Forget the Middle East uncertainties and enter the placid reality of Cairo's great mosques. The believers find a quiet place to worship there.
With a few exceptions, Egyptian/Islamic temples welcome non-Muslim visitors. Certain major mosques have even become tourist attractions, and you are charged a small entrance fee. The experience will be an enriching one.
How do you get the most out of such a tour? Here are a few pointers for North Americans: "You will be penetrating a world quite different from your own," says one Cairo authority. "For this reason you should be conscious of the way you behave."
"Moslems expect you to be serious, respectful and adaptable during your visit. Because you are in a house of worship, you can't shout but must whisper. Women should be modestly dressed; i.e., no sleeveless clothing, no shorts or short skirts. A scarf is appreciated but not obligatory. North American males should not wear shorts nor be barechested. Moslems remove their shoes at the door where a guardian will keep an eye on them.
Avoid walking in front of someone who is praying; the person may be standing, bowing or squatting. Don't be surprised or annoyed if Egyptians approach and ask questions in broken English. They may also try to explain the edifice (or Islam!) to you.
Visitors may want to sit down in a quiet corner and quietly observe religious life.
How about costs? Before you embark on your tour, get sufficient small change in the form of 5, 10, 25 piasters notes and coins. (100 piasters equal one Egyptian pound, about $1.20.) Entrance fees to the better-knowm monuments are normally 50 piasters. The man who watches your shoes at the door will expect 5 to 10 piasters. A self-appointed guide hopes for 25 piasters. Anyone who turns on special lights, opens special doors or gets you up a minaret should be happy with a 10- to 15-piaster tip. Don't give money to children.
How about picture-taking in mosques? You're allowed to do it. If you want to photograph persons at close range, though, you need to ask them. Moslems prefer that you focus on men and not women.
Some parts of a mosque often seem baffling to the layman. For instance: An "ablution fountain" usually sits in the central courtyard where Muslims wash themselves according to a prescribed ritual, purity being one of the pre-conditons of prayer. The qiblah (or direction of prayer) is marked by a recessed mihrab (niche) which is set into the wall facing Mecca (southeast of Cairo). The wooden minbar usually located to the right of the "mihrab", is like a pulpit. The dikka is a raised platform on columns in the central prayer area. Lastly, the kursi (a chair) is a large piece of sacred furniture in finely carved and inlaid wood. It holds an open Koran and accommodates the man appointed to recite from it.
Cairo has always been known as "the city of a thousand minarets." And for good reasons. The city boasts the richest, most varied assembly of mosques in the entire Near East. There are monuments that date back to the beginning of Islam and through the ages many of its great historical movements have left their mark on Cairo.
For instance, the al-Azhar mosque (simultaneously the oldest university in the world) was founded more than 1,000 years ago and since then has been enlarged, restored and added to by numerous dynasties. The Fatimids, a Shiite sect which controlled Egypt from 969 to 1171, established this religious site as a center of scholarship and propagation of their doctrines. The dynasty of Salah-al-Din (Saladin of crusader lore) defeated the Fatimids but maintained the al-Azhar as headquarters for Sunni Muslim scholarship. Its walls have withstood tumultous times.
And yet, within the spacious colonnaded prayer hall, one gets an inpression of peace and balance. The chirping of sparrows blends into the low melodic murmur of Koranic recitations. Men with white beards bring their grandsons to pray, while students slowly pace the courtyard memorizing their lessons. Here, one discovers an aspect of life in the Middle East which, though not apparent, has always been there.
Surely, to miss the mosques of Cairo is to miss Cairo itself.