Image by Mekhamer Photography Getty Images
Founded in AD 970 as the centrepiece of the newly created Fatimid city, Al Azhar is one of Cairo’s earlier mosques, and its sheikh is considered the highest theological authority for Egyptian Muslims. The building is a harmonious blend of architectural styles, the result of numerous enlargements over more than 1000 years. The tomb chamber, located through a doorway on the left just inside the entrance, has a beautiful mihrab (a niche indicating the direction of Mecca) and should not be missed.
The central courtyard is the earliest part, while from south to north the three minarets date from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries; the latter, with its double finial, was added by Sultan Al Ghouri, whose mosque and mausoleum stand nearby.
A madrassa was established here in AD 988, growing into a university that is the world’s second-oldest educational institution (after the University of Al Kairaouine in Fez, Morocco). At one time the university was one of the world’s preeminent centres of learning, drawing students from Europe and all over the Islamic empire. The large modern campus (due east) is still the most prestigious place to study Sunni theology.
Although visitors could still enter, Al Azhar was undergoing restoration at the time of research – with the minarets masked in scaffolding and sections of the mosque blocked off. Work seemed to be going full steam ahead, which means hopefully it should all be finished by the time you're in town.