Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cairo Geography

In terms of Egyptian history, Cairo is a relatively young city: nearby Memphis was founded in 3000 BC, Alexandria in 331 BC, but Cairo only in AD 970. The modern city now covers a huge area but, in its relatively small historical center, there are three distinct areas of importance. Old Cairo is a small area on the east bank of the Nile. Islamic Cairo is north of Old Cairo and east of Central Cairo. Central Cairo is north of Old Cairo and borders the Nile.

1. Old Cairo. The Roman and early Christian buildings here predate the existence of the city of Cairo and the buildings in its Central and Islamic areas.

Ten percent of Egypt’s 80 million people are Christians. These belong largely to the Coptic Church. The Coptic Museum in Old Cairo contains the largest collection of Coptic art in the world. This art dates back to Egypt’s Christian era (about AD 100-640).

Built in the 300s, the Hanging Church (Coptic) is called this because it was built on top of a pre-existing Roman fortress dating from the first century AD.

The Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo is the oldest existing monument to Jews in Egypt. It was built in the 11th century. During repairs of it in the 19th century, hundreds of Hebrew manuscripts dating from the 11th and 12th centuries were discovered. These documents give us a detailed understanding of life in Cairo a thousand years ago.

2. Islamic Cairo. Muslim armies took control of Egypt in 641. Egyptian leaders, in turn, were ruled by Abbasid caliphs from Baghdad after 762. The caliph sent Ahmad ibn Tulun (835-884) to rule Egypt in 868. Ibn Tulun ordered the construction of a mosque named after him in 876. Workers completed the mosque three years later. It remains one of the oldest and largest mosques in Egypt.

Started in 970, the year after the Fatimids founded Cairo, the university adjoining the Mosque of al-Azhar is the oldest in the world. It remains the most respected center of study of Sunni Islam in the world.

Mamluks seized power in Egypt in 1250. In 1356, Mamluk ruler an-Nasir Hasan (ca 1334-1361) ordered construction of a large mosque. Although an-Nasr Hasan was murdered in 1361, work continued. When finished in 1363, the mosque stood 492 feet (150 m) long and 118 feet (36 m) high. It remains the finest example of Mamluk architecture in the city.

Built in 1382, the huge bazaar of Khan al-Khalili contains thousands of shops selling an unimaginable variety of goods.

In Islamic Cairo one may find the caravanserai of al-Ghouri. A caravanserai was a place where medieval merchants could safely rest their camels, store their goods, sleep, and trade. The caravanserai of al-Ghouri, built in the early 1500s, is the best example of one in Cairo.

Salah ad-Din (1137-1193) ordered construction of the Citadel in 1176. He had it built on the highest ground near Cairo. For almost 700 years it served as the heavily fortified home of Egyptian rulers.

Suleiman (1494-1566) ruled Egypt, and the rest of the Ottoman Empire, from 1520 to 1566. He ordered the construction of a large yet beautiful mosque in his capital city of Constantinople (now Istanbul). In 1528 he had a smaller yet even more beautiful mosque built in the Citadel of Cairo.

Muhammad Ali (1769-1849) ordered a mosque built on the summit of the Citadel. Construction began in 1830 and finished in 1848. Its courtyard contains a large clock. Louis Philippe (1773-1850), king of France, gave this to Muhammed in exchange for an obelisk carved for Ramses 2nd and once located at the entrance of the Luxor Temple. Louis-Philippe had the obelisk placed in the center of the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The Mosque of Muhammed Ali, while Turkish in design, has become an iconic symbol of Cairo because of the prominence of its location.

3. Central Cairo. This is the area of Cairo built during the late 1800s and early 1900s. When Ismail Pasha (1830-1895) became ruler of Egypt in 1863, he wanted to make Cairo look much more like his beloved Paris where he had studied as a young adult. He had marshy land, lying between Islamic Cairo and the Nile, drained and his new city built there. He hired foreign architects who designed large public squares, tree-lined boulevards, and buildings in the latest European styles. Those buildings are now worn but still beautiful.

The Egyptian Museum lies close to the Nile near the center of this area. Auguste Mariette (1821-1881) started this museum in 1863. It moved to its current location in 1903. This museum contains more ancient Egyptian objects—hundreds of thousands—than any other in the world. Its collection includes Narmer’s Palette, a statue of Djoser, art from the Amarna period, Tutankhamun’s throne and burial mask, and the mummy of Ramses 2nd.

Saad Zaghloul (1853-1927) wanted to end English control of Egypt. Even as he steadfastly pursued this goal, he earned the respect of English rulers while enjoying the gratitude of ordinary Egyptians. A mausoleum was built to honor him after his death. His house nearby, with much of his furnishings still there, is open as a museum.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.