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Islam & Islamic Cairo

Islam was a new religion born of the wreckage of the Greco-Roman world around the south of the Mediterranean. Its founder named Mohammed from the wealthy city of Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia), was chosen as God’s Prophet; in about 609 AD, he began to hear divine messages, which were later transcribed into the Koran, Islam’s holy book. This was the same God worshipped by Jews and Christians.

Thus when the Muslim troops of Amr conquered Egypt for Islam in 641 AD, they sited their city, Al-Fustat, just north of Coptic Babylon. Here it grew into a powerhouse of religious conversion, surpassing Alexandria as Egypt's leading city, though remaining a mere provincial capital in the vast Islamic empire ruled from Damascus by the khalifs, whose only direct contact occurred when the last of the Umayyads (661-750) fled to Al-Fustst, and then burned it. Their successors, the Abbasids (750-935) , ordered the city to be rebuilt further north, and so Medinet al-Askar came into being. More important in the long term was the Abbasid reliance on Turkish-speaking warriors, who were granted fiefdoms throughout the empire, including Egypt.

In 870, encouraged by popular discontent, the Abbasids' viceroy in Egypt asserted his independence, and went on to wrest Syria from their control. Like his predecessors, Ahmed Ibn Tulun founded a new city, reaching from Medinet al-Askar towards a spur of the Muqattam. Inspired by the imperial capital of Samarra, it consisted of a gigantic congregational mosque, palace and hippodrome, surrounded by "the Wards" or military quarters after which the city was named. However, when the Abbasids invaded Egypt in 905, Al Qitai was razed and ploughed under, sparing only the great Mosque of Ibn Tulun, which stands to this day.

The city regained a shadow of its former importance under the Ikhshidids (935-969) , who seceded from the later Abbasid khalifs. But the impetus for its revival, and that of the Islamic empire, came from Tunisia, where adherents of Shia Islam had created their own theocracy, ruled by a descendant of Ali and Fatima – the dynasty of Fatimids. Aiming to seize the khalifate, they hit upon Egypt as an ill-defended yet significant power base, and captured it with an army of 100,000 in 969. The Fatimid general, Gohar (Jewel), a converted Greek, immediately began a new city where the dynasty henceforth reigned (969-1171).

By this time distinctions between the earlier cities had blurred, as people lived wherever was feasible amidst the decaying urban entity known as Masr (which also means "Egypt"). The Fatimids distanced themselves from Masr by building their city of Al-Qahira (The Conqueror) further north than ever, where certain key features remain. It was at the Al-Azhar Mosque that Al-Muizz, Egypt's first Fatimid ruler, delivered a sermon before vanishing into his palaces (which, alas, survive only in name); while the Mosque of Al-Hakim commemorates the khalif who ordered Masr's destruction after residents objected to proclamations of his divinity. You can also see the great Northern Walls and the Bab Zwayla gate, dating from Al-Gyushi's enlargement of Al-Qahira's defenses. But as the Fatimid city expanded, Fustat began disappearing as people scavenged building material from its abandoned dwellings; a process that spread to Masr, creating derelict quarters.

The disparate areas only assumed a kind of unity after Salah al-Din (Saladin to the Crusaders) built the Citadel on a rocky spur between Al-Qahira and Masr, and wallswhich linked up with the aqueduct between the Nile and the Citadel so as to surround the whole. Salah al-Din promoted Sunni, not Shia, Islam and built madrassas to propagate orthodoxy; he ruled not as khalif, but as a secular sultan (power) . His successors, the Ayyubids, erected pepperpot-shaped minarets (only one remains, on Sultan Ayyub's Madrassa and Mausoleum) and the magnificent tombs of the Abbasid Khalifs and Imam al-Shafi'i (which still exist) in the Southern Cemetery, but they made the same error as the Abbasids: depending on foreign troops and bodyguards. When the Sultan died heirless and his widow needed help to stay in power, these troops, the Mamlukes, were poised to take control.

The Mamlukes were a self-perpetuating caste of slave-warriors, originally from Central Asia but later drawn from all over the Near East and the Balkans. Their price in the slave markets reflected the "value" of ethnic stock- 130-140 ducats for a Tartar, 110-120 for a Circassian, 50-80 for a Slav or Albanian – plus individual traits: sturdy, handsome youths were favored. Often born of concubines and raised in barracks, Mamlukes advanced through the ranks under amirs who sodomized and lavished gifts upon their favorites . With the support of the right amirs, the most ruthless Mamluke could aspire to being sultan. Frequent changes of ruler were actually preferred, since contenders had to spread around bribes, not least to arrange assassinations. The Mamluke era is divided into periods named after the garrisons of troops whence the sultans intrigued their way to power: the Qipchak or Tartar Bahri Mamlukes (1250-1382) , originally stationed by the river (bahr in Arabic) ; and their Circassian successors, the Burgi Mamlukes (1382-1517) , Quartered in a tower (burg) of the Citadel.

Paradoxically, the Mamlukes were also renowned as aesthetes, commissioning mosques, mansions and sabil-kuttabs that are still the glory of today's Islamic Cairo. They built throughout the city, from the Northern to the Southern Cemetery, and the Citadel to the Nile, and although urban life was interrupted by their bloody conflicts, the city nevertheless maintained civilized institutions: public hospitals, libraries and schools bequeathed by wealthy Mamlukes and merchants. The caravanserais overflowed with exotica from Africa and the spices of the East, and with Baghdad laid waste by the Mongols, Cairo had no peer in the Islamic world, its wonders inspiring many of the tales in the Thousand and One Nights.

But in 1517 the Ottoman Turks reduced Egypt from an independent state to a vassal province in their empire, and the Mamlukes from masters to mere overseers. When the French and British extended the Napoleonic War to Egypt they found a city living on bygone glories: introspective and archaic, its population dwindling as civil disorder increased. Eighteenth-century travelers like R.R Madden were struck by "the squalid wretchedness of the Arabs, and the external splendour of the Turks" , not to mention the lack of " one tolerable street" in a city of some 350.000 inhabitants.

The city's renaissance – and the ultimate shift from Islamic to modern Cairo – is owed to Mohammed Ali (1805-48) and his less ruthless descendants. An Ottoman servant who turned against his masters, Mohammed Ali effortlessly decapitated thevestiges of Mamluke power, and raised a huge mosque and palaces upon the Citadel. Foreigners were hired to advise on urban development and Sharia Qalaa (Blvd Mohammed Ali) was ploughed through the old city. As Bulaq, Ezbekiya and other hitherto swampy tracts were developed into a modern, quasi-Western city, Islamic Cairo ceased to be the cockpit of power and the magnet for aspirations. But as visitors soon discover, its contrasts, monuments and vitality remain as compelling as ever.

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