How visiting Cairo's Islamic Quarter has changed

Increased security and restoration efforts are aimed at attracting tourists, but Egypt's economic woes are forcing local market sellers to adapt

Police stand guard outside the restored Al-Aqmar Mosque in Cairo, Egypt. EPA
Powered by automated translation
An embedded image that relates to this article

A walk through Cairo’s famous Islamic Quarter today is a different experience to what it was just a few years ago.

The historic neighbourhood has long been a tourist destination, attracting visitors who want to see some of the city's most iconic mosques, sample the bustling markets, and immerse themselves in the winding medieval alleys.

But several years of government development against the backdrop of Egypt's economic crisis have now reshaped the experience.

This is clear to see on Al Muizz street, one of the central arteries of Islamic Cairo known for its vendors and hawkers who display their handicrafts, jewellery and street food against the walls of medieval mosques and madrasas.

The once hectic scene is now much more organised, with security guards patrolling the streets. Since 2016, a private company has been enforcing government laws in the quarter, with men in outfits emblazoned "Al Muizz Security" stationed on the streets.

“Our job is to keep the streets moving and control the number of vendors who are allowed to set up shops and where. Another one of our jobs is to protect tourists from rude sellers. We also step in to stop fights that might happen between one seller and another,” one of Al Muizz’s security guards told The National.

The security scheme is part of the government’s larger development plan for the area, which is still under way.

The plan aims to increase tourism revenue and make the area's many religious sites more accessible, but a major pillar of the plan – to build a flyover aimed at improving access to the quarter – has faced criticism over the demolition of thousands of tombs in a nearby Unesco-certified necropolis.

Alongside the controversy, some local sellers in the area say the development project has put more pressure on them at a time when Egypt's economic crisis has driven up the cost of basic goods and forced many businesses to shut.

Street story

The sprawling streets of Islamic Cairo are now easier to navigate because of the government's Street Story project.

Since 2017, more than 250 signs have been erected across Cairo, including many in the historic quarter.

Like Blue Plaques in London, they highlight buildings of interest that used to be inhabited by famous Egyptians.

The campaign’s characteristic dark blue signs, easily distinguishable amid the age-worn beige relics in the area, have become popular spots for photographs and as meeting points used by tour guides to better map out the area.

“The signs have come in quite handy actually. We often have different tour groups going through the area and the streets are quite narrow so it can be easy to lose people,” Hossam Thabet, a tour guide, told The National.

“Recently, it has been a lot easier to just tell them to meet by the Al Muizz sign or the Darb Qormoz sign. All the signs are accessible through Google Maps so people just use their phones and meet us at the next point on the tour if they get lost.”

The signs have also proved useful for young men hoping to take photographs of tourists for a small fee, a new kind of job that has grown in popularity over the past few years as demand for professionally taken, Instagrammable photos has grown among visiting tourists.

On Thursday, groups of young men, carrying professional cameras could be seen leaning against the walls of various historic mosques and other sites in the area waiting to be hailed by tourists who want their photos taken and sent to them via Bluetooth or Whatsapp on the spot.

“I was born and raised on this street. Our family used to run a handicrafts workshop near the Alley of the Jews, but we closed it down about a year ago, which is when I started doing photography here,” said Mohamed Samir, 27, a street photographer in the area.

“In the beginning I wandered around a lot to find tourists to photograph. After a few weeks, I began to see that they tend to group around these blue signs so I began to walk through the area looking for them. The signs mean there is a famous place in the area, which usually means I’ll find tourists who want their photos taken.

Mr Samir says that he often pays bribes to local security to let him do his job in peace.

Economic woes hit handicrafts

While street signs and more orderly tourism may have brought new opportunities, others in Islamic Cairo have suffered as the economy continues to tank.

Markets selling traditional handicrafts are a central part of Islamic Cairo, but many shops are being forced to adapt to new economic realities and trends.

A recent dollar crunch and subsequent import restrictions have either depleted or driven up the prices of raw materials such as copper and brass. Lanterns, desk lamps, jewellery and other decorative items are fashioned out of such metals by craftsmen who, in some cases, are from families who have been doing so for generations.

In the nearby Khan El Khalili bazaar complex, one of the most visited sites in Egypt where tourists are known to pick up hookahs, Bedouin-style costumes and other handicrafts, a seller told The National that most shops in the area have significantly changed the items they offer for sale.

“A few years ago, we displayed a lot more brass, copper and even silver items. But ever since the dollar became an issue and importing raw materials became more expensive, we have been receiving more supplies from local, smaller scale workshops,” said Ali Hamdy, 39.

Mr Hamdy said that during the past five years, many craftsmen left their professions in the area after their businesses went under, which created a vacuum in the market that has since been filled by more business and tech-savvy operations launched by younger entrepreneurs.

The restrictions on materials combined with changes in trends have given the historic markets a new feel.

Mr Hamdy’s shop, like many others in the area, which in the past might have displayed old-fashioned cloth bags, fashioned in the Bedouin style, now display a majority of fashionable leather and sports bags bearing knock-off Louis Vuitton and Gucci logos.

“There are now a lot more workshops that are making all Egyptian items now, which is good because many use all local materials, they don’t import anything. But they look different,” he said.

“But something that bothers me personally, is that their styles are more western because they want to appeal to current tastes to make money.”

Updated: January 05, 2024, 6:00 PM