Saturday, October 14, 2006

A morning of mosques

Well, I probably should be studying for my TWO quizzes tomorrow, but I'd rather procrastinate a bit. Besides, every so often, I'll glance over at the words and convince myself that I do know something...I think I left off last time with a night at the Khan...well, the next night it was deja vu. I spent an incredibly luxurious Friday lazing around my apartment, sleeping in till 11 (wow!), running some errands, but by about 4 I became rather bored, and had little desire to study vocab, so I called my friend and set a date for iftaar at the Khan. Absolute insanity! The restuarants had seating that spread about 20 tables or more deep in Medan Hussein, and still we could not find a table. Eventually, one restaurant dragged a coffee table (literally, a coffee table), set it up to the side of a street, and sat us down. The space was a little cramped, but I reveled in every minute of it, the tides of people flowing in front of us, families, lovers, beggars, orphans, friends, the entire social strata of Cairo laid before us like beautifully patterned hijab that only reveals the surface qualities.
After our chaotic, and too expensive, dinner (the food wasn't very good, it was more the experience than anything), we wandered into the outskirts of the Khan to the start of the Muski (don't get me started on that!) I bought one of those beautiful and comfy tunic tops for 15 LE, blue with a pretty pattern down the front. During the bargaining process, someone grabbed my butt, and I turned around and smacked him, although it really didn't give me much satisfaction. I wish I would have done something more, but I wasn't sure what, and the lane was poorly lit and crowded. I got my shirt, and then we came back to my apartment and watched Shakespeare in Love, how I miss my movie collection! I wish'd brought more movies...oh well, I had to go to bed fairly early because of my tour the next morning.
Arising from bed is always such a process at 8 in the morning on a Saturday, but I managed, and was definitely glad I did. Most of Cairo is still asleep at 9, as were most of the ALIers, and so our tour group was very small, which was perfectly fine with me. First, we visited the Ibn Tulum mosque, an impressively simplistic mosque that dates back to the 9th century. The architect was truly brilliant, as the symmetry inside was astounding; even though pillars were used instead of columns, the architect had managed to convey a sense of openness and airiness, and each arcade allowed one to see the center courtyard from any angle. The beauty is difficult to convey on paper, but the sturcture was subtlely stunning, with ornately carved windows, over 140, opening onto the outside, each with a different geometric pattern. Because the Fatmids (I think that was the predominant dynasty, the details are a little sketchy) believed that excessive decoration distracted from the act of prayer, the lower areas of the mosque were rather plain with the capitals and arches were ornately carved. I learned lots of interesting facts, like one side of the mosque (remember, most mosques consist of a central courtyard surrounded by arcades), the east, is deeper than the rest to symbolize the direction of mecca, and thus, this is the direction from which the leaders preach and into whose wall the 'pulpit' and ornate recess is set. These things all have names, but they escape me at the moment.
After touring the inside of the mosque, we climbed the minaret, and this mosque just happens to have the only outside staircase in all of the city. Clambering to the top was well worth the effort, as it afforded not only gorgeous views of the city, but a rickety ledge upon which to crawl out and snap crazy pictures ;-)
Next door to the mosque was the Gayer Anderson musuem, actually two houses dating to the 16th and 17th century restored and converted into a museum of sorts by a British general in the 1920's. After spending half of my life reading books about life in the harem, cloistered behind latticed wooden screens, I finally peered through the small holes in the screens into the courtyard below. I could almost imagine a wealthy merchant welcoming male guests into the courtyard below, greeting them with loud salaams over the silver plashing of the center fountain, and then inviting them into the inner sanctum of the reception hall, reposing against plush cushions and gorging on sweetmeats and tea. All the while, the hint of whispers and the rustle of fabric idicated that the women had followed the men from room to room, always behind the screens, and now observed them bemusedly from an upper chamber. Well, like I said, I could almost imagine what life was like, although it was interesting to learn that women only remained sequestered behind the screens when guests came; the rest of the time, the roamed as freely as the men. Also, most of the houses of the time opened inward, not outward, so the balconies and such all faced a central courtyard, not the outside world. One disturbing collection of the museum was the birthing chair collection, a selection of rigid wooden chairs with a hole in the center, that apparently, was for the baby. No more comments on that!
A bit behind schedule, our tour group was hurriedly ushered into the bus to the next stop, the Sultan Hussein mosque and the Riffiqi mosque sp? These mosques are behomouths in size and grandeur; the first one, built by the Mamluks in the 13th century, was positively colossal, with ceiling stretching hundreds of feet above ones head, decorated with carved wood, gold, and paint, especaially red and white. The Mamluks did not the same restraint on oramentation that the Fatimids did; there structures were covered from floor to ceiling with decoration; this mosque also used to be a school, so it was even larger to accomodate discussion and classroom areas, as well as prayer areas. The call to prayer was announced, and a group of several men were praying before the altar as we toured; I felt slightly voyeuristic watching them, but the ritual was a bit memorizing. One of my teachers had told me that the women always pray behind the men, because if they prayed in front, then the men would be too distracted my their behinds to concentrate on prayer. Apparently, females do not harbor such craven thoughts...After that mosque, we went next door to the Rifiiqi mosque that served mostly as a mosoleum and shrine to a Sufi saint, Rifiqi. Built in 1869 but not dedicated until 1912, the mosque was built in the Turkish style, but still incorporated many elements of the Mamluk dynasty (the Mamluks ruled from something like 1260 to 1511 and were former Eastern European slaves turned rulers). Because the saint's grave was already located in the area, the mosque just built up around it, incorporating in into the numerous mausoleums and central prayer area design plan of the mosque.
Well, that's enough touring info for one day. After the tour finished, some friends and I grabbed lunch at McDonald's and then I went home for a nap and quick study session before a Thai food party at a friend's house. She happens to live in Embassy housing, and, my God, I think I'm in the wrong profession. My apartment's nice, hers is gorgeous. I mean, she's got a dishwasher, microwave, washer AND dryer, as well as beautiful wood floors and furniture and glossy white walls. And she had Tootsie Rolls (sigh!) It was a little slice of Americana.

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