By the time the Fatimids came to power, Fustat was the already the political center of Africa. As the capital of the Fatimid dynasty, it also became the second most powerful city in the Islamic world after Baghdad. During their reign, the Fatimids transformed Fustat into a religious and cultural powerhouse as well, adorning the city with mosques, schools and public institutions of all sorts. The greatest of these legacies is arguably the Madrassa Al-Azhar, the second oldest continually active university in the world. Scholars from all over the world attend classes at Al-Azhar every year. This ancient university is also home to one of the oldest and largest medieval libraries in the Middle East. The Madrassa Al-Azhar is part of the Historic Cairo UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city of Fustat was, with the exception of a brief period at the end of the 9th century, the Abbasid capital in Egypt for well over two centuries before the Fatimids arrived. The Fatimids, a new Islamic dynasty from Tunisia, broke away from the Abbasids in the 10th century and set about establishing their own empire in North Africa. After conquering Egypt, they moved their capital to Fustat around 970 AD. Like previous rulers, they began a massive expansion of the city, again to the north. It was this expansion, combined with parts of the older districts, which eventually came to be known as Islamic Cairo.
The city enjoyed one of its most flourishing periods during the Fatimid years. By the 11th century, Cairo joined the ranks of Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba as one of the largest and most splendid cities of Islam. During the Fatimid period, Cairo’s various districts were absorbed into a single, unified, if chaotic, city, and adorned it with new mosques and public buildings. The greatest architectural and cultural contribution that the Fatimids made to Cairo was the Madrassa Al-Azhar, or Al-Azhar University, which they founded shortly after their conquest of Egypt.
Al-Azhar University was established in the 960s, and the first students began attending in 975. Named in honor of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah Al-Zahra the Brilliant, it was for much of its early existence a Shi’ite institution. Early classes offered included coursework in religion, philosophy and law as well as astronomy, mathematics and other sciences. In 1171, when Cairo was conquered by the Ayyubids under Saladin, Al-Azhar was kept in operation, albeit as a Sunni Islam school.
Al-Azhar has had a long and distinguished history. In the 12th century it boasted two of the world’s foremost physicians as professors: Abd-El-Latif, and the Jewish Moses Maimonides, who later served as Saladin’s personal doctor. The scholars of Al-Azhar have also been respected as some of the top experts in Islamic law, and supplicants have been looking to the university for centuries for opinions in everything from day-to-day life to decisions that have changed the world. After more than a thousand years in existence, Al-Azhar remains the top university in the Islamic world.
While the Madrassa Al-Azhar is one of the oldest institutions in Cairo, its buildings have been rebuilt, restored and expanded many times over the years. The ancient mosque at the heart of the university is still Al-Azhar’s architectural centerpiece. Some of the original 10th century elements can still be found here. The mosque’s most famous, if not most prominent, feature is the Minaret of Qaytbay, built by the sultan of the same name in the 15th century.
The university now sprawls well beyond its original bounds. Many buildings have been added throughout its history, right down to the 20th century. In the 1960s, more modern facilities were added for the study of applied sciences such as medicine and engineering, putting Al-Azhar on par with some of the world’s more prominent technical colleges. Besides the beautiful campus, Al-Azhar’s other great treasure is its vast library, which contains nearly a hundred thousand texts accumulated since the Middle Ages, many of which are available for perusal.
The Madrassa Al-Azhar campus is located towards the northern end of Islamic Cairo, about a half a mile due north of the Citadel. Muslims and non-Muslims alike are permitted to stroll around the campus, though non-students may be restricted from entering private areas. The madrassa is open to visitors Saturdays through Thursdays from 7:30am-9:00pm (shorter hours on Fridays). The cost of admission is EL12.00. Web: www.azhar.edu.eg (official website)
The number of other sites of Islamic interest in Cairo is staggering. There are dozens of major mosques and hundreds lesser mosques, madrassas, shrines and the like scattered all over the city, especially in the district known as Islamic Cairo. In addition to the Madrassa Al-Azhar, the highlights of Islamic Cairo alone include the Citadel and the Masjid Muhammad Ali, the Masjid Ibn Tulun, and the Masjid Sayyidna Al-Hussayn. Other important mosques include the Masjid Amr Ibn Al-As (the oldest mosque in the city), the Masjid Al-Muayya, the Masjid Rifai, the Masjid Qijmas El-Ishaqi, the Masjid Qaytbay, the Madrassa Sultan Hassan, and the Blue Mosque.