Like so many parts of Egypt,
Cairo's appeal is a product of its history, its network of
districts and communities the only remnants of a thousand
years of being conquered and re-conquered by different
groups. Cairo didn’t originate, as you might expect, with
the pharaohs; they quartered themselves in nearby Memphis
and Heliopolis, areas only currently overtaken by Cairo's
outward urban spread.
The Pyramids at Giza, on the Nile’s west bank, mislead the
eye in search of Cairo's beginnings because this has always
been an east-bank city, even though it is one that moved
west. It is only in the last 40 years that the city has
changed faster than the river, leaping the banks and drawing
in the endless new suburbs on the west bank.
Cairo's history begins with a
Roman trading outpost called Babylon—now known as Old or
Coptic Cairo—at the start of an ancient canal that once
connected the Nile to the Red Sea.
The Arab invaders of
the 7th century can be credited to have founded the
city we know today with their encampment at Fustat,
just north of Old Cairo. Under their famous leader
Amr Ibn al-As, the Arabs conquered a land that had
already been settled by the Greeks, the Persians,
and the Romans.
In the millennium that followed Amr's conquest,
Cairo was ruled by the Fatimids (969-1171), the
Mamluks (1250-1517), and the Ottomans (1517-1798),
and then went under 150 years of French and British
colonial administration until the revolution of 1952
finally gave power back to Egyptian hands.
What makes Cairo different is that each new
ruler, rather than getting rid what he had
conquered, chose to build a new city away
from the old one.
Thus, from an aerial perspective
above the Nile, you can follow the progression of the
historic center of Cairo cutting a question-mark-shape
avenue from Old Cairo in the south, curving north through Fustat, east to Islamic Cairo, and then west to the colonial
Downtown district until you reach Maydan Tahrir (Liberation
Square), where it has stopped for the moment.
But as the city continues to
progress, the center might need to relocate again, perhaps
to Maydan Sphinx, or Boulaq, or somewhere in Giza.
Cairo's towns have
changed, since the time when they were founded, and
with 10 million new residents having settled here
since the revolution of 1952, many more new
districts have grown around them. Still, each
district maintains a distinct identity, not only in
its buildings, but also with its residents and their
way of life. Pre-Islamic Babylon is, even today, a
largely Christian area, with more crosses visible
than crescents. And the medieval precinct of Islamic
Cairo remains the place where families still go
during Ramadan to spend the night eating and smoking
after a day of abstinence. Indeed, one of the charms
of Cairo is that its historic areas are still alive,
and vibrant and not open-air museums.
The past in Cairo is more a matter of perspective than a
historical fact—and that, really, is the way in which the
city is truly amazing.