Cairo: The City Victorious Summary
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 world’s oldest university, al-Azhar, is located in Cairo. It was from such centers of culture that the West relearned the medicine of Hippocrates and the philosophy of Plato long after firsthand knowledge of these works had vanished from Spain, France, and Italy. Over time, however, a rising tide of orthodoxy stifled academic freedom in the schools of Cairo. Rather than discovering new principles of mathematics and astronomical laws, scholars became ever more focused on perfecting their analysis of Islamic law. Once the greatest mathematicians in the world, Egyptian scholars by the time of the Renaissance needed numerical skill no more complicated than that required to calculate the portions of an inheritance. As the curriculum of Cairene schools focused exclusively on the Koran, advances in mathematics, science, and art were increasingly made elsewhere.
Rodenbeck tells an excellent story and, like all good storytellers, he fills his account with memorable people. One of the book’s most memorable figures is the female ruler Shagat al-Durr, a former Turcoman slave who married the sultan and then, surviving him, attempted to conceal his death and rule in his place. Even when this ruse was discovered, Shagat managed to govern through various figureheads until she was finally toppled by her stepson. Realizing that the end was near, Shagat crushed all of her jewels with a mortar and pestle, wanting to prevent them from being worn by any other woman.
Shagat eventually was beaten to death and thrown into a moat. Other women in Cairo’s history paid similarly high prices for attempted independence. In the Islamic period, Cairene society was rarely known for sexual equality. In most families, if the bride price had been paid in full, a Cairene man could forbid his wife even to leave their house. Veils became expected parts of female dress, not because of their centrality to Islam but because they were seen by many in Cairo as the only way to counteract a woman’s “natural” role as a temptress. (In an interesting reverse of logic, men were believed by the Cairenes to be the stronger sex but were regarded as all but helpless in the face of sexual temptation from a woman.) During the fourteenth century, one of the sheiks in Cairo insisted that his wife report to him everything she did in his absence, even if it was as minor as shifting a jar from one shelf to another. The sheik had to answer to Allah for his wife’s actions, he reasoned, and he could not justify them if he did not know them.
On the other hand, women in Cairo had a certain amount of freedom that their counterparts in Western cities at times did not share. Cairene women could own property. Certain professions not only were open to them but also were reserved for them. Divorce was common and, even for women, not particularly difficult to obtain. (Impotence was regarded as sufficient grounds for a divorce in most periods of Cairo’s history.) Moreover, contrary to their purpose, the veils that women wore gave them a certain anonymity that, a number of foreign visitors reported, increased both their allure and the frequency of illicit encounters with them.
Another factor leading to anonymity in Cairo was its perennial overpopulation. Even in the Middle Ages, apartment buildings frequently housed more than a thousand people each. One Cairene legend reports that two medieval schoolmates encountered one another after a separation of nearly thirty years, only to learn that they had lived all that time in the same apartment building. The medieval population of Cairo had reached 500,000 at a time when Paris contained only 200,000 people, London 50,000, and Rome a mere 40,000. Visitors from other countries were regularly amazed by the sheer size of Cairo and by the throngs that filled its streets. Such overcrowding made early Cairo one of the greatest markets in the world but also opened it to the risk of epidemics. The plagues of the medieval and early modern worlds ravaged Cairo as no other city. Outbreaks of plague occurred until well into the nineteenth century, gradually sapping the city’s population. Only in the twentieth century with the control of infectious illness would Cairo once again become what it is today: the most densely populated large urban area in the entire world.
Modern Cairo, as Rodenbeck depicts it, is often compared to a once beautiful matron in decline. Though much of its grandeur has decayed, the city is filled with evidence of what it once was. Though its greatness is all in its past, Cairo is still approached by countless people who want to become acquainted with it and, even if vicariously, to become a part of its history. The sheer multitude of Cairo’s population renders every urban problem immense, from crime to trash removal to urban transit to feeding its increasing numbers of destitute citizens. Cairo has also suffered from dubious schemes by Egypt’s rulers to preserve the city or to aid the country. The city’s population has largely resigned itself to a high degree of governmental corruption, useless bureaucracy, and civic dissolution. In the end, although Cairo remains a fascinating community, there appears to be no solution on the horizon to the city’s many and growing challenges.
One of the problems facing modern Egypt is the degree to which the country has become highly centralized, with the vast majority of its population and political control located in Cairo itself. If the ancient historian Herodotus described Egypt as “the gift of the Nile,” modern Egypt is perhaps better described as the gift of Cairo itself. The nation’s vast tourism industry is centered there, as are most jobs, universities, and government programs. Each day the population of the capital swells by hundreds or thousands, reducing its already limited ability to feed and shelter those who yielded to its allure in the past.
Rodenbeck’s talent is his ability to bring to life the sights and sounds of Cairo in all its fascinating diversity, even to readers who know the city only from the pages of history books and newspapers. An easily read combination of historical account and travelogue, Cairo: The City Victorious guides the reader continually back and forth between the ancient and modern cities. From the Memphis of the pharaohs to the Fustat of the early Islamic caliphs to the sweltering megalopolis of today, Cairo is revealed with sensitivity and insight into all periods of its development. The book will certainly entice a few more travelers to explore the unique and complicated history of “The City Victorious.” While one of the book’s few disappointments is that it contains no photographs or maps, it does include an extensive bibliography for readers who wish to build upon the excellent introduction that Rodenbeck has given them.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (February 1, 1999): 960.
Library Journal 124 (February 1, 1999): 110.
New Statesman 127 (November 13, 1998): 46.
Publishers Weekly 246 (January 4, 1999): 82.