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Massimo Campanini, Farha Ghannam
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The capital of Egypt and the largest city in both the country and the Middle East, Cairo was founded in 969 CE by the Shīʿī Ismāʿīlī dynasty, the Fāṭimids. Its name in Arabic is al-Qāhirah, “the victorious,” in commemoration of the conquest of Egypt by the Fāṭimids. Located in the Nile Delta in the northeastern part of Egypt, Cairo’s landscape and history have been shaped by the Pharaohs, Arabs, Ottomans, Mamluks, French, British, and more recently by Italian, German, Canadian, and American architects and planners.

The Medieval City.

The place where the capital rose was north of both the Byzantine fortress of Babylon and the first Arab settlement in the Nile Valley, the camp city of al-Fustāt. When in 642 CE the Arab army led by ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ invaded Egypt, the first city was founded in a strategic place where it was easy to dominate Lower Egypt. The first mosque in Africa was erected, the ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ mosque, later enlarged many times and enriched by a minaret. Al-Fustāt, called Old Cairo today, remained the capital of Egypt for three centuries; it was a cosmopolitan city inhabited by Muslim Arabs, Copts, and Jews. Today, visitors can find the oldest churches and synagogues in all of Cairo in al-Fustāt, near the ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ mosque

The famous Cairo Jewish Genizah was an important commercial center for many decades and the documents kept in its archives are an essential source of knowledge of the medieval history of the Mediterranean world. During the Ṭūlūnid dynasty (868–905 CE), a great mosque was built on the outskirts of al-Fustāt, the Ibn Ṭūlūn mosque, characterized by a wide central court and a minaret similar to that of the great caliphal mosque of Sāmarrāʿ. This remained the central (congregational) mosque, while the sulṭān erected his palatine complex far from the urban center. This precedent was followed by the Fāṭimids when they conquered Egypt in 969 CE. Thus, the first nucleus of al-Qāhirah was built far away from al-Fustāt, similar to Madīnat al-Salām (Baghdad) built by the ʿAbbāsids, which was a city founded to host the court.

The Fāṭimid city was encircled by walls, and delimited by two monumental doors, Bāb al-Futūḥ in the north and Bāb Zuwaylah in the south. The Muʿizz li-Dīn Allāh Road runs in a straight line from Bāb al-Futūḥ to Bāb Zuwaylah and is lined with mosques and other buildings on each side. Along this road, the Fāṭimid caliphs celebrated their military with gala parades.

The Fāṭimid caliphs enriched their city with at least two important mosques: al-Azhar and al-Ḥākim. The first was built immediately after the foundation of the city, the second by the controversial caliph al-Ḥākim bīʿAmr Allāh (996–1021 CE). Al-Azhar is considered by many to be the most important mosque in Cairo. It was the congregational mosque of the Ismāʿīlī dynasty and the center of their education. When Egypt returned to Sunnī rule, al-Azhar was converted to Sunnī education and kept its prestige as the most important center of religious education in the Sunnī world. Al-Ḥākim mosque, very simple in its architectural lines, remains a well-known place of worship for Ismāʿīlī Muslims. Another important mosque, revered by both Sunnīs and Shīʿah, is Sayyidnā Ḥusayn's mosque, located in front of al-Azhar.

The Fāṭimid dynasty was replaced by the Sunnī Ayyūbids. The founder and most prominent Ayyūbid sulṭān was the famous Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn (Saladin; r. 1169–1193 CE) who built the Citadel, a complex of fortifications, barracks, and religious buildings. His aim was to concentrate political and military authority and separate it from the city itself

Following Ayyūbid rule, Cairo underwent a deep transformation with the Sunnī Mamlūks (1250–1517 CE), the slave dynasty that changed the face of the city. Under the Mamlūks, Cairo was one of the most important centers of Sunnī Islam, both politically and intellectually. The Mamlūks were munificent builders. Their sulṭāns and military chiefs filled Cairo with hundreds of mosques, religious schools (madrasahs), and mausoleums. Thus, Cairo became the “city of a thousand minarets.” One of the most magnificent buildings was Sulṭān Ḥasan's Mosque and madrasah, built below the Citadel. It was a mosque where all the four “orthodox” Sunnī juridical schools were represented. The Mamlūks did not restrict themselves to religious architecture, however. For instance, in 1284 CE Sulṭān Qalāwūn built a hospital (māristān) organized with medical wards, a pharmacy, and four thousand beds to serve the public. The Qalāwūn hospital is still in operation today. Arriving in Cairo in 1382 CE, the historian Ibn Khaldūn wrote:

"Cairo: metropolis of the world, garden of the universe, ant-nest of humankind, wonder of Islam, seat of power. Innumerable buildings are standing therein; religious schools (madrasahs) and Ṣūfī monasteries (khanāqāt) flourish everywhere; as bright stars, the scholars shine therein. The city extends on the borders of the Nile—river of Paradise, granting to all people abundance and prosperity. I walked in its streets: people crowd them, the markets are swarming with all kinds of goods. (Ibn Khaldūn, Le Voyage d’Occident et d’Orient (Travel in the West and in the East), edited by A. Cheddadi, Paris 1995, pp. 148–149)."

The Modern City.

During the Ottoman period (1517–1805 CE) Cairo remained unchanged in its main nucleus, although a few boroughs were organized anew: Būlāq along the Nile north of al-Qāhirah, and Ḥusaynīyah, outside Bāb al-Futūḥ, from where the caravans for the pilgrimage to Mecca left. Urban planning became a priority during Khedive Ismāʿīl's reign (1863–1879 CE). Ismāʿīl, Muḥammad ʿAlī's grandson, wanted to Europeanize the city. He ordered the demolition of wide areas in order to separate the ancient nucleus from the new residential and administrative quarters. Large new thoroughfares, like Parisian boulevards, were opened and four connective points between the ancient and the modern urban webs were singled out: Bāb al-Ḥadīd Square, al-Ezbekīyah Square (near the Opera house), ʿAbdīn square (where the royal palace still stands), and Sayyidah Zaynab Square just outside the old borough of Ibn Ṭūlūn. Ismāʿīl's transformations gave Cairo the shape it has today.

Under Ismāʿīl, the now famous Tahrir Square was also created. Ismāʿīl borrowed heavily from European countries to materialize his plans, which mainly focused on the Western part of the city and included the construction of parks, roads, bridges, an opera house, and residential palaces and villas for European dignitaries. Burdened by heavy debts and attractive for its rich natural resources, including the Suez Canal, Egypt fell under direct British control between 1882 and 1922. The British viewed Egypt as an investment and an opportunity to generate revenues to pay back European creditors, maintain control over the Suez Canal, and open Egypt as a market for British products. They invested in improving roads, bridges, and transportation systems, and the population of Cairo increased drastically during this period. The increase was partially due to the arrival of foreigners such as Greek, French, Italian, Swiss, and English businessmen and entrepreneurs, who came searching for new opportunities and enjoyed special privileges. Under British rule, the split between the eastern (old part of Cairo) and western parts (where most expatriates resided) of Cairo became more pronounced. While the western side was expanding and flourishing, the eastern side was largely neglected. Cairo also expanded to the north when a Belgian businessman spearheaded a plan to build a new community called Heliopolis. The British continued to exert great influence on Egypt until the early 1950s, when a national government, led by the Free Officers, replaced the monarchy. The city was the forefront in the resistance for national independence.

Despite the devastation caused to the city by the 1952 fire, when protests erupted after the killing of 50 Egyptian policemen at the hands of the British forces and protestors burned hundreds of buildings including shops, cafes, restaurants, movie theaters, and the opera house, Cairo continued to thrive and became an important political center for Africa, the Arab world, and the Middle East. Under the socialist policies of Nasser, who became Egypt’s second post-independence president after overthrowing the monarchy in 1952, the government developed the city’s infrastructure, promoted large industrial areas (such as the iron and steel complex in Helwan), and offered several public housing options for different social groups. In line with his open-door policies (infitah), Sadat (who, following Nasser’s death, ruled Egypt from 1970 until 1981) sought to modernize and Westernize Cairo. This process was central to his attempts to attract capital, promote private investments, and appeal to tourists. Hotels, restaurants, office space, and extravagant residential areas were constructed with heavy Western architectural influence, especially around the attractive area on the Nile banks. The remaking of Cairo’s spaces and image included the displacement of what were viewed as “undesirable” populations from the city center and the areas overlooking the Nile.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Egyptian expatriates, who worked mainly in oil-producing countries, sent back remittances that contributed to the construction boom and the rapid expansion of Cairo. The “New Towns Program” was established in 1977, which promoted the building of desert towns (such as the Sixth of October and the Tenth of Ramadan) along the eastern and western sides of Cairo. This was touted as the solution to the capital city’s massive overpopulation problem. Most of these cities however failed to attract the expected number of residents.

Mubarak (who, following Sadat’s assassination, ruled Egypt from 1981 until 2011) continued Sadat’s liberal policies. Under Mubarak, Cairo experienced a shrinking role of the state in offering basic services, an increase in socio-economic inequalities, high rates of unemployment, a growing emphasis on consumption, and massive urban expansion. His government paid special attention to improving Cairo’s defective infrastructure. The metro system, a major change, became an efficient and quick way to connect different parts of Cairo. Attempts to beautify the city continued and a ring road, flyovers, and bridges were created to facilitate the circulation of people and vehicles. During the 1990s, “gated communities” started spreading around Cairo to enable the rich to escape Cairo’s noise, pollution, overcrowding, and burdened infrastructure. These settlements offered integrated communities with entertainment, shopping, sports, medical, and educational facilities. During the 1990s, shopping malls also became visible in Cairo, and were attractive investments and sites of consumption.

Informal settlements (ʿashwaiyyat, literally “random”) started emerging in the 1960s and referred to areas that were not created by government planners and officials but were designed and constructed by residents and local contractors. While highly stigmatized in the official public discourse, these informal settlements, which were managed and funded by local residents, offered much-needed housing and basic services to millions of Egyptians. By 2009, approximately 64 percent of the Greater Cairo population resided in ʿashwaiyyat, Contemporary Cairo has undergone major social transformations in recent decades due to various national policies, global forces, exponential population growth, and massive rural influx. Its reputation as the center of economic, cultural, and service activities in the country has contributed to its many transformations. Rapid population growth began in the 1930s: in 1927 the population was 1 million; ten years later it had risen by 50 percent; and by the 1950s, it had risen to almost 3 million.

The most recent estimates indicate that at least 9 million people reside in the city of Cairo while Greater Cairo, which extends over the governorates of Cairo, Qalubiyah, and Giza, encompasses some 17 million residents.

Cairo's current and future challenges include unemployment, poverty, traffic congestion, overcrowding, shortages in housing, growing pressure on its infrastructure, and high levels of pollution. At the same time, Cairo continues to be a vital political, economic, and cultural center for Egypt and the Arab world. As a global city, Cairo accommodates multiple flows of peoples, products, and discourses. From multinational restaurant chains, international schools and universities, and new styles of planning and building, to major tourist attractions like the Egyptian Museum, the ancient market of Khan il-Khalili (among others), and several grand mosques and churches, Cairo brings together the old and the new, the West and the East, the local and the global. Moreover, al-Azhar University remains a lighthouse for Muslim education all over the world, with many faculties devoted not only to religious studies, but also to medicine, engineering, and agriculture, and with a network of primary and secondary schools enrolling millions of students, from Egypt and around the world. There are several important universities in the Egyptian capital, including Cairo University and the American University. Finally, Cairo is also famous for its film, music, and literary production as well as its lively entertainment facilities, including movie theaters, opera house, numerous cafes, night clubs, and various types of restaurants.

Cairo and Tahrir.

Cairo is currently in a state of flux and has been going through a significant transitional period. Different competing social, political, and religious groups are vying for its control and the making of its future. Since the January 25th, 2011 revolution, the city has been facing acute problems linked to security, unemployment, garbage management, and shortages in gasoline, electricity, and water supplies. During the past three years, Cairo has been the center stage for political protest in Egypt. Its Midan al-Tahrir (Liberation Square) in particular became the epicenter of the Egyptian revolution. The square was originally named Midan al-Ismāʿīliyya, after Khedive Ismāʿīl. The Midan (literally, an open space) was originally built in the shape of a circle to regulate the increasing traffic of Cairo. After the 1952 revolution, the nearby barracks that housed the British occupying troops were torn down and the area became widely known as Liberation Square. Due to its spatial and historical centrality, over the years, the Midan has been the site of several important protests, such as the 1977 bread riots (when Egyptians protested President Sadat’s attempts to increase the prices of some basic necessities, especially bread) and the 2003 protests against the war in Iraq. But it was the remarkable 18 days of protest during January and February of 2011, which led to the abdication of Mubarak, that turned the square into a key spatial and symbolic epicenter of activism in Egypt and a globalized icon of resistance. Since then, the square has been redefined in multiple ways—most notably in the 2013 coup that restored military rule—but it continues to serve as an important site for public protest and expression. There are, however, other competing sites (such as Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawīyah Square) in other parts of Cairo that have been used by competing groups to express their political views and grievances. These protests and the type of political system they will generate and the kind of economic policies they would promote will have a great impact on Cairo and its future image and role.

[See also Egypt.]


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