Sufism in Cairo

The Hussein mosque in one of Cairo's main square is one of the holiest in the country - take a look inside and encased in a silver casket is the head of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammad (though as the Lonely Planet points out, a mosque in Iraq alleges it has the same head of Hussein.)

Men enter in the main door, women at the side, and the mosque is completely divided in two. The same guidebook says non-Muslims can’t enter, but I’ve never heard of anyone being turned away. The men’s section is spacious and calm, while the day I entered the women’s section, it was full of kids and picnics, and women ululating by the casket, which is visible from both quarters.

On Fridays, the columns out the front of the Hussein mosque bloom into beautiful umbrellas to shield worshippers from the hot summer sun.

The area around Midan Hussein is also a hotbed for Sufism, a tearaway arm of Islam that most people know through whirling dervishes, the religious twirling to rhythmic chanting in a bid to enter a trance-like state to get closer to God.

A troupe of Sufi dancers perform three times a week in the Wikalat Sultan al-Guhria, a caravanserai (doss house for travellers) that dates from 1504AD in Islamic Cairo. The sufis wear full-circle skirts (tannoura in classical Arabic) while a singer cries over a blisteringly loud band of drums, rebaba (a two-stringed violin from Upper Egypt) and the strident clarinet-like instrument, the nay, which is said to date back to Pharonic times.


Meanwhile, as the six men (it's all men) in white skirts spin and whirl for up to half an hour, a seventh, in the middle, wears brightly coloured skirts. At different points, he peels off layers of his skirts, a jacket, and holds aloft a flag with Allah's name written on it.

Be warned: like all Egyptian music, which has just two levels, off and 10, it's seriously loud. It's ear-splittingly loud and it's mesmerising.

Details: Al-Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troup, free admission, Mon, Wed, Sat 8.30pm.

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