The English translation of André Raymond’s Cairo appears only two years after the publication of Max Rodenbeck’s Cairo: The City Victorious (1999), a work that also charted the development of this major Middle Eastern city from its origins to the modern period. Because of the two works’ similarity in focus, their comparison is inevitable. It is important to note, however, that the two authors intended their books for slightly different audiences. Rodenbeck’s Cairo: The City Victorious is a very readable, popularizing history; Raymond’s Cairo is far more detailed and can be hard going at times. Rodenbeck begins his account in the remotest past, tracing precursors to Cairo in Yunu, a settlement even earlier than the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis and known to the Greeks as Heliopolis, the “Sun’s City.” Raymond ignores these pre-Islamic cities and focuses exclusively on Cairo’s “modern” foundation during the early Middle Ages. Rodenbeck’s history seems to be directed more toward travelers and the general public. Raymond’s book is written with scholars in mind. Anyone with a serious interest in Cairo will have much to admire in Raymond’s work but, without a good deal of prior knowledge, readers may occasionally find this book overwhelming in its sheer detail.
There is a great deal of invaluable information in Cairo. In his account of the city’s development during the seventeenth century, for instance, Raymond cites the number of military judges active at the time, the number of janissaries stationed in the city, and reasonable estimates of the city’s overall population. Each period examined by the book contains data of this kind, difficult to obtain elsewhere, but extremely useful for fleshing out Cairo’s historical development. In addition, Cairocontains a number of excellent maps, tracing the city’s progress from minor outpost to thriving urban center.
As the same time that it provides a portrait of Cairo, however, Raymond’s book also serves as a general history of Islamic Egypt. In fact, Cairo and Islamic Egypt are so synonymous that for a long time both were known by the same name: Misr. As Raymond notes, Cairo’s Arab roots date to 642 c.e., when the settlement of Fustat was first created. The origin of this name is uncertain and, even at an early date, writers began to wonder why the city should have been dubbed Fustat. Some authors said the term first began to be used in recognition of the piety of the general Amr ibn al-As; Amr, they claimed, would not strike his tent (fustat in Arabic) when he left the area to besiege Alexandria because a pigeon had built a nest on his tent-pole and he did not want to disturb the eggs it had laid there. Others authors said, perhaps more reliably, that the term was a corruption of the Greek word phossaton (“entrenchment”) or its Latin equivalentfossatum, and refers to the ditch or moat that had been the pre-Islamic settlement’s most distinctive feature.
Raymond provides a very rapid survey of Fustat’s development from its founding until 969, when the Fatimid dynasty created the nearby settlement of al-Qahira (“the victorious [city]”). It is al-Qahira that Europeans came to mispronounce as “Cairo,” a name that was eventually applied to the combined area of both towns. With its Fatimid origins, al-Qahira long preserved ties to a distinctive Islamic sect that traces its origin to Fatima, the daughter of Mohammad and wife of Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. All caliphs of the Fatimid dynasty trace their descent from Fatima through Isma’il, the son of the imam Ja’far. In this way, one explanation for Cairo’s origin is that it was intended to serve as an outpost for the Isma’ili movement. The city’s founders did not expect it would ever be a large settlement since it was located so close to the thriving metropolis of Fustat. Despite these modest expectations, however, Cairo quickly began to grow, overshadowing Fustat in importance even during the time of the Fatimids.
Although al-Qahira was at first reserved for the caliph, his...
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