City Of The Thousand Minarets

By Fr David Warren SFM

The author is a member of the Scarboro Foreign Missionary Society (, founded in Canada in 1918. He worked in the Philippines for many years, in the Diocese of Maasin, Southern Leyte, and in San Carlos Major Seminary, Cebu City.

I didn’t need an alarm clock in Cairo. Before sunrise each morning, I was awakened by the call to prayer as it sounded forth from the minaret or tower of the nearby mosque. Allah Akbar! (God is Great!) it would begin. In fact, five times each day the call to prayer would sound forth.

In 2001 I began to learn about Islam. I read books about Islam and I met individual Muslims – including and especially the kind Muslim gentleman who tutored me for a year in the language of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an. But I wanted to experience life in a Muslim country.

The opportunity came to me through Father Douglas May, a Maryknoll priest from the United States who lives and works in Egypt. Each year Father May runs a course in the English language for the students of the Catholic Coptic Seminary in Cairo. He recruits native English speakers from North America to work with him. I applied and was accepted as one of the teachers for this year’s course. From June 12 until July 12 I lived in Cairo.

I felt some fear about going to Egypt. I was aware of the recent bombing at Sharm el-Sheik and the increasing power of the Muslim Brother-hood. But, once I arrived in Egypt, my fears were quickly dispelled. I found the Egyptians to be a friendly people. I also found them to be quite solicitous towards foreigners like myself. On the subway they would invite me to take an empty seat. Once when I was looking for a street in downtown Cairo, a young man who saw me looking around stopped to help me.

I went to Egypt because I wanted to experience life in a Muslim country. Officially, Egypt is not an Islamic state. But ninety per cent of Egypt’s seventy-two million people are Muslim. In the West, religion tends to be a private affair. In Egypt religion is very public. I have already referred to the call to prayer which sounds forth from the mosques five times a day. But on the subway I would see a good number of men reading the Qur’an. In the late afternoons I would go for a walk and I would see men with their prayer beads. I would pass a security guard who would be chanting the Qur’an all by himself.

The Islamic character of Egypt is apparent from the way women dress. Almost all Muslim women wear long dresses and the hijab (veil). A few even wear the burqu’ which covers everything except the eyes. The first two cars on the subway are for women only. (I’m glad someone told me that before I got onto the wrong car!) The Islamic character of Egypt is also apparent in the relative absence of alcohol. There are shops which are licensed to sell alcoholic beverages, but few eating places serve alcohol. Islam also prohibits the eating of pork. Sausages in Egypt are made from beef and not pork.

My most memorable experience in Egypt occurred one evening in El-Azhar Park which overlooks the city of Cairo. The sun had just set in the west and the evening call to prayer began to rise from every minaret in Cairo. Allah Akbar! The call to prayer blotted out every other sound in the city. At that moment I understood why Cairo is called the ‘City of the Thousand Minarets’. At that moment I also felt the enduring power of Islam and the need to know it better.

You may write Father Warren at: Scarboro Missions, 2685 Kingston Rd, SCARBOROUGH, ON, CANADA M1M 1M4 
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