Max Rodenbeck’s intriguing look at Cairo presents the city, not as a single place, but as an amalgam of different towns, each springing up at a different moment of history. These settlements that would one day merge to form Cairo may have arisen close to one another physically, but each was completely unique in its origin, as well as in the temperament and outlook of its people. According to Rodenbeck, the city that is now known as Cairo began as Yunu, an ancient settlement sacred to the sun god, and known to the Hebrews as On and to the Greeks as Heliopolis. Over time, Yunu came to be succeeded by Memphis, the ancient capital on the boundary between Upper and Lower Egypt. This capital was selected for its strategic location after the unification of the two Egypts by Menes at the dawn of history and was originally separated from Yunu by several miles. In time Memphis itself came to be supplanted by Fustat, a corruption of the Greek word phossaton (borrowed in turn from the Latin word fossa), the “ditch” or “moat” that had been the Byzantine settlement’s most distinctive feature. Finally, Fustat, too, was absorbed by a later Arabic settlement that came to be known as Al-Qahira, “The Victorious City,” a title which Westerners mispronounced as “Cairo.” The modern metropolis of Cairo is thus a palimpsest in which prehistoric, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Coptic, Byzantine, and Arabic elements may each be seen. Rodenbeck sees his tasks as to identify each of these strands in Cairo’s fabric and to explore how they all come together to create the city’s modern urban culture.
With their complex heritage and long history, it is not surprising that modern Cairenes have come to find continuity in a culture where outsiders see only disorder and contrast. For instance, Cairo’s minority Christian community delights in the numerous parallels it sees between ancient Egyptian religion and their own beliefs. The Virgin Mary, they point out, has many similarities to the early fertility goddess Isis, the baby Jesus is not all that different from the infant Horus, and the crucified Christ continued an image seen thousands of years earlier in the resurrection of the god Osiris. The Ankh, a hieroglyph for “sandal strap” that because of an ancient Egyptian pun also became a symbol for “life,” is seen by many in Cairo as an inspiration for the cross. Even the name for Cairo’s early Christians, the Coptics, preserved the connection of this group to ancient Egypt. Like the word “Egypt” itself, “Coptic” is a corruption of the Egyptian phrase Hut-Ka-Ptah, “The House of Ptah’s Spiritual Double.” Ptah, of course, was the tutelary deity of ancient Memphis itself.
Among Muslims, too, there is a high degree of continuity between ancient beliefs and modern practices. On Fridays, unmarried women in Cairo still circle seven times around a pillar at the tomb of Sidi Uqba, just as in antiquity pilgrims used to pass around the pyramid-shaped stone known as the Benben. Street fairs, known as mawlids, remained common forms of public entertainment until well into the twentieth century. These festivals, nominally in honor of some local Islamic saint or holy man (wali), have parallels in Egypt predating the Arabic period, some even having roots in periods earlier than Greco-Roman times. In Cairo, however, the origins of all customs have traditionally been coopted by whichever culture is in ascendancy. Cairenes have made it a habit to borrow any word, practice, or invention they believe to offer some advantage or potential source of pleasure.
The history of Cairo is inextricably linked with that of the Mamelukes (literally “those who are owned”), slave recruits who eventually became an elite military force. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Mamelukes served as a proud military caste similar to the samurai of Japan. Unwavering in their loyalty to the sultan, the Mamelukes were one of the world’s most feared military units, helping to expand the empire ruled by the sultan and his advisers from Cairo. The Mamelukes were equipped with stirrups and the recurved composite bow (sometimes known as the “Turkish bow”) long before these became standard weapons elsewhere in the world. Because of their importance to the city, it is not coincidental that in 1516, when the Mameluke army was finally defeated by the Ottomans under Selim the Grim, medieval Cairo became little more than a garrison of the Turks and entered a long period of stagnation.
Cairo served as an intellectual center for much of its history. Sultan after sultan endowed colleges and other institutes of higher learning as a way of demonstrating their piety and devotion to culture. The...
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