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Cairo's Historic Cemetery of al-Suyuti Conflicting Claims.


The listed monument inscribed with the name Nawruz Kihkya al-Jawishiyya and the date 941/1534 is now known as the shrine of Shaykh Rayhan. Older maps show that the shrine had been located in an enclosure adjacent to this monument, and the perceptual shift of Rayhan to the Nawruz Maqsura seems to have happened after the mid 20th century, probably by the turabi to replace it with a hawsh and sell it. Rayhan is known for the power or karama of healing children. In the 1930s Hasan Qasim identified this shrine as that of Sana & Thana (two mythical sisters and descendants of the prophet mentioned in the late medieval ziyara (visitation) books. During the last two years, this identification was adopted and the shrine is now signposted as such in the shrine and publicized in the neighbouring mosque of al-Sayyida A’isha.

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The name of Rayhan has been directly linked to two of this cemetery’s key buildings and indirectly linked to a third. Monument no. 297, which is identified in its foundation inscription as the Ottoman maqsura of Nawruz Kikhya al-Jawishiyya, seems to have been known popularly as Iwan Rayhan and is identified as such in Egyptian Survey maps and the monuments list of the first half of the 20th century. Yet now, popular culture has it that al-Shaykh Rayhan is buried in a nondescript hawsh - with no cenotaph - that lies two hawshs north of the Nawruz/Rayhan monument. To further complicate matters, another shrine in the neighbourhood, that of Shaykh ‘Abata, houses the grave of Zaynab, the wife of ‘Abata, and the daughter of another Rayhan, whose full name is Ibrahim Rayhan. However, the general consensus is that Ibrahim Rayhan has nothing to do with this Shaykh Rayhan.

In all cases, it has not been possible to find out any information about the life of Rayhan, who he was, or when he lived. In fact, he could simply be a mythical figure to which posthumous karamas have been attributed.

Myth and Ritual

The current belief (as explained by Hani Sa’dun, the area’s turabi) relates the shrine of Shaykh Rayhan to two other woman saints, Sana and Thana which he claims are also buried there. Sana and Thana are said to be descents of Sayyida ‘A’isha and they are the most popular shrine in the space – although they are still fairly unknown. The turabi also mentioned that there used to be a marker with a green turban, but the owners of the hawsh removed it, because “it caused them problems”. It is true that there is a broken sign inside the hawsh with the name Rayhan on it and that no physical signage exists today to help the visitor identify it as a sacred spot.  Calligraphic graffiti gives directions to Sana wa Thana, but that too is makeshift and not very visible. Sana wa Thana are mentioned in the Mamluk ziyara books but are said to be descendants of Ja’far al-Sadiq and the location of their shrine is, according to these books, in the vicinity of al-Shafi’i, close to the shrine of al-Mazni (mn. 672). It seems their shrine was re-identified as this one based on the words of a modern religious scholar who had read the ziyara books and wrongly deduced that this is where they were buried – according to the mother of the turabi, this happened around 2005. He is also said to have put a sign up in the neighbouring Sayyia ‘A’isha mosque encouraging people to visit the shrine. This resulted in renewed, yet still faint, interest in the shrine. This unknown enthusiast, in turn, probably based his deduction on the identification of this shrine as such, in the annotations of Hasan Qasim to his edition of al-Sakhawi’s Tuhfat al-Ahbab. Al-Sakhawi wrote this description of the cemetery in the late 15th century, and Hasan Qasim edited it and had it published in the 1930s.

As for the karamas of Rayhan, his shrine was said to cure childhood problems such as retarded speech or walking, stunted growth, or epilepsy. The shrine would be visited 3 Fridays in a row and the child would be left there during the call for Friday prayer. A more dramatic version of this story - in which the mother of the turabi claimed to have personally witnessed the transformation of an 18 year old with stunted growth (called maskhut in popular Egyptian Arabic) into a fully grown teenager - is that the child dies, if he is not cured after the 3 days. This custom, however, seems to have been forgotten and is not longer practiced. In another version told by a cemetery resident (of Nasim Hawsh), it is Sana wa Thana, not Rayhan that are the source of blessing. In both stories, the shrine is said to be popular with foreigners (Kuwaitis in the case of the turabi story and Hindus (sic.) in the case of the resident’s story).

Finally there is a general belief that this whole enclosure (which includes Rayhan and the monuments of Sudun, al-Sawabi and Nawruz witnesses the appearance of ‘ifrits at night.


The space, as it is today is a simple square shaped structured roofed with wooden beams. An iron gate leads into the interior which is devoid of cenotaphs. One marble plaque attached to the wall commemorates the burial of ‘Aliyya ‘Ali Husayn in 1992. This may substantiate the claims of some members of the community that all ritual markers were removed by the turabi to enable him to resell it as a normal graveyard.


Al-Sakhawi, Abu’l-Hasan Nur al-Din `Ali, Tuhfat al-ahbab wa bughyat al-tullab fi’l-khitat wa’l-mazarat wa’l-tarajim wa’l-biqa` al-mubaraka, ed. M. Rabi`& H. Qasim (Cairo, 1937).

Rizq, Asim.  Aṭlas al-‘imara al-islamiya wa-al-qibṭiya bil-qahira (Cairo, 2003) Vol. 4/1, pp.101-108.