Journey to Egypt: Part 4 – Visiting a Mosque and Celebrating Christmas in Cairo

December 24, 2018

I had not expected to see much evidence of Christmas in Egypt. Although I knew there was a population of Coptic Christians in Egypt, I thought they were few in number and not much attention would be given to this Christian holiday.

I was wrong!

Egyptians love Christmas!  We had seen evidence at the Marriott, which was extensively decorated for Christmas. At night, we saw that the buildings in town, including mosques, are lit up with holiday lights.
20181224_190716Our trip leader, Mohamed, told us that Coptic Christians represent about 10% of the Egyptian population and that Muslims celebrate Christmas along with the Christians and the Christians celebrate Ramadan along with the Muslims! Actually, I suspect many of the decorations and lights are due to tourism. Coptics don’t actually celebrate Christmas until January 6.

Tourism is enjoying a revival in Egypt, after many years of very low numbers of tourist visitors, due to political unrest and terrorism. Since the “Arab Spring” the government has made a great effort to bring back tourism and it is now the most important part of the Egyptian economy. Knowing most Americans are Christians, the locals assumed we were and would greet us saying, “Merry Christmas!”

In the evening, after some afternoon down time, we went to visit the Al-Azhar      Mosque, built in 970 CE by the Islamic Shi-ite Dynasty of the Fatimids who ruled Egypt from the 10th to the 12th centuries.

Al-Azhar Mosque exterior wall

It was intended to be a place of worship and research in Islamic studies and to spread Shi-ite beliefs throughout the Arabian world. However, the Sunni and Shi-i students put their differences aside to create a true symbol of pluralism. It was the first mosque established in Cairo.

Open courtyard with gleaming white marble floors, one of the oldest parts of the mosque

The name is thought to refer to the prophet Muhammed’s daughter, Fatimah, who was given the title az-Zahra (“the shining or resplendent one”). After its dedication in 972, Al-Azhar Mosque developed into what is today the second oldest continuously run university in the world.

Women pray in rooms behind these screens.

Al-Azhar University is regarded as the foremost institution for the study of Sunni theology and sharia, Islamic law. Since 1961, the university has been moved to a modern campus separated from the mosque, which has once again become primarily a place of worship.

We were told to dress modestly and not to wear jeans. Women who had skirts wore them. I wore a new pair of flared pants with a matching shirt. Arriving at the mosque, we were told to put on skirts which were provided to us – plain gray long skirts with elastic waists that we slipped on over our clothes – and head scarves, also provided. The head scarves were much more colorful than the skirts!  We also were to take our shoes off, which meant, I realized with dismay, that I would be barefoot since I had worn my black sandals! The marble floor was cold, but soon we entered into a large carpeted hall.

From the marble courtyard, three of the mosque’s minarets are visible. They were built in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries respectively.

Visitors are allowed to enter the prayer hall adjacent to the courtyard, which was covered with a blue carpet with designs in lines of yellow.

In this prayer hall, men will line up in rows following the yellow lines, facing the direction left of the photo, which is the direction of Mecca. They kneel and touch their heads to the floor in the posture of prayer. Worshippers are called to prayer five times a day, announced through recorded messages read from the Koran from the minarets of every mosque.
Women pray behind screens such as this one. This is to give them privacy to feel at ease for their prayers.

In this hall is a beautiful mihrab, a semi-circular niche carved into the wall of every mosque, to indicate the direction of Mecca. 20181224_192634d
Much of the mosque is closed to tourists, including its magnificent library, which contains volumes that date back as far as the 8th century, the first century of the Islamic religion. However, the areas we were allowed to enter are open all day and admission is free.

Even in just the courtyard and blue carpeted prayer hall were many beautiful things to admire.

light fixture



Ceiling detail and columns


As we left the mosque, we handed back the lent scarves and skirts and in return were given our shoes.

Door detail

Exterior decoration

From the mosque, we walked via Al-Khalili market to the restaurant Nagied Mahfouz  for dinner. Because we had a reservation, our table was all set up for us with plates, silverware, etc. and being Christmas Eve, on each plate they had put a small flashing Santa!
The restaurant décor was beautiful and elegant.

The back of a chair with inlaid mother-of-pearl



Reflection of my wine glass on the polished brass table top
Tables set up for our group, including décor on walls and ceiling, and hanging holiday decorations


Ceiling detail
Silly Dale! He hung our blinking Santas from his ears like earrings!

Historical information regarding Al-Azhar Mosque obtained from: Al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo: The Complete Guide
Wikipedia Al-Azhar Mosque
Memphis Tours – Al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo, Egypt

Next: The Egyptian Antiquities Museum, Coptic Churches and Ben Ezra Synagogue

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