History




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History Of Cairo

Introduction

The area around present-day Cairo, especially Memphis that was the old capital of Egypt, had long been a focal point of Ancient Egypt due to its strategic location just upstream from the Nile Delta.

However, the origins of the modern city are generally traced back to a series of settlements in the first millennium. Around the turn of the 4th century, as Memphis was continuing to decline in importance, the Romans established a fortress town along the east bank of the Nile.

This fortress, known as Babylon, was the nucleus of the Roman and then the Byzantine city and is the oldest structure in the city today. It is also situated at the nucleus of the Coptic Orthodox community, which separated from the Roman and Byzantine churches in the late 4th century.

Many of Cairo’s oldest Coptic churches, including the Hanging Church, are located along the fortress walls in a section of the city known as Coptic Cairo. 

Following the Muslim conquest in 640 AD, the conqueror Amr ibn As settled to the north of Babylon in an area that became known as al-Fustat. Originally a tented camp (Fustat signifies “City of Tents”) Fustat became a permanent settlement and the first capital of Islamic Egypt. 

In 750, following the overthrow of the Ummayad caliphate by the Abbasids, the new rulers created their own settlement to the northeast of Fustat which became their capital. This was known as al-Askar (the city of sections, or cantonments) as it was laid out like a military camp. 

A rebellion in 869 by Ahmad ibn Tulun led to the abandonment of Al Askar and the building of another settlement, which became the seat of government. This was al-Qatta’i (“the Quarters”), to the north of Fustat and closer to the river. Al Qatta’i was centered around a palace and ceremonial mosque, now known as the Mosque of Ibn Tulun.

In 905, the Abbasids re-asserted control of the country and their governor returned to Fustat, razing al-Qatta’i to the ground. Since the 1860s, Cairo expanded west as far as what is called now (Midan Opera) 

Foundation & expansion 

In 968, the Fatimids were led by general Jawhar al-Siqilli to establish a new capital for the Fatimid dynasty. Egypt was conquered from their base in Ifriqiya and a newly fortified city northeast of Fustat was established.

It took four years to build the city, initially known as al-Manṣūriyyah, which was to serve as the new capital of the caliphate. During that time, Jawhar also commissioned the construction of the al-Azhar Mosque by order of the Caliph, which developed into the third-oldest university in the world.

Cairo would eventually become a center of learning, with the library of Cairo containing hundreds of thousands of books. When Caliph al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah arrived from the old Fatimid capital of Mahdia in Tunisia in 973, he gave the city its present name, al-Qāhiratu (“The Victorious”). 

For nearly 200 years after Cairo was established, the administrative center of Egypt remained in Fustat. However, in 1168 the Fatimids under the leadership of vizier Shawar set fire to Fustat to prevent Cairo’s capture by the Crusaders.

Egypt’s capital was permanently moved to Cairo, which was eventually expanded to include the ruins of Fustat and the previous capitals of al-Askar and al-Qatta’i. As al Qahira expanded these earlier settlements were encompassed, and have since become part of the city of Cairo as it expanded and spread; they are now collectively known as “Old Cairo”.

While the Fustat fire successfully protected the city of Cairo, a continuing power struggle between Shawar, King Amalric I of Jerusalem, and the Zengid general Shirkuh led to the downfall of the Fatimid establishment. 

In 1169, Saladin was appointed as the new vizier of Egypt by the Fatimids and two years later he seized power from the family of the last Fatimid caliph, al-‘Āḍid.

As the first Sultan of Egypt, Saladin established the Ayyubid dynasty, based in Cairo, and aligned Egypt with the Abbasids, who were based in Baghdad. During his reign, Saladin constructed the Cairo Citadel, which served as the seat of the Egyptian government until the mid-19th century.

A multi-domed mosque dominates the walled Citadel, with ruined tombs and a lone minaret in front. The Cairo Citadel, seen above in the late 19th century, was commissioned by Saladin between 1176 and 1183 

Cairo Citadel

In 1250, slave soldiers, known as the Mamluks, seized control of Egypt and like many of their predecessors established Cairo as the capital of their new dynasty. Continuing a practice started by the Ayyubids, much of the land occupied by former Fatimid palaces was sold and replaced by newer buildings.

Construction projects initiated by the Mamluks pushed the city outward while also bringing new infrastructure to the Center of the city. Meanwhile, Cairo flourished as a center of Islamic scholarship and a crossroads on the spice trade route among the civilizations in Afro-Eurasia. By 1340, Cairo had a population of close to half a million, making it the largest city west of China.

The historic traveler Ibn Battuta traveled thousands of miles during the course of his trek. One city he stopped in was Cairo, Egypt. One significant note Ibn Battuta made was that Cairo was the principal district of Egypt, meaning Cairo was Egypt’s most important and most influential city (Ibn Battuta, 2009).

Ibn Battuta also acknowledges the importance of the Nile river to all of Egypt, including Cairo, as he often traveled via boat to arrive at Cairo and to leave to continue his journey. The Nile was not just a means for transportation, it was the source of a plethora of other tangibles as well. The Nile’s most influential attribute was its ability to sustain rich soil for agriculture.

Part of the Agricultural Revolution thrived in Egypt, predominantly off the back of the Nile. The Nile also served as a source of food and a pathway for trade.

Without it, the Egypt we know today wouldn’t have been the same. One of Ibn Battuta’s most detailed accounts in Cairo involves a plague that was devastating the city. Today, this plague is known as the Bubonic Plague, or the Black Death.

It is believed to have arrived in Egypt in 1347, and as Ibn Battuta recalls, the Bubonic plague was responsible for the deaths of between 1 and 20,000 people a day in Cairo (Berkeley ORIAS, 2018) (Ibn Battuta, 2009).

The plague originated in Asia and spread via fleas on rodents, such as rats (Berkeley ORIAS, 2018). The plague would end up spreading to all of Eurasia and wiped out any civilizations that were in its path. It is estimated that somewhere between 75 and 200 million people in total died from the plague.

Ottoman rule

Cairo in the 19th century 
Although Cairo avoided Europe’s stagnation during the Late Middle Ages, it could not escape the Black Death, which struck the city more than fifty times between 1348 and 1517. During its initial, and most deadly waves, approximately 200,000 people were killed by the plague, and, by the 15th century, Cairo’s population had been reduced to between 150,000 and 300,000.

The city’s status was further diminished after Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route around the Cape of Good Hope between 1497 and 1499, thereby allowing spice traders to avoid Cairo. Cairo’s political influence diminished significantly after the Ottomans supplanted Mamluk power over Egypt in 1517. Ruling from Constantinople, Sultan Selim I relegated Egypt to a province, with Cairo as its capital.

For this reason, the history of Cairo during Ottoman times is often described as inconsequential, especially in comparison to other time periods. However, during the 16th and 17th centuries, Cairo remained an important economic and cultural center. Although no longer on the spice route, the city facilitated the transportation of Yemeni coffee and Indian textiles, primarily to Anatolia, North Africa, and the Balkans.

Cairene merchants were instrumental in bringing goods to the barren Hejaz, especially during the annual hajj to Mecca. It was during this same period that al-Azhar University reached the predominance among Islamic schools that it continues to hold today; pilgrims on their way to hajj often attested to the superiority of the institution, which had become associated with Egypt’s body of Islamic scholars.

By the 16th century, Cairo also had high-rise apartment buildings where the two lower floors were for commercial and storage purposes and the multiple stories above them were rented out to tenants. 

Under the Ottomans, Cairo expanded south and west from its nucleus around the Citadel. The city was the second-largest in the empire, behind Constantinople, and, although migration was not the primary source of Cairo’s growth, twenty percent of its population at the end of the 18th century consisted of religious minorities and foreigners from around the Mediterranean.

Still, when Napoleon arrived in Cairo in 1798, the city’s population was less than 300,000, forty percent lower than it was at the height of Mamluk—and Cairene—influence in the mid-14th century.

The French occupation was short-lived as British and Ottoman forces, including a sizeable Albanian contingent, recaptured the country in 1801. Cairo itself was besieged by a British and Ottoman force culminating with the French surrender on 22 June 1801.

The British vacated Egypt two years later, leaving the Ottomans, the Albanians, and the long-weakened Mamluks jostling for control of the country. Continued civil war allowed an Albanian named Muhammad Ali Pasha to ascend to the role of commander and eventually, with the approval of the religious establishment, viceroy of Egypt in 1805.

Until his death in 1848, Muhammad Ali Pasha instituted a number of social and economic reforms that earned him the title of founder of modern Egypt. However, while Muhammad Ali initiated the construction of public buildings in the city, those reforms had minimal effect on Cairo’s landscape.

Bigger changes came to Cairo under Isma’il Pasha (1863–1879), who continued the modernization processes started by his grandfather. Drawing inspiration from Paris, Isma’il envisioned a city of maidens and wide avenues; due to financial constraints, only some of them, in the area now composing Downtown Cairo, came to fruition. Isma’il also sought to modernize the city, which was merging with neighboring settlements, by establishing a public works ministry, bringing gas and lighting to the city, and opening a theatre and opera house. 

The immense debt resulting from Isma’il’s projects provided a pretext for increasing European control, which culminated with the British invasion in 1882. The city’s economic center quickly moved west toward the Nile, away from the historic Islamic Cairo section and toward the contemporary, European-style areas built by Isma’il. Europeans accounted for 5% of Cairo’s population at the end of the 19th century, by which point they held most top governmental positions.

The British occupation was intended to be temporary, but it lasted well into the 20th century. Nationalists staged large-scale demonstrations in Cairo in 1919, five years after Egypt had been declared a British protectorate. Nevertheless, while this led to Egypt’s independence in 1922, British troops remained in the country until 1956.

During this time, urban Cairo, spurred by new bridges and transport links, continued to expand to include the upscale neighborhoods of Garden City, Zamalek, and Heliopolis. Between 1882 and 1937, the population of Cairo more than tripled—from 347,000 to 1.3 million —and its area increased from 10 to 163 square kilometers (4 to 63 sq mi). 

The city was devastated during the 1952 riots known as the Cairo Fire or Black Saturday, which saw the destruction of nearly 700 shops, movie theatres, casinos and hotels in Downtown Cairo.

The British departed Cairo following the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, but the city’s rapid growth showed no signs of abating. Seeking to accommodate the increasing population, President Gamal Abdel Nasser redeveloped Maidan Tahrir and the Nile Corniche and improved the city’s network of bridges and highways.

Meanwhile, additional controls of the Nile fostered development within Gezira Island and along the city’s waterfront. The metropolis began to encroach on the fertile Nile Delta, prompting the government to build desert satellite towns and devise incentives for city-dwellers to move to them. 

Cairo’s population has doubled since the 1960s, reaching close to seven million (with an additional ten million in its urban area). Concurrently, Cairo has established itself as a political and economic hub for North Africa and the Arab world, with many multinational businesses and organizations, including the Arab League, operating out of the city.

In 1992, Cairo was hit by an earthquake causing 545 deaths, 6,512 injuries and 50,000 people homeless.

Today, Cairo serves as the national capital of Egypt, so it is fair to say it still holds major importance. Many things have changed since Ibn Battuta trekked through the city during his travels. Today, Cairo has taken a major step forward in urbanization as most Cairenes now live in apartment buildings.

Because of the influx of people in the city, lone standing houses are rare to find, and apartment buildings accommodate for the limited space and abundance of people. In fact, lone standing houses are symbolic of the wealthy. Formal education has also become very important to those in the city of Cairo. Just as in the United States, there are twelve years of formal education.

Cairenes also take an apprehension test similar to the SAT to help them further their education and become accepted to a higher institution. However, most children do not finish school and opt to pick up a trade to enter the workforce. The civil rights movement for women in Cairo has been a long and troubling battle for many years now.

Women face constant discrimination, harassment, and abuse throughout Cairo. The situation is so bad in Cairo that it has even been named the most dangerous megacity for women in the world (BBC News, 2017). Cairo has also been influenced by modern western civilization.

As one travels through modern Cairo, it is not unusual to come across McDonald’s, Arby’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. There are even large-scale western restaurants in Cairo, such as Chilies and T.G.I. Friday’s. Of course, the majority of restaurants serve Egyptian and Middle Eastern dishes, but the fact remains that certain aspects of western civilization have crossed the Atlantic and reached the city of Cairo.

Sadly, Egypt is one of the poorer countries in the Middle East, with almost half the population living on $2 or less a day (Hartman, 2011). However, from the income the country does make, most of it does come from Cairo, as the majority of the countries manufacturing headquarters are located there.

Today’s Cairo has clearly evolved since Ibn Battuta made his way through the ancient city. Cairo has made advances in some aspects of daily life and taken steps backward in others. However, with that being said, Cairo is still one of the most influential cities in all of Egypt.

Cairo’s Tahrir Square was the focal point of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution against former president Hosni Mubarak. Over 2 million protesters were at Cairo’s Tahrir square. More than 50,000 protesters first occupied the square on 25 January, during which the area’s wireless services were reported to be impaired.

In the following days, Tahrir Square continued to be the primary destination for protests in Cairo as it took place following a popular uprising that began on Tuesday, 25 January 2011 and is still continuing as of February 2012.

The uprising was mainly a campaign of non-violent civil resistance, which featured a series of demonstrations, marches, acts of civil disobedience, and labor strikes. Millions of protesters from a variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds demanded the overthrow of the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Despite being predominantly peaceful in nature, the revolution was not without violent clashes between security forces and protesters, with at least 846 people killed and 6,000 injured. The uprising took place in Cairo, Alexandria, and in other cities in Egypt, following the Tunisian revolution that resulted in the overthrow of the long-time Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

On 11 February, following weeks of determined popular protest and pressure, Hosni Mubarak resigned from office.

Post-Revolutionary Cairo

Under the rule of President el-Sisi, in March 2015 plans were announced for another yet-unnamed planned city to be built further east of the existing satellite city of New Cairo, intended to serve as the new capital of Egypt.

Updated on 1St, Sep 2018