There is a very good reason why Cairo is known as the City of a Thousand Minarets. It becomes apparent during your night flight's slow descent into the airport as a sprinkling of green specks from the illuminated towers glitter amid the myriad headlights crawling along the highway. Once in the city, the calls to prayer by the numerous muezzins can sometimes provide inspiring music to your ears, although occasionally an unfortunate novice will bleat his way through it, making you wish he'd just get it over with.
There are mosques everywhere - modern ones with strange domes and thick minarets, ancient ones with huge open-air prayer spaces, and tiny hole-in-the-wall mosques that serve as quick prayer areas for the neighbourhood's men. But for the most inspiring architecture, Islamic Cairo is the place to go. The magical thing about this part of the city is that on each visit you will always discover something new - from alleyways that still boast ancient Mamluk architecture to small Fatimid buildings that were used as a watering holes for the ancient neighbourhoods.
The most obvious stop for the Cairo mosque-spotter is within the Citadel that majestically stands guard over the old city, a reminder of its grandeur and ancient importance. The Citadel itself is known to Arabs as Saladin's Fort and was built by the conquering sultan between 1176 and 1183 to protect it from the Crusaders. Within it lies the Mohammed Ali Pasha mosque, with its huge silver domes and thin Ottoman-style minarets. Also known as the Alabaster Mosque, it was the official state mosque during the reign of Mohammad Ali Pasha.
Below the hill the Citadel sits upon is a clutch of beautiful, ancient mosques, including the Sultan Hasan, where I took my mother on her visit to Cairo. This mosque is my favourite, its architecture and the open courtyard at its heart inspiring calmness and spirituality. Work began on the mosque in 1356 and was paid for, rather morbidly, with money taken from the estates of people who died in the plague. It is one of the largest mosques in the Islamic world, with a mausoleum, madrasa quarters - four for each official Islamic school of thought - and a large prayer space in the middle.
Men and women pray with no barriers between their sections, a refreshing change from modern mosques which have different floors for the sexes and where women often cannot see the imam deliver his sermon. At any time of day, groups of male or female students can be seen hunched beside their teacher in corners of the mosque, memorising the Quran or preparing for an exam. The dome within the mausoleum is the highest in the city and inside the building lies the body of Sultan Hasan. Besides the gorgeous inlays on the mosque's walls, the lamps hanging from the ceilings dangle close to where people pray, making the atmosphere particularly magical at night with the lights looking like suspended fireflies.
The Ibn Tulun Mosque, a short walk from the Sultan Hasan, is the largest mosque in Cairo in terms of space. A simple yet grand structure, it is possibly the oldest mosque in the country, having been commissioned by the Abassid governor of Egypt, Ahmed ibn Tulun, with work beginning around 876. Besides the beautiful and peaceful open courtyard, whose walls are decorated with ancient roses and Quranic inscriptions, the most notable structure is the winding minaret, built according to the Samarra style, which was common among the Abassids. A thick, winding tower, it looms over the courtyard and is constantly dotted with people walking up the outside staircase to take in the city view.
Trying to imagine ancient Muslims using these mosques during Islam's Golden Age reminds me how little Muslims use the mosque today. In those days, mosques were not only places of worship, but also of study, trade and celebration - a community centre of the neighbourhood. People would come to be counselled, to mourn the passing of loved ones, to celebrate marriages and to sign business deals. Women and men were able to pray in relative freedom, yet walking freely in any part of the Sultan Hasan, for example, is a strange feeling for a modern-day Muslim woman, who is normally relegated to certain areas or times and kept behind curtains or mashrebeya windows.
Indeed, going to pray in one of these ancient mosques enhances the spirituality of prayer and connection with other worshippers in a way a modern mosque never will. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo