you will come to Zanzibar and Ethiopia, which will be described presently. Going south from Egypt through Nubia, you come to the province of the Masmudis, which is a land of broad pasture lands, many animals, and heavyset, strong-limbed, squat, black-skinned men; there are many soldiers of this sort in Egypt….


Coming south from Syria, the first city one encounters is (New) Cairo, Old Cairo being situated farther south. Cairo is called al-Qahera al-Mo‘ezziyya, and the garrison town is called al-Fustat…. I estimated that there were no less than twenty thousand shops in Cairo, all of which belong to the Sultan. Many shops are rented for as much as ten dinars a month, and none for less than two. There is no end of caravansaries, bath houses, and other public buildings—all property of the Sultan, for no one owns any property except houses and what he himself builds. I heard that in Cairo and Old Cairo there are eight thousand buildings belonging to the Sultan that are leased out, with the rent collected monthly. These are leased and rented to people on tenancy-at-will, and no sort of coercion is employed.

The Sultan’s palace is in the middle of Cairo and is encompassed by an open space so that no building abuts it…. As the ground is open all around it, every night there are a thousand watchmen, five hundred mounted and five hundred on foot, who blow trumpets and beat drums at the time of evening prayer and then patrol until daybreak. Viewed from outside the city, the Sultan’s palace looks like a mountain because of all the different buildings and the great height. From inside the city, however, one can see nothing at all because the walls are so high. They say that twelve thousand hired servants work in this palace, in addition to the women and slave girls, whose number no one knows. It is said, nonetheless, that there are thirty thousand individuals in the palace, which consists of twelve buildings. The harem has ten gates on the ground level, each with a name. . . .


 When the Nile is increasing,…. with its level rising eighteen ells [an ell is roughly one and a half feet – Ed.] above the winter level, the heads of the canals and channels are closed throughout the land. Then the canal called al-Khalij, which begins in Old Cairo and passes through New Cairo, and which is the Sultan’s personal property, is opened with the Sultan [al-Mustansir, reigned 1036-94, Ed.] in attendance. Afterward, all the other canals and channels are opened throughout the countryside. This day is one of the biggest festivals of the year and is called Rokub Fath al-Khalij (“Riding Forth to Open the Canal”).

When the season approaches, a large pavilion of Byzantine brocade spun with gold and set with gems, large enough for a hundred horsemen to stand in its shade, is elaborately assembled at the head of the canal for the sultan. In front of this canopy are set up a striped tent and another large pavilion. Three days before the Rokub, drums are beaten and trumpets sounded in the royal stables so that the horses will get accustomed to the sound. When the Sultan mounts, ten thousand horses with gold saddles and bridles and jewel-studded reins stand at rest, all of them with saddlecloths of Byzantine brocade and buqalamun woven seamless to order. In the borders of the cloth are woven inscriptions bearing the name of the Sultan of Egypt. On each horse is a spear or coat of armor and a helmet on the pommel, along with every other type of weapon. There are also many camels and mules with handsome panniers and howdahs, all studded with gold and jewels. Their coverings are sewn with pearls.

Were I to describe everything about this day of [the opening of] the canal, it would take too long…. On the morning when the Sultan is going out for the ceremony, ten thousand men are hired to hold the steeds we have already described. These parade by the hundred, preceded by bugles, drums, and clarions and followed by army battalions, from the Harem Gate up to the head of the canal. Each of these hirelings who holds a horse is given three dirhems. Next come horses and camels fitted with litters and caparisons, and following these come camels bearing howdahs. At some distance behind all of these comes the Sultan, a well-built, clean-shaven youth with cropped hair, a descendant of Husayn son of Ali. He is mounted on a camel with plain saddle and bridle with no gold or silver and wears a white shirt, as is the custom in Arab countries, with a wide cummerbund…. The value of this alone is said to be ten thousand dinars. On his head he has a turban of the same color, and in his hand he holds a large, very costly whip. Before him walk three hundred Daylamites wearing Byzantine gold-spun cloth with cummerbunds and wide sleeves, as is the fashion in Egypt. They all carry spears and arrows and wear leggings. At the Sultan’s side rides a parasol bearer with a bejeweled, gold turban and a suit of clothing worth ten thousand dinars. The parasol he holds is extremely ornate and studded with jewels and pearls. No other rider accompanies the Sultan, but he is preceded by Daylamites. To his left and right are thurifers burning ambergris and aloe. The custom here is for the people to prostrate themselves and say a prayer as the Sultan passes. After the Sultan comes the Grand Vizier with the Chief Justice and a large contingent of religious and governmental officials.

The Sultan proceeds to the head of the canal, where court has been set up, and remains mounted beneath the pavilion for a time. He is then handed a spear, which he throws at the dam. Men quickly set to work with picks and shovels to demolish the dam, and the water, which has built up on the other side, breaks through and floods the canal.

On this day the whole population of Old and New Cairo comes to witness the spectacle of the opening of the canal and to see all sorts of wonderful sporting events. The first ship that sails into the canal is filled with deaf-mutes, whom they must consider auspicious. On that day the Sultan distributes alms to these people.

There are twenty-one boats belonging to the Sultan, which are usually kept tied up like animals in a stable, in an artificial lake the size of two or three playing fields next to the Sultan’s palace; each boat is fifty yards long and twenty wide and is so ornate with gold, silver, jewels, and brocade that were I to describe them I could fill many pages.

Date posted: Friday, October 19, 2012
Date updated: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 (links to Parts I and III, see below)

Reproduced from ONE THOUSAND ROADS TO MECCA © by Michael Wolfe with the permission of the publisher Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

The above is Part II. Please read:
PART I (Introduction by Michael Wolfe, with Khosraw’s account from Persia to Egypt): One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Naser-e Khosraw’s Writing About the Muslim Pilgrimage.
PART III: Naser-e Khosraw’s Pilgrimages to Mecca.
PART IV: Naser-e Khosraw’s Dangerous Homeward Journey


Michael Wolfe. Photo and profile credit: Wikipedia.

About the author: Michael Wolfe is an American poet, author, and the President and Executive Producer of Unity Productions Foundation. He is a frequent lecturer on Islamic issues at universities across the United States including Harvard, Georgetown, Stanford, SUNY Buffalo, and Princeton. He holds a degree in Classics from Wesleyan University. As a Muslim convert he performed the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1990 and wrote extensively about it. Wolfe’s first works on Islam were a pair of books from Grove Press on the pilgrimage to Mecca: The Hadj (1993),a first-person travel account, and One Thousand Roads to Mecca (1997, Grove/Atlantic), an anthology of 10 centuries of travelers writing about the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Shortly after 11 September 2001, he edited a collection of essays by American Muslims called Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith which won the 2003 annual Wilbur Award for “Best Book of the year on a Religious Theme”. In 1999, Wolfe helped found an educational media foundation focused on promoting peace through the media, Unity Productions Foundation (UPF). In 2002, UPF produced its first full-length film, called Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, a two-hour television documentary on the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad. The film, which Wolfe co-created, co-produced, and co-executive edited, received a national broadcast on PBS and subsequent international broadcasts on National Geographic International. Wolfe also co-produced in 2007 Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain, which was aired in the same year on PBS, 2007. Wolfe continues to produce long and short-form documentaries for PBS and other broadcasters in the US and abroad with Unity Productions Foundation. His co-production partner on all these films is Alex Kronemer.


Michael Wolfe’s works on this website:

“Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet” – A Film Created and Produced by Alex Kronemer and Michael Wolfe
Jesus Through a Muslim Lens
How a Muslim Sees Muhammad

Grove/Atlantic website:

GroveAtlantic – One Thousand Roads to Mecca


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2 thoughts on “Naser-e Khosraw in Fatimid Cairo: From “One Thousand Roads to Mecca” Edited by Michael Wolfe

  1. The term Sultan is frequently used when referring to the governors of Egypt (like al-Hakim, the Sultan of Egypt). If I am not mistaking, the term Sultan was mostly used by the Seljuqs of Persian countries. On the contrary, the Fatimid governors (as well as Abbasid governors) used the term Khalifa.

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