Monday, May 17, 2010

Qalawun Complex and Sufi Dancers at the Khan

I ran out of steam the last few days that Amanda was here. We’ve been running around like crazy the past three weeks or so and it’s gotten so darn hot. Like on Sunday it was 117°F (47°C). That’s a little warm…at least, I think.

Saturday wasn’t terribly hot, though we barely managed to get out of the house by noon. We wandered around Dar es-Salaam for a while then headed back to the apartment to get the girls settled before I took off for the evening. Andrew stayed at home with Rachel and Miriam while I took Amanda and Josie to the Khan to watch the Sufi dancers.

We debated taking the metro and walking from there but at this point we were all still so sore from going inside the pyramid that we opted for the relative comfort of a cab ride and got to the Khan much earlier than expected. I led Josie and Amanda to Midaq Alley, which was alive and bustling with patrons.

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Well, perhaps not bustling. It is far too hot for any bustling, but people were lounging around drinking tea, smoking shisha, and playing backgammon.

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After finding Midaq Alley we still had too much time on our hands before the show started so we wandered around the Khan for a while.

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After wandering around for a while we found ourselves standing in front of the Qalawun Complex, quite near the Sabil-Kuttab of Katkhuda, and, much to my surprise, it was open. We have wandered past it so many times and it has always been closed. It was first closed in 2000 for renovations, but other times we tried to get in we were told they were filming inside and another time we were told something else. They always had excuses. We have tried to sneak in on more than one occasion and were consistently thwarted in our efforts.

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When I noticed that people appeared to be visiting the complex I got a little excited about it. Amanda and Josie both were less excited since they had already been when they went on an Islamic Cairo tour with Jaehee earlier in the week. I dragged them inside, anyway.

The madrassa was fairly typical but easily falls on the more ornate side of ordinary.

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My favourite part of the madrassa was the back courtyard. I’m not sure why. It just had a unique view of the mausoleum and minarets that we usually see from the street, I suppose.

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What’s impressive is that the entire complex—comprising of a madrassa (school), mausoleum, and maristan (hospital)—was apparently built in only 13 months. I did the math and I’m still confused. To quote from Wikipedia, “the complex was begun in 1285 by the Mongol Sultan Kitbuqa, who ruled only briefly, and was completed by al-Nasir in 1304.” Now, call me crazy, but I see a span of approximately two decades in there, which is substantially longer than 13 months. Is it possible that Ali Pasha Mubarak made an error in his Khitat? Or perhaps I am figuring the dates incorrectly. If the complex really was completed in 13 months it must have been quite a feat because the mausoleum is amazing.

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Sunlight was streaming through beautiful stained glass windows dancing red, blue, orange, and green lights across the marble floors and pillars.

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And every surface was absolutely dripping with lacey geometric motifs or gold plating.

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After vowing to return again with Andrew I was able to peel myself away from Qalawun in order to make our way to the Wikala of al-Ghouri for the Sufi dancing. We got there plenty early and enjoyed some pastries in the street while watching the feral dogs and cats run around.

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The doors open at 6:30 and we got there at around 6:10. We ended up getting seats on the third row and sat there for two whole hours while we waited for the show to start. It was a long wait, but worth it. The show is amazing—it has definitely moved from the “sacred” to the “spectacular” and the routine the troupe has worked out is a showpiece if I’ve ever seen one. Still, it is interesting to watch, and, having seen “actual” whirling dervishes, I can see that they still have some traditional elements in their show.

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I was thrilled to see that the older gentleman was back with the finger cymbals. He seems to be the backbone of the show and everyone seems to perform with more gusto when he’s on stage. The audience responds to him very well. He just does a fantastic job.

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Just for kicks I timed the spinners this time. The first dancer was spinning for just over 23 minutes. He was very expressive.

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The next set of dancers were spinning for approximately 15 minutes. I stopped timing when the dancers stopped twirling in circles even though they continued to twirl and toss their skirts for several minutes after that.

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When the performance ended half the audience sat around in stunned, muted silence for a while before filing out the door. It is a fabulous show but so incredibly loud.

We caught a taxi home and were greeted at the door by none other than…Bridget! Yes, yes, Hotel Heiss lives on.


  1. Amazing pictures and comments, Nancy.
    I have to go to Egypt. When will you be back? :)

  2. Lucky--I've still never been in the Qalawun complex. I've also never been to the Islamic Art Museum--have you guys tried to go there? Another perpetual reconstruction project.

  3. Still closed. They say they'll be done in two years. Um, yeah right.