Al-Qahirah: Then and Now

I Wish I’d Been There

A View of Cairo from the Al-Azhar Park

By Zarina

Al-Qahirah, the victorious one is now known as Cairo, the city of a thousand minarets. I am atop the hillside kiosk at the Al-Azhar Park.

 Today, Cairo is basking in the spring sunshine.  It’s May 2010.   I see the outlines of the various Fatimid and other Islamic monuments, and as I reminisce about al-Qahirah of ten centuries ago, I go on a flight of fancy and take an avatar to land myself in the court of Imam-Caliph al-Mui’zz, and spend several years there.

On arrival, I learn that some years earlier, Jawhar, the Fatimid commander had entered Fustat in 969 and laid the foundation stone of the city of al-Qahirah, named after the red gold planet Mars which was in ascendant at that time.

Several gates leading in and out of the city were also built as well as the Jamia Al Azhar and the Qasaral-Muizziya – the castle for Imam al-Mui’zz.

 Today is the 5th of Ramadhan.   I have just attended the first darbar of Imam al-Mui’zz, a most historic and a moving occasion, where the citizens of al-Qahirah had gathered to pay their allegiance to their Imam in an elaborate ceremony.

After the darbar, there are celebrations and festivities, however, my travel through time and the emotions experienced at the darbar have made me a little tired and so I go and seek help from Muhammad bin Ibn Said Al Tamimi, the most famous physician and therapist who now lives and practices in al-Qahirah.  He prepares for me some medicinal concoctions which revive me.

Wherever I look there are fascinating events happening in this land that my Imam is ruling.  I take the time to go and see and admire the most famous wall hanging depicting the map of the world, “a magnificent work on a fine piece of blue silk; it represents the continents with all the cities and mountains, seas and rivers, and underneath it is written ‘Made on the command of al-Mui’zz li-Din Allah’.”

Spending time with Musa bin Ali’azar al-Israili, the author of a book on culinary art of that time, is a treat. He instructs me in how to make the sweet pastry, Kahk that is distributed by Imam al-Mui’zz among his subjects at the end of Ramadhan to celebrate Eid. The ingredients of this iconic pastry are flour, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, dates, raisins, honey, sesame oil, sesame seeds, aniseeds, saffron, and sugar and spice. His book called Kitab al-Muizzi is dedicated to Imam Al-Mui’zz. Indeed, this delicious pastry is so popular that one of the successors of Imam al-Mui’zz allocates 20,000 dinars to bake the kahk at feast time. During the reign of Imam al-Aziz, at feast time, he designates a table of several hundred metres long bearing some sixty different varieties of kahk and butter cookies topped with nuts known as ghurayiba.  Imam al-Aziz’s also establishes a bakery devoted specifically to the making of kahk, called dar al-fitra, where a piece of kahk is the size of a loaf of bread.

By 975 AC, in the reign of Imam al-Mui’zz studies have begun at Al-Azhar.  Spending some time studying at the University is a great privilege; my life revolves around lectures, seminars and readings as well as the great library which is the envy of scholars from far and wide. The library has a rare collection of books ranging from art, architecture, philosophy, medicine and astronomy. Most of all I enjoy studying the stars, the planets, the constellations and the star positions; the drawings and charts of what to view and when. 

The librarian tells me an amazing story of how Imam al-Mui’zz one day came to the library and when the book he was looking for could not be located the Imam himself decided to take a look for himself, though it was already past nightfall. He set himself in front of one of the cabinets, where he thought the book may have been, and pulled a volume off the shelf. As he leafed through it, he became fascinated by certain passages and began to read more closely. Before he knew it, he was reaching for another volume, and then another, and another. In the Imam’s own words: “I completely forgot why I was there and didn’t even think of sitting down. It wasn’t until I felt a shooting pain in my legs from standing so long that I even realized where I was!”

The soirees in honour of the artists and the musicians are always packed. My prized collection includes gold dinars of the highest quality that were minted during the reign of Imam al-Mui’zz. 

I wish I’d been there to witness, celebrate and participate in some of these most historic and splendid events.

Fast forward to now May 2010

Left Column (Top to bottom)- The gates of Bab al Futuh, Bab an Nasr and Bab Zwayla still survive from the Fatimid time. So have the old Fatimid city and its extension Darb al Ahmar (top right). Bottom right is an aerial view of the Al-Azhar Park - the 'lung' of modern Cairo.

Today, Cairo is by far the largest city in Egypt. With a dense population, the city suffers from high levels of pollution and traffic. Yet, this thousand year old city still retains many of the same streets and buildings. The gates of Bab al Futuh and Bab an Nasr to the north, Bab Zwayla to the south, still survive from the Fatimid time. So have the old Fatimid city and its extension Darb al Ahmar together with the mosques, madrasa and mausoleum. To the south are Sultan Hassan Mosque and the Ayyubid Citadel.

Al-Azhar University still remains the chief centre of Muslim intellectual life. It has even admitted women a few years ago.

Amid all the noise, the traffic and the hubbub of Cairo, there is one piece of heaven on earth, and that is the Al Azhar Park donated to the citizens of Cairo by Hazar Imam, a much needed lung for Cairo where people can escape and find respite from Cairo’s city life.

I descend the hilltop kiosk towards the lush gardens and the fountains, and as the sun sets and the night falls, there, towards the west rises the moon and the planet Mars (Al Qahirah) to the moon’s upper right. Mars is again in ascendant over the city of Cairo and will remain so over the next few months.



About the writer: Zarina Moosa was a teacher, and has served in various capacities in the institutions of the Ismaili community including the Ismaili Council for Kenya. She was a member of the organizing committee of the U.N. Decade Conference for Women held in Nairobi. She dedicates her spare time to voluntary service. She has taught English to new immigrant women and has also helped out at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto for a number of years. Recently, she completed a course in Star Gazing at the Ontario Science Centre.


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4 thoughts on “Al-Qahirah: Then and Now

  1. Your reminisce of Al Qahirah in the tenth century and what you witnessed in 2010 is a fascinating piece of work. I imagined through your description and photographs how it looks and then felt the thrill of the trip without actually visiting it . Thank you for that.


  2. Thank you dear sister for your hard work with the Ismaili Jamat. Best greetings to you and your family from Mirza Nazari of Kabul, Afghanistan. May Mawlana Hazar Imam bless you and us. Sincerely yours, Mirza.

  3. Very well articulated piece! I have thoroughly relished traversing through the historical composition.

    Pictorial adds a “great feel” to the article!

    Best wishes to Zarina – keep inspiring us!

    Shaheen Sultan

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