At the most basic level, Egyptian history can be divided into three different periods: Pharaonic Egypt (3100-331 BC), the Egypt of the Pyramids, Sphinx and hieroglyphics; Greco-Roman Egypt (331 BC-AD 640), when Egypt was a part of greater Mediterranean Empires; and Arab/Islamic Egypt (AD 640-), after the Arab conquest and the introduction of Islam. Each of these periods has a geographical focal point in the Cairo of today. For the pharaohs, it is Giza, now suburb of Cairo in which the most famous of the Pyramids and the Sphinx reside, not far from the ancient capital of Memphis. The most concentrated reminders of the Roman and Christian eras are in so-called “Old Cairo,” or Coptic Cairo, where numerous churches (and one synagogue) are crammed into a district that was once the site of a Roman fortification called Babylon, with parts of its towers still standing.
But Giza is just a necropolis and Babylon just a fort and cluster of religious sites. Neither was necessarily destined to grow into the great metropolis and center of culture that Cairo is today. However ancient and lasting the pharaonic and Christian legacies are to modern Egypt as a whole, Cairo as Umm ad-Dunya, or Mother of the World, was a creation of the Arab era. This Cairo is best represented by Islamic Cairo, the name given to the medieval eastern half of the modern city.
To give you a sense of the scope of Islamic Cairo, Lonely Planet, not a guidebook known for its erudition or the depth of its recommended sightseeing, suggests three full days of walks in Islamic Cairo alone. Islamic Cairo stretches from the Citadel of Saladin in the south to the northern city walls, a walk of hours. I assumed the architectural legacy that must remain from being an Islamic capital for hundreds of years to be superb, but Cairo has even surpassed my expectations. The sights, sounds and feel of Islamic Cairo rival and in some ways surpass those of Damascus, a city I hold in the highest regard (see post of 4.7).
The chronologically first, and southernmost, site of Islamic Cairo is fittingly close to the Old Cairo of the Copts. The Mosque of Amr ibn al-As, first built in AD 642 just two years after the Arab conquest, began as an encampment, or “Fustat”, of the Arab generals who took Egypt from the Byzantine Empire.
Mosque of Amr ibn al-As. As in Syria, mosques in Egypt are not necessarily grim, austere places but public spaces for even mundane activities, such as napping. The numerous nappers at the Amr ibn al-As Mosque reminded me of the time I saw a movie at a Midtown New York theater during office hours, with what seemed to be a bunch of white collar workers playing hooky.
Mosque of ibn Tulun, founded AD 879. The spiral minaret is intended to resemble the minaret of the nearly contemporary Samarra mosque in now Iraq, whence ibn Tulun came to Egypt as a governor of the Abbasid caliphate. Well into the first several hundred years of Arab rule, much of Egypt remained Egyptian (as opposed to Arab) and Christian. Over time, Arabic linguistic and ethnic identity, along with the Islamic faith, filtered through into the masses. Today, almost everyone in Egypt identifies as an Arab and around 90% are Muslim.
Cairo’s true greatness, however, was sealed in AD 969, when the Ismaili Fatimids founded al-Qahira (“The Conquerer”) as its capital. The Fatimid dynasty (see post of 7.13) did not last long, being crushed by Saladin in the twelfth century, but its foundations form the core of modern Cairo.
The Al Azhar Mosque and University, founded in AD 971, is the oldest and most famous center of Islamic Studies in the world, spreading what is a moderate version of the religion.
Malay student, Al Azhar. While we were at Al Azhar we met students from all over the Islamic world, from Malaysia to Iran to Bosnia.
Saladin’s Citadel, rising above Islamic Cairo
Building on the Fatimid accomplishments was the slave warrior ruling class of the Mamelukes, who founded an empire based in Cairo that ruled much of Egypt and the Levant. The Mamelukes earned their place in history not least for turning back the Mongols and thereby helping to prevent the spread of the Mongol Empire further west. The Mamelukes were overwhelmed by the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, but not before building a series of mosques that rival any place of worship in the world for beauty and majesty.
Interiors of Mameluke-era mosques
Although not quite as dazzling as the most beautiful of Damascus’s old houses, several old houses in Islamic Cairo have been refurbished, including Beit al-Khatoun, a house dating to Ottoman times.
The Pyramids are great, yes, but it is Islamic Cairo that drew us back to appreciate its countless monuments, its medieval atmosphere and the friendliness of its residents. In a country infamous for the harassment of tourists [some posts to come], Islamic Cairo offers travelers opportunities to experience a semblance of authentic Egyptian life and genuine hospitality–friendly curiosity and conversation not always motivated by profit. So come for the Pyramids–most people do. Even feel free to “hate Cairo,” as more than one traveler we met exclaimed–but don’t do it before spending at least a day wandering Islamic Cairo.
Outside the walls of the Al Azhar
Along Al-Muizz Li-Din Allah Street, Islamic Cairo
Market Street, Islamic Cairo