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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1698

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.

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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 court, and the military, the sheer size of this court and the site’s physical distance from Fustat encouraged various artisans and tradesmen to settle there. Luxury goods, in particular, were in high demand by members of the court and, as a result, large numbers of skilled craftsmen began to build houses in al-Qahira. By the end of the Fatimid dynasty, the population of al-Qahira was large enough to support eight public baths, no matter that there were already many other baths located throughout Fustat.

As the Middle Ages continued, Fustat and al-Qahira preserved their individual identities. Even after Saladin built a wall uniting the two settlements in the late twelfth century, the two communities remained discrete, each with its own civic organization and its independence preserved by a large open area standing between the two cities. By about 1250, Fustat was clearly in decline. Jewish residents and other tradesmen were steadily relocating to al-Qahira. Travelers approaching the city for the first time described the shabbiness and desolation found in much of Fustat, often contrasting conditions there to the increasing prosperity they found in al-Qahira.

By the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, at a time when Venice had a population of less than 100,000, Córdoba about 90,000, Seville 52,000, and Rome only about 40,000, the combined population of Fustat and al-Qahira reached nearly 150,000, making it one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean. By 1348, the population of Cairo reached nearly 200,000, before the Black Death devastated the city. It is estimated that nearly one-third to two-fifths of Cairo’s population fell victim to the plague in only a few years. Amazingly, however, construction of new civic projects continued unabated in the city, including the monumental Mosque of the Sultan Hasan, built from 1356-1361, almost as soon as the plague had subsided.

Because of the huge Coptic population of Egypt, Christians remained the largest segment of the population of Cairo until the ninth century. Even afterwards, a sizable Christian population could be found in Fustat. Nevertheless, when Christianity began to decline in Egypt, it did so precipitously. By the fifteenth century, when Maqrizi wrote his Khitat, which was so detailed that it remained the most complete architectural and geographic description of Egypt until the Napoleonic period, only two Coptic churches could be found in Cairo. Christians quickly became a minority, not through any direct persecution by the sultans, but as a result of indirect social pressure and the greater political opportunities that were available to Muslims.

In the thirteenth century, Salih Ayyub, the last Ayyubid sultan, initiated a policy that was to have a lasting effect on Cairo’s history and physical development. Ayyub introduced Turkish slaves into Cairo to form his guard. These slaves proved to be so effective that they ultimately became a major part of the Egyptian military forces. The slaves, known as mamluks (“possessed” or “those who are owned”), were the vanguard of a new military and cultural tradition; in time, the mamlukswould come to be an elite military force. Mamluks were slaves recruited as boys, brought up in the Islamic faith, and highly trained in the military techniques of the day. Fierce in their loyalty to the sultan, the mamluks helped expand Islamic—and Egyptian—power far beyond the borders of Egypt.

In the thirteenth century, a rebellion, led by the mamluk leader Baybars, led to the death of the sultan and the caliph, causing the establishment of a new dynasty dominated by the mamluks that lasted for nearly 250 years. The mamluks went on the offensive against the Franks in Syria and Palestine and began turning back the advances of the Mongols before they, in turn, were defeated in 1517 by the expanding power of the Turks under Selim I.

After the fall of the mamluks, Ottoman governors, now raised to the rank of pasha, ruled Egypt from Cairo. These governors supervised the administration of the province, maintained public order, administered the collection of taxes, and prepared the tribute that had to be sent on a regular basis to Istanbul. The governors resided in the citadel, but usually not for long: historical records cite the names of 110 pashas during the Ottoman period, from 1517 and 1798. Despite a certain degree of splendor, during this period Cairo passed from an independent existence as capital of its own empire to secondary status as the largest city of a province. Egypt was occupied once again, much as it had been from the time of Cleopatra until its liberation by Ahmad ibn Tulun.

Although it is widely believed that Cairo declined rapidly after the fall of the mamluks, Raymond demonstrates that the city continued to prosper throughout much of the Ottoman period. Nevertheless, the growth of the city was still minimal by modern standards. As late as the eighteenth century, Cairo was expanding at little more than “medieval” rates of population growth, perhaps half a percent a year. High birth rates were offset by even higher mortality rates brought about by disease and warfare. By the time of the Napoleonic invasion, the French forces discovered a city that had expanded little in size since the sixteenth century.

The arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 brought about a slow awakening of Egypt and of Cairo in particular. Increased interest in Egypt by the Europeans and the resulting influx of trade brought new opportunities and challenges for Egyptians throughout much of the nineteenth century. Progressive rulers, such as Muhammad Ali (1805-1848) and Isma’il Pasha (1830-1895), sought to modernize Egypt swiftly, creating the basis of the modern metropolis of Cairo with all of its crowding, pollution, and urban challenges.

Raymond closes his history of Cairo at the end of the twentieth century. Describing the city’s difficult period of rapid growth from 1936 until 1992, he ends his story with the city well established as a bustling metropolis, almost unrecognizable from the premodern outpost with which the book began. Cairo also includes a number of photographs (many of which are small, and all of which are in black-and-white), a useful timeline, a select bibliography, and extensive notes.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal 125 (November 15, 2000): 81.

Publishers Weekly 247 (November 20, 2000): 55.

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