A large part of Cairo’s history is engulfed in the alleyways of Sayeda Zeinab, the ancient neighborhood largely shaped by expansions in the Mamluk era.
One of these alleyways is the impoverished and overpopulated Suwaiqat al-Lala. In his most known work, “Al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyya al-Jadida” (Tawfiq’s New Plans), which provides a detailed description of Egypt’s major cities and villages, Ali Mubarak described Suwaiqat al-Lala as an upper-class area, with palaces, mosques, prayer rooms, and fountains.
However, it only became renowned after being mentioned in the puppet operetta, “Al-Layla al-Kabira” (The Grand Night), by Usta Umara from Darb Shakamba, whose fame extends from the citadel to Suwaiqat al-Lala.
Suwaiqat al-Lala is tucked behind the buildings in Port Said Street, a small alley not longer than 270m, connecting al-Hanafy Street — adjacent to Darb al-Hayatem — with Darb al-Jadid Street, which leads directly to Port Said Street. On both sides, there are small adjoining houses that seem old and modest. Some houses have kept the old gates and wooden fronts, as well as ornaments that exude antiquity.
Remains of ancient monuments suggest a hint of a bygone glory to the alley. The small grocery shops and restaurants take us away from modern Cairo to a time before supermarkets. Through the names of the alleys and monuments, we enter the history of the place, the history of urban expansion and changes in Cairo on a smaller scale. It also reveals the ongoing depletion of heritage, and the increasing erosion of the city’s historical monuments.
Children play in the alley, evoking the history of a place that was once inhabited by the upper class, and later by oppressed locals who landed in Suwaiqat al-Lala over five decades ago, after the gentry moved to new neighborhoods. The names of the lanes and alleys preserve an important part of the place’s history, after the decay of its monuments, described by explorers and historians.
The story of Suwaiqat al-Lala
Suwaiqat al-Lala can be traced back to Al-Sett Safiya al-Lala – “Lala” being the Turkish title for a tutor. In Iraqi Alley, in Suwaiqat al-Lala, there is a small mosque called Zawiyat Safiya al-Lala, described in Mubarak’s book as “a ruin renovated by Abd al-Jalil Bey in 1295 AH (1878 AD), who added fountains and a well in it, and established the rituals performed until now. Each year there is a celebration of Lala’s birthday who is buried there.” There is now a new mosque in its place, which carries no resemblance to Mubarak’s description.
The word “suwaiqa” means a small market, or souq, providing fruit and vegetables to the neighborhood residents. Some of the more specialized markets can be found in old Cairo, like Al-Attarin (the spice dealers), Al-Nahassin (the coppersmiths), and Al-Saghah (the gold and jewellery market).
The Shrine of Sidi Mohamed al-Halafawy in Suwaiqat al-Lala, photo by Randa Shaath
There is one shrine in Suwaiqat al-Lala that was not mentioned in Al-Khitat al-tawfiqiyya, the book which provided a description of the houses, mosques, and even named the locals. So perhaps Sidi Mohamed al-Halafawy, whom the shrine is named after, arrived with the area’s new residents. The shrine contains a dried out buckthorn tree, and the street residents believe it weeps every time there is an attempt to cut it. According to Mohamed Mourad, who has been living in a room adjacent to the shrine since 1987, Sidi al-Halafawy used to live in the small market. Fouad, the tailor who has lived in the street since 1956, and Ahmed Gundi, a waiter, claim that Al-Halafawy was one of Sayeda Zainab’s “servants,” and that he accompanied her to Egypt.
In front of the shrine, to the side of Darb al-Jadid Street, there used to be a hammam (Turkish bath) for men and women, founded by Mohamed Effendi. Known among the locals as Sheikh Ali’s Hammam, it was destroyed a few years ago, and is currently an apartment building under construction.
The obscure Daoud Pasha
Daoud Pasha Mosque in Suwaiqat al-Lala, photo by Randa Shaath
The history of Suwaiqat al-Lala started in the 16th century, which is showcased in the longstanding monuments there. The oldest monument is the mosque of Daoud Pasha ibn Abdel Rahman, who was appointed the governor of Egypt by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (Suleiman al-Kanuni) in 945 AH/1538 AD. The construction was completed by Ahmed Bey bin Abdullah in 1554 AD, and in 1941 the mosque lost its rundown minaret, which has not been rebuilt since.
The mosque has a unique structure, without domes, unlike the Ottoman mosques. While it still holds its beautiful colored marble front, with the founding plate attached, its walls have been eroded by humidity, and it is missing some ebony fillings and door knobs. Next to the mosque’s door, a white piece of paper hangs with the name of the mosque printed on it. It seems that the Ministry of Antiquities has completely abandoned the monuments in this small street, with only two remaining: Daoud Pasha Mosque and Kurdi Mosque, which have lost many of their elements. Next to Daoud Pasha Mosque, formerly used as a school, there used to be a marble fountain that no longer exists. In the same street, the Issa al-Kurdi Mosque is found, also called Muharram Effendi mosque. It is considered one of the mosques to exhibit features of many eras: The minaret is of a Mamluk Circassian style, and the rest of the mosque’s architecture is of an ottoman style. Built in 1732 AD, the mosque is currently under renovation.
A two-story house in Suwaiqat al-Lala, ascribed to Daoud Pasha, photo by Randa Shaath
Next to Kurdi Mosque there are remains of an old building that seems like a residence or a complex, with a large gate that has Egypt’s old flag engraved on top of it. The two-story house, overlooking a yard, is rented by many families, each living in one room. “There used to be a third floor, but it collapsed. Everyone here has rented the rooms from Abd al-Kadir Rashid, the representative of Daoud Pasha’s heirs. The house is not listed as an antiquity. I’ve been here since the 70s, and the house could collapse any time, we have no idea what to do or where to go,” says Sayed, one of the tenants.
Sayed keeps a document from the Property Tax Authority, given to him by Abd al-Kader Rashid, who convinced him that this old house belonged to Daoud Pasha. “Daoud Pasha was Jewish, before he converted to Islam. He was a good man, and this used to be his house,” says Ahmed Gundi, one of the old residents of the street. Everyone in Suwaiqat al-Lala agrees that this was Daoud Pasha’s house.
One of Suwaiqat al-Lala’s residents, photo by Randa Shaath
In his book, Taqwim al-Nil (Calendar of the Nile), Amin Pasha speaks of Daoud Pasha, Egypt’s governor from 1538 to 1549: “Daoud Pasha was known for being a eunuch, for he was one of the slaves of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman al-Kanuni. Sheikh Ahmad bin Abd al-Haqq once confronted him by saying: ‘You cannot rule as long as you are a slave, since you have not been freed all your verdicts are null.’ The governor was about to execute him, but the soldiers stopped him taking the side of the Sheikh. After learning of the incident, the sultanate sent the governor an emancipation document with a thank you note to the Sheikh, who was not listed in the government’s salary records back then, and who refused any gifts or grants from the governor. In its letter to the governor, the sultanate emphasized good demeanor with the people, and consultation with the scholars in ruling affairs, as decreed by Islamic Sharia.”
Muhtasab Alley and other alleys
A eunuch, Daoud Pasha had no offspring, and he also never lived in Suwaiqat al-Lala, for Ottoman governors used to stay in Salah al-Din al-Ayouby Citadel. But apparently, Suwaiqat al-Lala was the residence of a muhtasib (auditor), hence the name Muhtasib Alley. Al-Hisba was an important task concerned with auditing markets, and the auditor (muhtasib) used to wear a black suit and a large white conical turban, riding a horse and preceded by a group of escorts carrying a large scale and various weights. A huge procession of soldiers, floggers and servants accompanied him. In expedition books, there are shocking images of auditors who had the ears of cheating merchants nailed to the doors of their shops, or cut part of the cheating butcher’s thighs equal in weight to the piece he took, or forcing the cheating pie maker to sit on his hot pan. Muhtasib Alley used to have an old prayer room, mentioned in Al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiya, containing an engraved marble plate that reads, “This blessed small mosque was revived after ruin by his highness Prince Radwan in 1206 HD.” A new small mosque has replaced the prince’s mosque, and the old plate has disappeared and was replaced by a new one that reads, “Al-Taqwa Mosque.”
Suwaiqat al-Lala was the residence of the elites from the upper class till the time of Khedive Ismail. According to Mubarak’s book, it contained houses with gardens belonging to Prince Aslan Pasha, Prince Hussein Pasha al-Tubjy, and Ibrahim Pasha Adham, who was described by Abd al-Rahman al-Rafei: “He was one of the top competent officers who reinforced the Egyptian artillery. He took charge of military operations and established the House of Citadel Artillery Manufacture, to manufacture weapons and mold canons.” After the rule of Mohamed Ali, Ibrahim Pasha was appointed in many positions, and he was the head of the Schools Department in the Ministry of General Education till the time of Khedive Ismail.
The most famous resident of Suwaiqat al-Lala was the linguist Murtada al-Zubaidi, author of Taj al-Arus min Jawahir al-Qamus (The Bride’s Crown Inlaid with the Jewels of the Qamus). He died of the plague in his house in Suwaiqat al-Lala in 1790 AD. Mubarak mentions that his house was close to Al-Kurdi Mosque at the beginning of the street, and it may be the same place of Sidi Muhamad al-Halafawi’s shrine. Al-Jabarti also mentions that, “Zubaidi’s financial state improved after indexing Taj al-Arus, so he moved in the beginning of 1189 AH from his house in Ghassal Alley, along the line of Suwaiqat al-Muzaffar, to a house in Suwaiqat al-Lala, close to Muharram Effendi Mosque, the neighborhood of the wealthy elites.”
A family living next to Sidi Mohamed al-Halafawi Shrine, photo by Randa Shaath
After Muhtasib Alley we find Madaqq (grinder) Alley, which by its name conveys the presence of a spice and coffee grinder. According to Al-Khitat al-tawfiqiya, it contained Umar Shah’s prayer room, which has disappeared and was replaced by another prayer room called Masjid al-Arba’in.
The last alley in Suwaiqat al-Lala is Marzouq Alley, which used to have a hammam for women known as Marzouq’s Hammam, founded by Hussein Agha Najati. The hammam fell apart completely many years ago.
Up until the late 19th century, the Egyptian Gulf canal cut through Sayeda Zainab, with princes and prestigious state officials living on its banks. With the urban expansion during the rule of Khedive Ismail, state officials moved to new areas, including the mansions of Garden City, Munira, and Ismailiya neighborhoods. The latter turned into a commercial district in the early 20th century, and all the palaces there were destroyed and replaced by European style residential buildings, currently known as the Downtown area. In 1899, when the tramway was built, the Egyptian Gulf canal was filled up and became the street of Port Said, which is when the sweeping changes to the area started. Suwaiqat al-Lala is a small passage in the story of Cairo’s life, which Ibn Batutua described in 1325 AD by saying, “Therein is what you will of the educated and the ignorant, serious and vain, prudent and foolish, humble and intelligent, noble and those of low estate, the unknown and the famous; she surges as the waves of the sea with her throngs of folk and can contain them for all the capacity.”