“You say you like photography and you like taking unusual shots, have you ever seen that mosque on the mountain?” asked my fiancé long time ago, we were driving on one of Cairo’s busiest highways –The Auto Strad- and I looked up towards the Mokattam mountain on the side of the road, “yes, that white small mosque up there, I have seen it many times” I answered, “and it’s found in almost every tourism guide to old Cairo”.
“No”, she said, “ not that white, I mean that other mosque which seems to be engraved in the heart of the mountain itself, look there, can you see it?” she asked pointing at what was actually the remains of a very old mosque in camouflage with its colors simulating the mountain rocks, I looked back and for the first time in my life I saw what’s left of that old mosque, I have lived in Cairo most of my adult life (around 20 years), I am Egyptian and have passed by that mountain almost everyday yet I have never noticed that mosque – I call it the “Lost Mosque”!!
“And how did you know about it?” I asked. “My dad showed it to me once” she answered. I asked if she could tell me its story, “Well, I have no idea” she answered, “but I believe it makes a very interesting assignment for your photography practice” she said with a smile, not knowing back then how right she was.
Since that day I have never stopped thinking and asking about that mosque –The Lost Mosque-, to my surprise very few people have ever noticed it and no one knew its history or real story, not even people living very close to it.
Accepting the challenge, I took a taxi one winter day and headed to the Lost Mosque, my first visit was short but beneficial, I got to know the only way to get close to the mosque is through the old cemeteries on the road side and for the record cemeteries in Cairo are not only the place for the dead but also poor families live there; you can see kids playing and running around, couples whispering and old people sitting around corners just staring at the horizon, but beware because cemeteries can be a dangerous place harboring wanted criminals and junkies who can simply slaughter you for money (not to mention my camera which they know is expensive).
I had to hide -that day- and be cautious especially that I carried a tripod, the taxi driver helped me hide and take my first few shots (the first shots of that mosque published online) and to get good shots I had to climb a relatively high tomb stone (which was another risk because people there might think it is a violation of the privacy of the dead).
One other problem I faced was security issues; sometimes in Cairo –if you are a local- you may need a some sort of a police permit to take photos in sites not known to be of touristic importance, which shows us how that mosque is not on the map of active touristic sites, the reason you might be stopped by the police is the rising threat of terrorist attacks. In the end I managed to take my first shots and ran away staying low.
But that quick visit was just the beginning, a few weeks later I went there again with my driver on an amateur expedition to explore the lost mosque, we parked and went inside the cemeteries on foot, first we found some kids paying in front of their house (which is actually a part of the graveyard) and saw an old woman sitting and watching over them in her glasses, she is their grandma.
she didn't want her face or children's in the photo and I respected that.
We stopped by and after inviting us to tea (which is known sign of welcoming and hospitality), we asked her about the mosque; "it's the mosque of Aga Shaheen" she answered, "you can not go up there, there is no access anymore, only young strong guys can climb like monkeys till they reach it" she went on explaining "but I had been up there some 50 years ago and I remember standing in one of the windows and looking upon all of Cairo underneath me", "and what's up there mother?" I asked, "there used to be some old books but nothing is left, I had some of those books but people kept borrowing them and they never returned any", she said in disappointment, "but whatever you do if you manage to go up; never go in the dark room, never!" she warned us, "but why mother?" we asked in excitement like kids listening to their grandma around the fire in a cold winter night, "years ago, my late husband tried to know what's inside, he raised a long stick, inserted it in the passage to the room and moved it around, we heard some noise, noticed some objects moving in the dark and all of a sudden the stick was just taken up, like it was sucked and we never seen it again", she answered leaving us with our mouths opened.
We thanked her and moved on looking for our local guide and hoping to be lucky enough to enter the lost mosque which name is not like what the old woman told us, but as per the references and documents the name is "Al Lou' Lou'a" mosque the words means the Pearl).
Few minutes later we finally met our local resident of the cemeteries who lives there with his family, we were told he is the best one to be our guide and to help us climb the mountain till we reach the mosque, he didn't want his face clear in the shot either; mainly worried about press and police issues.
After giving him a cigarette to ease him into talking to us, he finally started talking with caution " I will tell you the truth because you seem like good people" he said "yes, people used to go up there but a few years ago the building people used to climb on to reach the only access to the mountain collapsed and the ambulance actually took some of them badly injured, there you can see the collapsed ceiling" he pointed ahead, "and for things to get even worse, the police took down all other possible passages and rocks that could lead up to the mosque after knowing that some thieves used to climb up and dig for buried treasures", he explained "beware because if the police notices anyone up there now they will take him down" he raised a warning finger.
"Anyway, there is still one way but it's real dangerous and I can't take you, I am getting older for this" he said, "but my son, is young and strong he can take you up but you need to cope up with him and please be extremely careful".
He called his 18 years old son and introduced us asking him to take us around and help us climb up the mountain till we reach the mosque, "they're just going to take some photos, don't worry" he told the young man, he wished us good luck and left us in the good hands of his son and in the unmerciful hands of our worries about our safety in the trip few steps away.
Our young guide took us through the last gate of the cemeteries after which we started climbing, he is 80% deaf and that added a serious risk in case we wanted to call him for any reason we would have to actually touch him some how to get his attention, this is no problem under normal conditions but a serious risk when you using all your limbs to hang on to the rocks or at least three of them and holding the camera with your fourth and kindly note that it was an amateur expedition and we had no tools and no experience in such a thing what so ever. Anyway, we kept climbing to that point where I believed I was compromising my safety and the safety of my driver and guide, I asked them to stop! we started our cautious descent during which I never stopped shooting and we finally reached the ground again safe. We thanked the guide and left, it was a long but a wonderful day and I hope my effort is worth a while. Thanks and kindly check the website I developed for the mosque and let me know your feedback: www.lostmosque.com