Discovering Islam at the Cairo Citadel
The Citadel sits on top of a hill in the centre of Cairo. It is home to Mohamed Ali Mosque along with two other smaller mosques. This was my first time visiting a mosque and I took it as an opportunity to learn a bit more about Islam.
While I was at the Citadel I seen a grand total of 4 other tourists. My guide-book warned me that the area would be heaving with tour groups. This was certainly not the case. The few people there were all Egyptians. The problem with there being no other tourists is that I stood out like a sore thumb. I had the usual uncomfortableness of parents forcing their children to say hello to me and teenagers following me around giggling. I also had no one to follow. It was my first time visiting a mosque and I didn’t know the procedure. I have visited many churches and cathedrals before and I know how to act respectfully there. This was new territory for me. I had my shoulders and knees covered,I knew that was a must. Did I need to cover my hair? At some point I had to take my shoes off, but where? Was I even allowed inside if I wasn’t praying?
I got myself a bit worked up. The problem with sightseeing in Egypt is that it is difficult to find someone to ask questions like this to. Very rarely do you find someone who speaks English and doesn’t want money from you. I walked up to the entrance of Mohamed Ali Mosque. I was so stressed about the whole shoe thing. I was hanging around for someone else to come in so I could copy them but there was no one behind me. Only a couple of people were in the inner courtyard and they were definitely not wearing shoes. I looked around but there was no shelves to put my shoes on. I was taking baby steps inside. There should be a sign, ‘No shoes beyond this point’. Make it easy for your tourists. I didn’t want to do anything that could offend someone. I thought it best just to take my shoes off. Then I panicked that I had taken them off too soon. I picked them up and strided into the mosque.
There were a few people inside. No one was praying. They were all looking about, taking photos and generally just chilling out. This made me feel a bit more relaxed. It didn’t have that painful, cold silence you find inside churches. I took a few photos but the inside of the mosque was really dark and a bit cramped. I thought somewhere so important would be a bit grander. Where were the shiny holy treasures? There was not too much to see, although the ceiling was pretty. I only stayed inside for a couple of minutes. I left the mosque and walked all the way outside before daring to put my trainers back on again.
The outside of the Mohamed Ali mosque is imposing but not all that pretty. It is really brown and very dirty. I would have been happy to give it a quick wipe down, if I had been asked. The day I went to the Citadel the weather was terrible. The worst smog I have ever known in my life. I felt like I could hardly breathe. It was like having my head permanently inside an exhaust pipe. I’m sure the whole thing looks much better when the sun is shining. The views from the Citadel over Cairo are supposed to be incredible but the visibility was so poor I couldn’t see that much. When the weather was clear I could see the Citadel from my hotel bedroom window.
Behind the mosque there was an abandoned area that was labelled Palace Museum. It was out of bounds so I of course snuck in for a look. It had clearly been a very grand home to someone once upon a time. It looked like it had been destroyed a long time before. In amongst the ruins you could make out panelled walls and flowery wallpaper. A policeman came to shoe me out, telling me that the area was not safe. I asked him what it had been and he said it was the King’s toilets. A translation error I presume!
There was another smaller mosque that I took a look around. The inside was just a courtyard with a red carpet down the middle. I stressed out a bit less about taking my shoes off, but I still think I took them off too soon.
Being at the Citadel and inside the mosques I felt nothing. I wasn’t humbled or enlightened, just a bit uncomfortable. I think the reason I was not moved is because Islam is not a religion I relate to. I very much associate the religion with repression and forcefulness. I am very open to learning about religions but from what I know Islam does not hold any appeal to me personally. A woman in a burka gave me a handful of leaflets about Islam at the second mosque. I had a look through them but not only were they full of propaganda they were so badly written that it pained me to read them.
The Citadel is obviously a very important place in Egypt but without a guide I really missed out on finding out about its history. I hope I get the chance to go back one day with someone who can share not only their knowledge of The Citadel but their passion for Islam with me.