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     Volume 4 Issue 17 | October 15, 2004 |

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A Roman Column

The many faces of Cairo -1

Neeman Sobhan

The Egyptians call their land Al-Misr and their city Al-Qahira, and how the people of this ancient land who trace their lineage from the pharaohs ended up with a capital whose name is not Coptic (the ancient language of the Nile dwellers) but Arabic and which was corrupted into its present form by the west is the story of unending conquests and military subjugations.

The medieval history of the fertile and rich Nile valley was of a hard working and passive people who, unfortunately, were always under foreign military rule. Modern Cairo evolved from a series of military settlements of which the first was the fortress of Babylon built by the conquering Romans to strengthen their hold on this valuable province of the eastern part of their sprawling empire. Roman rule was highly unpopular but the occupying legions found the unarmed population easy to control, as did the Arabs who conquered Egypt in the 7th century, 639 to be exact. The Romans had stationed their garrison on a spur of the Muqattam Hills near Babylon and the Nile. It was on this same hill that Salah-ad-Din, in the late 12th century, would build the Cairo citadel as the fortress home of Egypt's Muslim rulers.

But before that came the first Muslim garrison city named Al-Fustat to the north of Babylon during the time Egypt was ruled by a series of governors appointed by the Caliphs in Damascus. In 750, after the Abbasid family seized control of the Caliphate and moved their capital to Baghdad, an enlarged army suburb called Al-Laskar was created. When Ahmad Ibn Tulun, in 868, declared independence and established the first autonomous Muslim state on the Nile valley, the royal city Al-Qatai was added. The Mosque of Ibn Tulun is the only remaining souvenir of the Abbasid period since the entire city was destroyed by the Baghdad authorities as exemplary punishment for future usurpers. Next came the shi'ite Fatimids descending from the Prophet Muhammad's daughter Fatima. They built a new fortified royal enclosure called Al-Qahira, later corrupted by Italian merchants into 'Cairo'.

The Fatimids found their nemesis in the Seljuk Turks. The Seljuks stopped the Fatimid practice of allowing Christians to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and caused the Crusades which brought onto the stage Saladin.

The history of the citadel starts with him and continues through successive dynasties and periods ranging from the Bahri and Circassian Mamluks (1250-1517), the Ottoman Turks (1517-1798), a period of French occupation (1798-1801), the reign of Mohammad Ali (1805-1849) when westernisation started, Khedive Ismail (1863-1879), the British occupation (1882-1952) till independence.]

From my 18th floor room at the Sheraton Cairo on the Nile I have not only a view of the elegant skyscrapers along the river and the older apartments blocks congesting the horizon but, beyond the river, of the ancient bulk of the Mukattam hills in the distance where the historical Citadel nestles.

I have been inside it before but that was years ago, and I wish to go over it again.

Magda is taking me around Cairo today to see whatever face of this city I wish to see. I have told her that I want to renew my acquaintanceship with Islamic Cairo and also explore Christian Cairo. Apart from the citadel, I request that we walk around the medieval Al Fustat area to see the Hanging Church of Babylon (yes, I mean church not the hanging gardens which are a different thing in a different location entirely) suspended from one of the towers of the Roman fortress; the church of Abu Serga which is the cosily localized Arabic name for Saint Sergius (where the Holy family took refuge during their Egyptian exile when they were fleeing King Herod's infanticide; and visit the Mosque of Ibn Tulun. I also remember that an English major Gayer-Anderson had a house nearby which preserved an 18th century house intact with the typical furniture of the time and full of Mashrebbeya lattice work balconies and secret nooks and crannies which I remember vaguely from a long ago visit, twenty years ago. What I recall clearly was that it was a fascinating house built on many levels. I want to revisit my enchantment to see if the charm was in the place or in my youth.

Magda pays me a compliment. "Your choice of places to visit is so refreshingly different from the run-of-the mill guided tours I give. I'm looking forward to my day out with you for I'll be visiting places that even I haven't been to in a while."

I have read my history of Cairo and am ready for the Citadel. When we finally arrive and look around us from our elevated position, the modern city of Cairo spreads and shimmers far below in the August sun. We walk around the inner streets, walkways, ramps, ramparts and terraces and end up inevitably posing for photos outside the many domed and silvery Ottoman splendour of the Mohammad Ali Mosque (now a landmark of the city and which was mistakenly captioned 'Mosque of Ibn Tulun' in the internet version of Farhan Quddus's excellent Egyptian Journal). Taking off our shoes we enter. I'm not big on churches and mosques however grand but I make the right noises of appreciation over the glitzy gilt covered pulpit, the enormous ceiling, the architectural details and decorations which are a marriage of frilly European Rococo and the arabesque and geometric of Ottoman baroque etc. Then, exhausted visually though not physically, I sit down on the carpeted floor for a moment of peace, but feeling no particular sense of godliness I idly watch groups of tourists. One over-enthusiastic Muslim man looks upward and suddenly with his hands cupping his mouth lets out a loud 'Allah Wakbar!' to set it echoing and frightens a sleeping baby. I want to scold him for shouting in a place of prayer and to tell him that Allah can hear the whisper of a worshipping heart just as clearly; and that He does not necessarily reside in the filigreed domes decreed by Kings.

(To be continued.)
NEXT WEEK: AL QAHIRA: James Bond's Cair
o and more.

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