My driver is convinced that I am a completely mad expat let loose in town! Last week, on my way back from Khan, I asked him to drop me off at the Al Azhar mosque.
'Mosque?' He practically screeched! "Sure? You pray at mosque? Hindi pray at mosque too?"
Well, not really, I shook my head as I tried to explain that all I wanted to do was to have a look at the mosque and the university which has a big place in the theology of Islam and also claims to be the oldest university in the world (estb in 970)!
Founded by the Fatimid conqueror Gawahar al-Siqilli, as the congregational mosque for Al Qahira, over the years it has emerged as the biggest center for Islamic learning. As you enter the mosque , and look up, you see a double arched gate with some fine work. I belive this used to be known as the Gate of Barbers, because this is where the students used to have their hair shaved off!
I must admit that for a moment I was a little hesitant about walking in cos I was wearing a skirt which was below my knees. So many books talk about the dress code in the mosques that I was wondering whether my dress would be considered appropriate. However, I was otherwise modestly dressed, so figured I should be alright! I did not have a scarf, but a shawl which would do just as well to cover my head. In fact, as I was fumbling with my shawl, the attendent pointed to it and indicated that I should cover my head when I went in. I smiled, nodded, waved at him and walked right in!
When you walk through the gate, you suddenly come into a bright marble lined courtyard, and its like emerging into bright sunlight after passing through a patch of darkness! The courtyard was lined with people lounging with manuscripts in their hands. Theer were a few other tourists, who I guess had the same idea as me.
Within the mosque are two madrasas built by two different people.
The left one, built by Amir Sayf al-Din Aqbugha ( or the White Bull) housesAl Azhar's collection of manuscripts and Qurans. It also has some beautiful mosaics done in glass and mother-of-pearl depicting braching sprays coming out of a bowl, a design and technique which came to Cairo from Syria.
The right one, built by Amir Ala al-Din Taybars al Khazindar, contains the most pecious manuscripst in Al Azhar's library.
As I walked around, I was surprised to see many young men studying manuscripts ( a kind English speaking Egyptian told me these were religious manuscripts that were being studied by the Al Azhar students)!
I am glad I visited the mosque. it gave me a sense of peace even though it was densely populated.