A millennium of Islamic scholarship, and a revolution yet to be completed

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Last time, we left off at the Egyptian desert highway from Alexandria to Giza. The distance between the two cities is only a little over 200 kilometers, and it did not take us long to reach our destination.

Giza is a modern city, and the third-largest one in Egypt. Yet, of course, it is mainly known neither for its modernity, nor for its size, but for its pyramids. As we rode towards the center of the city, the sun still high in the sky, we saw the largest and oldest of Giza’s pyramids, the Pyramid of Khufu, rise on the horizon – amidst the concrete of modern Giza, which suddenly seemed very out of place. The Pyramid of Khufu was built more than 4,500 years ago, and there is still much controversy about the technique of construction that made this remarkable human achievement possible. It was the tallest man-made structure in the world for almost 3,900 years. By way of comparison, the Eiffel Tower in Paris held that title for only 41 years, and the Empire State Building in New York City for 36 years.

Al-Azhar Mosque
Al-Azhar Mosque

We spent the night in our tents on a camping ground not far from the pyramids. The next morning, we headed to Islamic Cairo, a part of central Cairo on the west bank of the Nile, which is home to Cairo’s first mosque, the Al-Azhar Mosque. It was established in 972, and the first Friday prayers there were held on the 22nd of June of that year. Today, the Al-Azhar Mosque is part of the second oldest continuously-run university in the world, after the University of al-Qarawiyyin in the Moroccan city of Fes. Founded as a Shiite institution, Al-Azhar University later became Sunni and is now regarded as one of Sunni Islam’s most prestigious universities. The main subjects of instruction are Islamic law and theology, and the Arabic language, but students at Al-Azhar University also study subjects such as history, medicine, and philosophy. Standing in the reading room and the courtyard of the mosque, pondering the rich and influential history of the place, were experiences I will not forget.

A friendly Cairene took us to the roof of one of the many mosques in the area, from where we immediately came to understand why Cairo is often referred to as “the city of a thousand minarets.” The cityscape is thickly dotted with minarets, from which the Muslims are called to prayer five times a day. The beautiful Arabic voices, slightly out of sync due to the limited speed of sound, conspire to create a mesmerizing atmosphere of peace and spirituality that puts life on hold for a few brief moments.

After our tour of Islamic Cairo, we went to Tahrir Square, where just three months before, in February 2011, hundreds of thousands of protesters had gathered to demand the end of the Mubarak regime and a democratic Egypt. Today, five years later, Mubarak is gone. Sadly, however, democracy and the rule of law are still more of a dream than a reality in Egypt. But make no mistake: Egyptians will not settle, and eventually complete their revolution.

Part 1: From Germany to South Africa: The journey begins
Part 2: A millennium of Islamic scholarship, and a revolution yet to be completed
Part 3: Stories of a time long gone, and Egyptian khichuri
Part 4: An oasis of hospitality in the searing heat of the Nubian Desert
Part 5: The Simien Mountains, and the first hijra in Islam
Part 6: Stranded in the Kenyan desert, and a visit to the land of the Maasai
Part 7: “Welcome to Africa!”
Part 8: Victoria Falls, and free-roaming lions in Botswana
Part 9: South Africa: The Rainbow Nation
Summary: My Germany to South Africa Motorcycle Expedition 2011