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Photo Essay: Bab Zuweila Gate in Cairo

August 30, 2010
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

Bab Zuweila Gate is one of the major landmarks of the city. Bab Zuweila is a medieval gate built into a protective wall around Cairo in 1092. This is a photo essay about this gate and the fascinating story around this landmark.
Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
The taxi dropped me off in front of this marvellous edifice. It was about 10:30 in the morning and the sun was very good, not too much heat, just right. It was Sunday as well, so the market y was closed. Hence, there were very few people about the place which turned out to be good. I can just assume that during week days, this place would be absolutely heaving and crowded.
Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
The antecedents of the gate are from the name of al Zawila, a Berber tribe whose Fatimid Soldiers were quartered around this gate. The gate is being refurbished, but I stood there drinking in the history. A saint named Mitwalli al-Butb also lived here once upon a time and worked miracles. He is supposedly still around and frequently there are flashes of light to show his presence. This is on the west side where you can see the barbells hung up there. The shaft of sunlight almost gave me the sense of deep antiquity. So what are these barbells? Well, apparently at one time, there was this gym here and these stone barbells were used to exercise. No idea why they are hung up here. Apparently these walls were also hung with rotting teeth, bandages etc. which were supposed to intercede with the saint so the sickness/pain will go away. Toothache? pull it out, hang the tooth on a nail on the gate and the pain will go away. Sort of logical, no?

The gate also has a very bloody history, these walls have seen dead bodies and decapitated heads galore. The last Mamluk Sultan was hung from the gate in the middle. A whole pile of massacred Mamluks from the massacre at the Citadel were mounted on spikes here. The half bodies of the six Mongol ambassadors were displayed here after which the Mamluk sultan went to defeat the dreaded Mongols.
Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
See that top wonderfully arched room at the top of the gate? Musicians would be based there and would play wonderful music every evening and night. The annual pilgrimage to Mecca departed from this gate carrying the new kiswa (cloth which covers the Kaaba) to Mecca. I can just imagine the jostling of camels and horses, the kids running around in sheer excitement, the prayers and wishes of the pilgrims. And then  a shouted invocation from the Sultan who would stand at the toandp platform, the whole caravan would move on.
Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
These two minarets belong to the Mosque of al Mu'ayyad which is located just inside the gate. These towers were constructed about 400 years after the gate was built. Beautifully carved out of stone, but the stone is now quite weathered as one can see. But more about this mosque a bit later and much more in a following essay.

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
Standing with the gate to your front, looking left down the walls of the Mosque of al Mu'ayyad

 
Looking right and back, there is another building with a lovely arched passageway with beautiful arches and tall slender columns. When I turned more around, I saw this lovely little building.

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs

This is a lovely sufi building made for pilgrims called as Zawiya and Sabil of Sultan Farag Ibn Barquq. The lovely striped stone makes this a very attractive little building. A Sabil literally means a road or a path. In this case,  it also means a structure that is philanthropic in origin, and usually has a water fountain (can also be a place of resting). In other words, the idea is for a wealthy man to erect a building or a water fountain so that the thirsty pilgrims and travellers would pray for the goodness of the benefactor’s soul and in turn be blessed. Here is a nice little paper on sabil and this particular sabil in question. I can well see where this is coming from. For a desert religion like Islam, water is very precious indeed and to provide water would be perhaps one of the most righteous things one can do.

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs

This wonderful carving is supposed to be representing clouds dripping rain.

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs

The entrance to the sabil with one of the ever present lamps which I saw EVERYWHERE. Very tall ceilings with ancient stones. These glass lamps have verses of the Quran inscribed on them.
Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
Looking out at the Bab Zuweila gate from the iron grating of the sabil. The whole building was still under reconstruction so I could not go in, but this little sabil has more than 6 rooms, but has sort of fallen into disuse. I hope it goes back to its original use and becomes a seat of Sufi learning. But then I was getting all excited and wanted to get back to the gate.

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
Here is the gate. It has rows of nails in the metal surface, but another story is that if you have a stinking headache, you are supposed to come here and hammer a nail into the gate, that is supposed to take the headache away. 

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs

The inside of the gate had these lovely cavities, with beautiful sea shell tops carved into the stone.

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
Walking out beyond the gate, on the left is the Mosque of al Mu'ayyad with beautiful white and red stripes of stone.



Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs

Just inside the gate on the right is a continuation of the gate on the right. Exceedingly finely carved stone work, the ironwork. Lovely.

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs

More reconstruction under way.

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
This is a type of wooden carving done on a window cover called as Mashrabiya. It is very fine work indeed with sub windows built in. Not only does it make the room inside cool, but  women can peer out without being seen. See the lower panel? One can open that panel and then let down a basket to purchase things from the street.

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs

Highly carved stonework with suras of the Quran in exquisite calligraphy surrounded with geometrical designs.

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
A narrow lane just off the right of the gate.

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
I stood there looking at the top of the ironwork grill of the window and I am afraid my mind went totally risqué. I mean, that does look like a pair of breasts and a lovely bottom to me. The guidebook said this represents fruits growing on a vine, but I think my explanation makes more sense, doesn't it? Onwards and upwards. Let us not dwell too long on the puerile BD mind.

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
More stonework with calligraphic suras on the walls behind some rather flaky railings.

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
A couple of old men, one wearing the traditional Egyptian dress, the galabeya. It's like a kaftan. Apparently very nice and free for men. Ahem. Ok, well, good, but i like a bit of support if you know what i mean.

Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs
Looking back at the two minarets from just inside the gate.



Bab Zuweila,Cairo,Islamic Architecture,Tombs

Another view of the wonderful Mashrabiyas. Here is the full slideshow with more photographs and bigger resolution. As a start of my tour of Islamic Cairo, this really couldn't be improved upon.

Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta works in the city of London in various capacities in the financial sector. He has worked and travelled widely around the world. The articles in here relate to his current studies and are strictly his opinion and do not reflect the position of his past or current employer(s). If you do want to blame somebody, then blame my sister and editor, she is responsible for everything, the ideas, the writing, the quotes, the drive, the israeli-palestinian crisis, global warming, the ozone layer depletion and the argentinian debt crisis.
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Photo Essay: Bab Zuweila Gate in Cairo

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Author: Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

 

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