Whoso hath not seen Cairo hath not seen the world. Her dust is golden and her Nile a miracle holden; and her women are as Houris fair; puppets, beautiful pictures; her houses are palaces rare; her water is sweet and light and her mud a commodity and a medicine beyond compare.
The Arabian Nights
Cairo has been the Islamic world’s greatest city since the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258. Egyptians have two names for the city: Masr, meaning both the capital and the land of Egypt (for Egyptians abroad, “Masr” means Egypt, but within the country it means the capital), is a timeless name rooted in pharaonic civilization; the city’s other name, Al-Qahira (The Triumphant), is linked specifically to the Fatimid conquest which made it the capital of an Islamic empire embracing modern-day Libya, Tunisia, Palestine and Syria, but the name is rarely used in everyday speech.
In monumental terms the two names are symbolized by two dramatic landmarks: the Pyramids of Giza at the edge of the Western Desert, and the great Mosque of Mohammed Ali – the modernizer of Islamic Egypt – which broods atop the Citadel. Between these two monuments sprawls a vast city, the colour of sand and ashes, of diverse worlds and epochs and gross inequities. All is subsumed into an organism that somehow thrives in the terminal ward: medieval slums and Art Deco suburbs, garbage-pickers and marbled malls, donkey carts and limos, piousness and what Desmond Stewart calls “the oaths of men exaggerating in the name of God”. Cairo lives by its own contradictions. Its population is today estimated at around twenty million and is swollen by a further million commuters from the Delta and a thousand new migrants every day. An estimated half a million people reside in squatted cemeteries – the famous Cities of the Dead. The amount of green space per citizen has been calculated at thirteen square centimetres, not enough to cover a child’s palm. Whereas earlier travellers noted that Cairo’s air smelt “like hot bricks”, visitors now find throat-rasping air pollution, chiefly caused by traffic.
Cairo’s genius is to humanize these inescapable realities with social rituals. The rarity of public violence owes less to the armed police on every corner than to the dowshah: when conflicts arise, crowds gather, restraining both parties, encouraging them to rant, sympathizing with their grievances and then finally urging “Maalesh, maalesh” (“Never mind”). Everyday life is sweetened by flowery gestures and salutations; misfortunes evoke thanks for Allah’s dispensation (after all, things could be worse). Even the poorest can be respected for piety; in the mosque, millionaire and beggar kneel side by side.
Ancient Memphis, the first capital of pharaonic Egypt, was founded around 3100 BC across the river and to the south, but it was 2500 years before a sister city of priests and solar cults, known to posterity as ancient Heliopolis, flourished on the east bank. It took centuries of Persian, Greek and Roman rule to efface both cities, by which time a new fortified town had developed on the east side. Babylon-in-Egypt was the beginning of the tale of cities that culminates in modern Cairo, the first chapter of which is described under “Old Cairo”.
Babylon’s citizens, oppressed by foreign overlords, almost welcomed the army of Islam that conquered Egypt in 641. For strategic and spiritual reasons, their general, Amr, chose to found a new settlement beyond the walls of Babylon – Fustat, the “City of the Tent”, which evolved into a sophisticated metropolis.
Fatimid and Ayyubid Cairo
Under successive dynasties of caliphs who ruled the Islamic Empire from Iraq, three more cities were founded, each to the northeast of the previous one, which was either spurned or devastated. When the Shi’ite Fatimids took control in 969, they created an entirely new walled city – Al-Qahira – beyond this teeming, half-derelict conurbation. Fatimid Cairo formed the nucleus of the later, vastly expanded and consolidated capital that Saladin left to the Ayyubid dynasty in 1193. But the Ayyubids’ reliance on imported slave-warriors – the Mamlukes – brought about their downfall: eventually, the Mamlukes simply seized power for themselves, ushering in a new era.
Mamluke and Ottoman Cairo
Mamluke Cairo encompassed all the previous cities, Saladin’s Citadel (where the sultans dwelt), the northern port of Bulaq and vast cemeteries and rubbish tips beyond the city walls. Mamluke sultans like Baybars, Qalaoun, Barquq and Qaitbey erected mosques, mausoleums and caravanserais that still ennoble what is now known in English as “Islamic Cairo”. The Islamic Cairo history section relates their stories, the Turkish takeover, the decline of Ottoman Cairo and the rise of Mohammed Ali, who began the modernization of the city.
Under Ismail, the most profligate of Mohammed Ali’s successors, a new, increasingly European Cairo arose beside the Nile – see the “Central Cairo” section. By 1920, the city’s area was six times greater than that of medieval Cairo, and since then its residential suburbs have expanded relentlessly.
When revolution hit Egypt during the Arab Spring of 2011, Cairo was of course its epicentre, with events in Tahrir Square in particular an inspiration for the entire Arab world. Most of the events of that revolt played out in the square, on 6th October Bridge, and in the streets of Qasr al-Aini, in particular around the Interior Ministry, whose control was vital to the military in their bid to rein in the revolution and cling onto power.