Histories of a City: the many hands that shaped today's Cairo

Nezar AlSayyad's thorough and exhaustive new work provides a colourful sweep through 3,000 years of Cairo's architectural landscape.
Cairo: Histories of a City
Nezar AlSayyad
Harvard University Press
Cairo: Histories of a City Nezar AlSayyad Harvard University Press Dh110

One of Jean-Léon Gérôme's most famous Orientalist paintings, Prayer on the Rooftops of Cairo, is backwards. The men in the scene are facing north in prayer, not south-east towards Mecca. Under the shadow of two Mamluk minarets with the mosque of Mohammed Ali in the distance, perched atop the Citadel, the Cairenes on the canvas pray just after sunset, with a sliver of the moon in the sky. It's an idyllic, invented scene that Gérôme, one of the most accomplished Orientalists of his day, painted in his studio in France, embellishing it to suit his viewers' desire for the exotic. Its inaccuracy was beside the point. This painting, like so many that Gérôme made in the late 19th century, captivated its European audience.

Nezar AlSayyad includes a large detail of this painting spread over two pages in Cairo: Histories of a City. AlSayyad's book, a colourful sweep of over 3,000 years of urban and architectural history, is as much a short genealogy of Cairo's many commentators and portraitists as it is of its buildings. He narrates a broad history of urban development from the Pharaonic capital of Memphis, "the first Cairo", on the Nile's west bank, to the Ptolemaic, Roman-Byzantine and Arab-Islamic cities that developed on top of and adjacent to each other on the river's east bank. Each chapter begins at an iconic Cairo landmark and tells a history of the building's era, bringing in both neighbouring architecture and contemporary voices. Gérôme's work is among those accumulated impressions of the city, from ancient scribes and medieval chroniclers to colonial-era artists and modern historians. But in reversing the direction of the men in prayer, Gérôme's painting suggests the role of imagination and misunderstanding not only in explaining and portraying Cairo, but in planning and developing it too.

Take the effort to preserve the historic core of the city, which extends from the walled city of Fatimid al-Qahira south past the Citadel and the mosque of Ibn Tulun. Constituting successive urban expansions northwards since the founding of the Arab city of Fustat after the Islamic conquest in 641, the area is home to an unrivalled abundance of Islamic architecture that made medieval Cairo a built environment beyond imagination, at least for Ibn Khaldun. "What one can imagine always surpasses what one can see, because of the scope of the imagination," he wrote upon visiting the city in the late 14th century, when it was at its height as the region's commercial hub, "except Cairo because it surpasses anything one can imagine".

But in the late 19th century, imagination and a selective reading of history underpinned the first modern efforts to preserve Cairo's diverse architectural heritage. The Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe, formed in 1881 by Khedive Tawfiq and comprised of prominent European and expatriate Europeans, was a preservation authority that crafted an image of Cairo's urban heritage.

It associated the "medieval" with the glory days of the Mamluks, the military caste of slave-soldiers that rose to rule Egypt as sultans from 1250 to 1517, when the city came under Ottoman rule. Ottoman architecture in particular was neglected and allowed to deteriorate, while imposing Mamluk structures were restored and rebuilt according to a narrow view of "authentic" medieval architecture, which Egyptians and Europeans alike linked to a timeless Egyptian identity and culture.

Taking his cue from Paula Sanders's book, Creating Medieval Cairo: Empire, Religion, and Architectural Preservation in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, AlSayyad writes that "the Comité's aim was not only to restore the authenticity of Cairo's architectural past, but to reify an image of medieval Islam that resonated with European travellers and matched the Orientalist depictions of Egypt ... In reality, the Comité was investing a new tradition, a tradition that gave Cairo's historic core what is now some of its current form."

That form was, over the last decade, the object of a massive intervention called the Historic Cairo Restoration Project, centred on Shari'a al-Muizz li-Din Allah, the main artery of Fatimid Cairo. Created by presidential decree in the 1990s with a budget of more than a billion Egyptian pounds, the project was not a social development or broad urban renewal scheme. Its goals were narrower: preservation largely for tourists, with the beautification of Sharia al-Muizz the first step in turning the entire area into an "open-air museum" for Islamic arts and architecture.

"The 19th-century project of medievalising the old quarter - the invention of a sanitised historic urban environment that had never existed - has now taken hold as official preservation strategy," AlSayyad writes. Local craftsmen, workshops and markets were moved out of the area to make way for row upon row of shisha shops and cafes for tourists. Building restorations were interpretative endeavours. The 18th-century sabil-kuttab of Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda, for example, was restored to match images and drawings of a replica that the Hungarian architect Max Herz, head of the Comité, built for the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893. They were the only images and drawings of the building that restorers could rely on. Yet Herz had removed tiles and windows for the replica as he saw fit. As a result, according to AlSayyad, "Cairo now began to resemble its imagined self."

Questions of authenticity and representation run through AlSayyad's histories of Cairo. They also present themselves as a critique of his later chapters, beginning with the city during the Ottoman period. He has a particular, nationalist reading of Egypt's urban history. As a provincial capital under Istanbul, he says Cairo stagnated, with little new building until Napoleon's invasion and the rise of Mohammed Ali, "the founders of Egypt's modern history". Ottoman specialists might disagree with this simple portrait. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Cairo's "urban vitality" was lost, AlSayyad writes, though he is vague on what that vitality means, except to point out that street names changed and that socialist, public housing blocks proliferated and then decayed. Is he nostalgic for the cosmopolitanism of King Fouad and Farouk under British colonialism, which has reemerged as Egyptian developers hope to gentrify Downtown Cairo?

As the title suggests, AlSayyad's history of Cairo is many histories, all based on fragments. "At best, the shape of a city becomes a roadmap for deciphering its history," he writes, but notes that "the writing of history will always be, first and foremost, an art of interpretation, not a science of representation". It's an apt preamble and preemptive rebuttal to the inevitable criticisms of trying to capture the vast histories of Cairo in less than 300 pages, many of them accompanied by large photographs, illustrations and maps. Much has to be elided, and much is reliant on the two pillars of recent scholarship on the city: Janet Abu-Lughod's Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious (1971) and Andre Raymond's Cairo (2000). The book has a few surprising errors. Al-Azhar Park was not completed in 1994 but 2005 - an important distinction since the effort to revitalise historic Cairo is recent and ongoing, with the park central to that. The captions of two photographs of Heliopolis, one showing the palace of Baron Empain and the other the area of El-Korba, are reversed.

The middle chapters are the best, on the foundation of al-Qahira in 969 and the city's expansion, first under the Ayyubids in the 12th century and then under the Mamluks from the mid-13th to early 16th centuries. They include comprehensive, accessible analyses of Cairo's medieval architecture, an accumulation of building styles that AlSayyad convincingly reads as reflections of the rulers that built them and the societies they were built for. The elaborate stone façade of the mosque of al-Aqmar, "the moonlit," suggested Fatimid inclusiveness. Its Kufic inscriptions, facing the street, "speak to a heterogeneous public consisting not only of Fatimid Ismailis but also Ismaili Shi'ites, Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Jews, pronouncing the rulers' concern for tolerance, authority, and stability." Cairo's division into distinct administrative quarters, with craftsmen and various ethnic communities segregated into their own areas, was accelerated under the Bahri Mamluks, former slave soldiers who ruled in isolation from the fortified island of Roda in the Nile.

The final chapter on the era of authoritarian economic liberalisation under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak provides a necessary backdrop to Egypt's ongoing revolution, even though AlSayyad's book was finished before the January 25 uprising. Beginning in the late 1970s, the Egyptian government focused urban planning on new satellite cities on Cairo's eastern and western desert edges. Designed to ease congestion and signal progress - a blank-slate building opportunity not unlike the belle époque downtown area planned under Khedive Ismail around the opening of the Suez Canal - the desert cities have in fact underwritten Cairo's social and spatial stratification. Often built on military land sold to crony developers at cut-rate prices to drive a speculative real estate boom, under Mubarak the desert cities became part of the regime's vast network of corruption and patronage.

Meanwhile, the majority of Cairenes, an estimated 11 million people, live in ever-expanding "informal" areas - "extralegal" neighbourhoods, to quote economist David Sims, some of these slums, hastily built on former agricultural and desert land without building permits, urban planning, or municipal services and representation. The desert cities, which tapped planning budgets and strained infrastructure and transportation networks, and the environment, were expected in rosy government planning reports to already house millions of Cairenes. Sims estimates they are home to no more than 800,000 people.

Like Gérôme's inverted scene and the Comité's construction of medieval heritage, the singular focus on desert cities sought to remake Cairo, this time along the lines of the Gulf, infatuated with newness, gated enclaves, and evermore concrete. As the development narrative of a neoliberal regime, it fits into AlSayyad's histories of Cairo - which is to say it is another effort to frame the city as something that it is not. But the Egyptians who brought down Mubarak represent the other, crucial fact of Cairo's histories: no one owns the city, its past, or its future.

Frederick Deknatel, a masters candidate in modern Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University, has written for The Nation, Architectural Record and other publications.

Published: September 16, 2011 04:00 AM


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