Background

Since the Arab conquest in AD 641 Egyptians have called both the city and the whole country 'Misr' (pronounced masr), the ancient Semitic name for Egypt and also mentioned in the Koran. 'Al-Qahira' ('the Victorious') is the city's official but less commonly used name, derived from Al-Qahir (Mars), because the planet was in ascendance when the Fatimids started the construction of their new city in AD 971. In medieval times, this became corrupted by Europeans to Cairo, the Latin version of the name.

Although Cairo itself is younger than Alexandria, the surrounding region has a very ancient and impressive past.
Memphis
, 15 km south of Cairo across the Nile, was established as the first pharaonic capital in 3100 BC and during this period huge necropoli were developed, starting with
Saqqara
and culminating with the largest of all pyramids at modern-day Giza. During the New Kingdom, another cult centre known as On, or
Heliopolis
to the Greeks, and later Aïn Shams (Spring of the Sun) by the Arabs, was developed further north when a canal was cut between the Nile and the Red Sea. It took the Roman occupation to subdue the influence of Memphis and Om, when Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117) recognized the strategic importance of the east bank fortress town of
Babylon-in-Egypt
and a thriving community soon sprang up around its walls. During the subsequent Christian era Memphis was completely abandoned never to rise again, while Babylon became the seat of the bishopric and the west bank village of
Giza
grew into a large town.

When the Arabs conquered Egypt in AD 641, they were given specific instructions by Khalifa Omar in Damascus to establish their administrative capital in Babylon rather than at the Christian stronghold of Alexandria. The general Amr ibn Al-As built his encampment (or Fustat) in the middle of a deserted triangular plain bounded by Babylon in the south, Aïn Shams (ancient Heliopolis) to the northeast and Al-Maks (the Customs Point), now the site of Ramses Station, to the northwest. The Amr mosque was the first of a number of new and permanent buildings that were erected as the plain was developed and the city rapidly grew in size and importance. It is thought that the name Misr was used in order to distinguish it from the many other towns called Fustat in the Arab world.

By the time the Fatimid heretical Shi'a invaders arrived from North Africa in AD 969, only the south of the plain had been developed. Their military commander, Gohar, therefore chose to build a new walled city (which included the Al-Azhar mosque, palaces, pavilions and gardens for the sole use of the khalifa, his family and retainers), about 1.5 km north of the Fustat complex and called it Al-Qahira. Two centuries later in AD 1168 calamity struck Fustat when, fearing occupation by the invading Crusaders, the vizier Shawar set fire to the city.
Over 54 days the fire almost totally destroyed Fustat whose inhabitants fled to Al-Qahira and constructed temporary housing. Three years later the last Fatimid khalifa died and his vizier, the Kurdish-born
Salah Al-Din
, assumed control of the country and founded the Sunni Muslim orthodox Ayyubid Dynasty (AD 1171-1249). He expelled the royal family from Al-Qahira, which he then opened up to the populace, and soon it became the commercial and cultural centre.

Salah Al-Din actually only spent one third of his 24-year reign in Cairo. Much of his time was spent fighting abroad where he recaptured Syria and eventually Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, finally dying in Damascus in 1193. Yet he still found time to expand the walls surrounding the Fatimid city and built the huge
Citadel
on an outcrop of the Muqattam Hills, which became the city's nucleus and remains the focal point of the Islamic city to this day.

Under Mamluk rule (AD 1250-1517) the city grew rapidly to become the largest city in the Arab world. As the east bank of the Nile continued to silt up, the newly elevated areas provided additional space that was developed to house the expanding population.

Under the
Ottomans
(AD 1517-1798) both Cairo and Alexandria were relegated to the position of mere provincial cities with little in the way of public building undertaken in the whole of the 17th and 18th centuries. This changed, however, with the combination of the arrival of the French in 1798 and the coming to power in 1805 of the Albanian-born Ottoman officer Mohammed Ali. As part of his ambitious plan to drag Egypt into the modern world by introducing the best that Europe had to offer, he embarked on a project that included a huge public building programme in Cairo and turned it into a large modern capital city.

The combination of very rapid population growth and extensive rural migration to the city, particularly since the Second World War, has completely overwhelmed Cairo. It has totally outgrown its infrastructure and today a city, intended to house only two million people, is home to perhaps 16 million, with at least a million more commuting in every day. The result is that the transport, power, water and sewage systems are completely inadequate and hundreds of thousands live wherever they can find shelter including the infamous 'Cities of the Dead' cemeteries. What is amazing is that, despite all its problems, this ancient city actually functions as well as it does and that in adversity the Cairenes are so good natured and friendly.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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