October 1, 2003
While not as grand and imposing from the outside as others like Sultan Hassan, al-Azhar’s beauty comes from its intricate inside. The main entranceway opens up to a magnificent marble courtyard surrounded by beautifully cared columns. The men at the door may try and charge you to tell you that you must keep your shoes with them, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to. You can carry them yourself if you want. As you proceed across the sun-warmed stones of the courtyard, it is interesting to think that over 1200 years ago, this courtyard was filled with students surrounding a scholar, eager for knowledge, almost 400 years before the first European university. Today, al-Azhar University has expanded around the mosque into other buildings, and today is the center of Islamic studies in the Islamic world, but you can still see remnants of the mosques original function. All around the courtyard, in the shade of the roof, clusters of students and members of the community gather to discuss and debate everything from Islamic theology to current politics.
One of my favorite memories of Cairo is while I was sitting down in al-Azhar one time, four students approached me and started barraging me in Arabic with questions about America and Islam in America. We ended up discussing the topic for an hour. So don’t be surprised if while sitting in al-Azhar you are suddenly approached by some starry-eyed students filled with wonder about where you come from, for that is the spirit of al-Azhar.
The most impressive part of al-Azhar is the inside of the main part of the mosque. Inside, marble columns holding up the low ceiling, grow out of a floor covered with hundreds of red rugs. The main mihrab (the niche that points to way to Mecca) is intricately carved into the wall and inlayed with marbles and woods of various colors. Once inside the best thing to do is just have a seat, lie down for a while, rest, enjoy the cool shade, and take it all in. The mosque doesn’t command the awe of its larger counterparts, but its intricacy is to be admired.
From journal Islamic Cairo: Go beyond the Pyramids