Monday, April 2, 2007


Cairo (Arabic: القاهرة transliteration: Al-Qāhirah), which means "The Vanquisher" or "The Triumphant", is the capital city of Egypt. While Al-Qahirah is the official name of the city, in Egyptian Arabic it is typically called simply by the name of the country, Masr (مصر, Egypt). It has a metro area population of about 12.2 million people, the thirteenth lagest in the world . Cairo is the second most populous city in Africa after Lagos, Nigeria.

History of Cairo

Old Cairo or Al-Fustat الفسطاط was founded in AD 648 near other Egyptian cities and villages, including the old Egyptian capital Memphis, Heliopolis, Giza and the Byzantine fortress of Babylon-in-Egypt. However, Fustat was itself a new city built as a military garrison for Arab troops and was the closest central location to Arabia that was accessible to the Nile. Fustat became a regional center of Islam during the Umayyad period and was where the Umayyad ruler, Marwan II, made his last stand against the Abbasids. Later, during the Fatimid era, Al-Qahira (Cairo) was officially founded in AD 969 as an imperial capital and it absorbed Fustat. During its history various dynasties would add suburbs to the city and construct important structures that became known throughout the Islamic world including the Al-Azhar mosque. Conquered by Saladin and ruled by Ayyubids starting in 1171, it remained an important center of the Muslim world. Slave soldiers or Mamluks took-over Egypt and ruled from their capital at Cairo from 1250 to 1517 when they were defeated by the Ottomans. Following Napoleon's brief occupation, an Ottoman officer named Muhammad Ali made Cairo the capital of an independent empire that lasted from 1801 to 1882. The city came under British control until Egypt attained independence in 1922.

Today, Greater Cairo encompasses various historic towns and modern districts into one of the most populous cities in the world. A journey through Cairo is a virtual time travel: from the Pyramids, Saladin's Citadel, the Virgin Mary's Tree, the Sphinx, and ancient Heliopolis, to Al-Azhar, the Mosque of Amr ibn al-A'as, Saqqara, the Hanging Church, and the Cairo Tower. It is the Capital of Egypt, and indeed its history is intertwined with that of the country. Today, Cairo's official name is Al-Qahira (Cairo), although the name informally used by most Egyptians is "Masr" (Egyptian Arabic name for Egypt).

Era of the Pharaohs (BC 3500 - BC 30)

The Great Sphinx of Giza is in Giza near Cairo
The Great Sphinx of Giza is in Giza near Cairo

Long before the pyramids were built, Egypt's northern and southern territories were ruled separately. It was about 5000 years ago that a young prince by the name of Narmer (Menes) unified the Red (North) and White (South) kingdoms and became Egypt's first Pharaoh. As brilliant a politician as he was a warrior, Narmer chose the site of Memphis as his capital. The city was situated at the then Nile Delta tip, along the North-South border, and about 25 km south of today's downtown Cairo.

For the next 800 years or so, the first Capital of the ancient Egyptians prospered under the rule of Zoser, Khufu (Cheops), Khafre (Chephren), Menkaure (Mycerinus), Unas, and others. It became one of the most influential and powerful cities in the world, and housed one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Pyramid of Giza. Constructed on the Giza plateau, a necropolis of the city of Memphis on the Nile's west bank, the three Great Pyramids are the ultimate manifestation of political stability and power of the ruler during the Third and Fourth Dynasties. Khufu's son built 2 of the Giza pyramids.

The Romans (BC 30 - AD 641)

No one knows the origin of the name of Babylon-in-Egypt. It may be a corrupted version of the ancient Egyptian per-hapi-n-on, or Nile House of On, a nearby Island. It might have come from the Arabic Bab-ila-on, or gateway to On. Or it may be simply a name the Babylonian prisoners of Pharaoh Sesostris gave to the place. Anyway, Babylon-in-Egypt was more a strategic spot than an intellectual center. With the re-opening of the canal joining the Nile to the Red Sea, the town became the gateway to Persia and India. Control over the Fortress of Babylon therefore meant control over trade. And while Alexandria was the political and intellectual capital of Egypt under the Greeks and the Romans, Babylon became its military stronghold.

The year 30 BC marked a significant turning point in the history of Egypt and the world at largest. It was the year when the victorious Octavian (Augustus) entered Alexandria. His former ally and rival Mark Antony died, and Cleopatra ended her own life, realizing that her time was over. Although Cleopatra was of Greek descent, she, like her ancestors, ruled Egypt as an Egyptian. She was both Queen and Pharaoh. With her death, Egypt simply became just another Roman province, a Roman granary rather than a world power.

The Islamic Conquest (641 - 969)

Islamic arts adorning the ceiling of The Mosque of Muhammad Ali
Islamic arts adorning the ceiling of The Mosque of Muhammad Ali

In AD 640 a Muslim army commanded by the Arabian general Amr ibn al-A'as, laid siege to the Fortress of Babylon near what is today Cairo. It was a matter of time before the Byzantine governor of Egypt agreed to peacefully surrender the fortress, and less than a year later, the capital city Alexandria as recorded in the Treaty of Misr. Amr became the first Arab ruler of Egypt and remained so until his death.

Even though the Arabs admired Alexandria's glamor and wealth, they decided to abandon the city. The reason is simple: no body of water was to separate the Egyptian Capital from the Caliph's residence in Medina. Al-Fustat was therefore founded on the East bank of the Nile, outside the walls of the Fortress of Babylon. Deriving its name from the Arabic (and Roman) word for "camp" or "tent", the town was built at the spot where the Arabs camped during the Fortress siege. Here, the first mosque in Africa was built, carrying the name of the Arab general, Amr.

The new capital grew slowly as Alexandria and other Byzantine cities went into decline. With the re-opening of the Red Sea Canal, Al-Fustat became the linking bridge between the East and the West.

The Triumphant City (969 - 1168)

Bab Zuweila, one of the Gates of Old Cairo.
Bab Zuweila, one of the Gates of Old Cairo.

By the 10th Century following the reign of the Abbasid Caliphateالخلافة العباسية and Tulunid dynasty a new power threatened Egypt. This time, the new leader was a Shiite named Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah who established his political and military platform in Tunisia and moved eastward. His legitimacy was supported by his purported claim as a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammed's daughter, Fatima. Egypt was conquered during the reign of one of Billah's successors, Ma'ad al-Muizz Li-Deenillah. In 969, he sent his most skilled general Gawhar, or Jewel, on a campaign to capture Egypt.

Strictly speaking, in the Islamic religion, only prisoners of war are to be taken as slaves. By the tenth century, however, young men and women from neighboring territories such as the Caucasus and Central Asia were constantly kidnapped and sold in markets. With these two "abundant" sources, the slave market was quite active in the Middle East and North Africa during the Abbasid Caliphate. Unlike in the Western World, slaves in the Islamic Empire were civil servants rather than hard labor workers. Their status would tremendously rise if they converted to Islam. The younger were treated like family members, and the older would become confidants, civil servants, political aides, and even military officers, such as Gawhar. Even Egypt's famous governor Ahmad ibn Tulun was the son of a slave, while Kafoor was a former slave himself.

The Age of Salahideen and the Crusades (1168 - 1250)

The Masjid of Muhammad Ali in the Citadel Of Salahideen in Old Cairo
The Masjid of Muhammad Ali in the Citadel Of Salahideen in Old Cairo

The last Fatimid Caliph was only eighteen when the Seljuks captured Cairo. The Seljuks who came originally form Central Asia had already conquered Syria and Palestine, and established their capital in Damascus. By 1168, Egypt had become a battleground between the Seljuks and the Crusaders, with the Fatimids having virtually little or no control, although they sided mostly with the Crusaders. It was in 1168 that the victorious Shirkoh entered Cairo, and was named governor of Egypt by the Sultan of Damascus, Noor-el-Din. When he died a year later, his nephew was immediately appointed as the next governor. He was young—in his early thirties—and full of will. Quickly, he would become one of the most famous figures in medieval history. His name was Salah-El-Din the Ayyubid, better known in Western history as Saladin.

Ruled by the Mamluk (1250 - 1517)

When Salahideen established his rule over Cairo, his Seljuk army was mainly composed of slaves and former slaves who had climbed up the ranks. They were mostly Circassians from the Caucasus region or Central Asians who were captured in military raids or, in most instances, kidnapped by slave merchants. The military power of the men slaves had been on the rise since the early Abbasid rule, but their political influence tremendously increased when Salahideen rewarded them extravagantly for their loyalty. They were granted ranches and palaces, and some became governors. Women slaves usually became part of the Sultan or ruler's harem, and had even more influence over politics and internal palace matters. These slaves became known as the Mamluks (lit. Owned), and the term extended to include former slaves who were often freed to become aides and viziers. Shagarit el-Dorr (Tree of Pearls) was the former slave and the wife of Al-Saleh, the last Ayyubid Sultan. When he died in 1249, and with no strong successor within the Ayyubid house, Shagarit el-Dorr became monarch. The Mamluk lady would be the last woman to rule Egypt to this day. She ruled singlehandedly for 80 days, but was later pressured into marrying the Mamluk chief officer, Aybeck, in order to "keep things in perspective". She continued, however, to rule Egypt, and even had her husband assassinated when he wanted to marry another woman. Shortly after, she herself was killed by her fellow Mamluks who decided she had "gone too far".

Sultan Hassan Mosque (left) and Al Rifa'i Mosque (right) seen from Al-Azhar Park
Sultan Hassan Mosque (left) and Al Rifa'i Mosque (right) seen from Al-Azhar Park

Osmaniye's Age (Sultans and Mamluks) (1517 - 1798)

Under the rule of the Ottomans, the Mamluks did not cease to exercise their power. As the Ottoman empire expanded, the new world power adopted a government model that consisted of three authorities: local, military, and political. In Egypt, they realized that the power of the Mamluks was strong enough to subdue the local people, yet not too strong to revolt against the Sublime Porte, or the Ottoman Sultan. The Mamluks were, therefore, left in charge of local affairs. Feudal Lords or Mamluk Beys were appointed to each of Egypt's districts, and, in order to ensure no revolt attempt on the part of the Mamluks, the Ottomans stationed their own soldiers, the Janissaries and the Azabs, in Cairo. Both orders consisted of soldiers, much like the Mamluks, enslaved at a young age, raised as fighters, and appointed to high military, political, and civil posts. The Janissaries were among the most skillful of fighters. It was to them that Constantinople fell in 1453.

However, the ultimate political power was, at least theoretically, in the hands of the main authority, the Pasha, a Turk governor usually educated in Istanbul. In several occasions, Pashas were overruled by powerful Mamluk Beys, who were subsequently subdued by the Ottoman troops, who received their orders from the Sultan, and so on. To the Sultans, what mattered most in the provinces was tax collection rather than political power. Meanwhile, little was being done to improve the social and economic status of Egypt or its capital city.

French domination (1798 - 1801)

Lions guard the Kasr-el-Nil Bridge which traverses the Nile at Tahrir Square.
Lions guard the Kasr-el-Nil Bridge which traverses the Nile at Tahrir Square.
Baron Empain Palace (Qasr Al Baron)
Baron Empain Palace (Qasr Al Baron)

It was in the summer of 1798 that Napoleon's army landed in Alexandria and advanced to Cairo. Murad Bey and Ibrahim Bey, the Mamelouk rulers of Egypt, sent a messenger with a small tribute and asked the French general to leave the country. They had never heard of Napoleon before. The French captured Cairo with little resistance shortly after. Much is to be taken against the French during their three-year occupation, from their mistreatment of Egyptian citizens to their invasion of Al-Azhar mosque. However, one has to acknowledge that it was during their presence that Egypt came out of its long Dark Age. Champollion the father of Egyptology, deciphered the Ancient Egyptian writings on the famous Rosetta Stone. The French also established the "Institut d'Egypte", built schools and colleges, and wrote the Description de l'Egypte, the most comprehensive reference on the country's geography and culture. The French Rule Soon ended in 1801 with some help from the Ottoman Empire.

The era of Muhammad Ali and his successors

Under Muhammad Ali's rule, Cairo prospered both economically and culturally. Not only was the infrastructure of the city rebuilt, but a new city center was also planned according to European standards. This new city center, today occupies the downtown Tahrir Square, Garden City, and Azbakeya. It was constructed over a swampy flood plain stretching between Ramses Square and the Nile by French city planners and engineers. A new mosque, the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, was erected within the walls of Saladin's Citadel, and barrages were constructed along the Nile near the city. Cotton was introduced and soon became the country's main crop, thereby boosting the economy. During the six-year reign of Muhammad Ali's grandson, Abbas, the first railway line was constructed between Alexandria and Cairo, soon to be followed by a railroad network covering the Delta and Upper Egypt with Cairo at its center. Much of the hydraulic and transportation infrastructure built during that period is still operating to this day. It is noted that Muhammad Ali's sons wanted to re-create Cairo according to the European Standards of cities.


Cairo is located on the banks and islands of the Nile River in the north of Egypt, immediately south of the point where the river leaves its desert-bound valley and breaks into two branches into the low-lying Nile Delta region.

The oldest part of the city is somewhat east of the river. There, the city gradually spreads west, engulfing the agricultural lands next to the Nile. These western areas, built on the model of Paris by Ismail the Magnificent in the mid-19th century, are marked by wide boulevards, public gardens, and open spaces. The older eastern section of the city is very different: having grown up haphazardly over the centuries it is filled with small lanes and crowded tenements. While western Cairo is dominated by the government buildings and modern architecture, the eastern half is filled with hundreds of ancient mosques that act as landmarks.

Extensive water systems have also allowed the city to expand east into the desert. Bridges link the Nile islands of Gezira and Roda, where many government buildings are located and government officials live. Bridges also cross the Nile attaching the city to the suburbs of Giza and Imbabah (part of the Cairo conurbation).

West of Giza, in the desert, is part of the ancient necropolis of Memphis on the Giza plateau, with its three large pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Giza Approximately 11 miles (18 km) to the south of modern Cairo is the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis and adjoining necropolis of Saqqara. These cities were Cairo's ancient predecessors, when Cairo was still in this approximate geographical location.

Cairo infrastructure

A view towards the South of Cairo at dusk
A view towards the South of Cairo at dusk


Cairo, as well as neighbouring Giza, have been established as Egypt's main center for medical treatment,despite the very low level of medicine in the country as well as a Health Centre in the Middle East. Some of Cairo's most famous hospitals are As-Salam International Hospital- Corniche El Nile; Maadi (Egypt's largest private hospital with 350 beds), Ain Shams University Hospital, as well as Qasr El Ainy General Hospital. See List of hospitals in Egypt.


Cairo has long been the hub of education and educational services not only for Egypt but also for the whole Arab and African world. Today, Cairo is the center for the government offices governing the Egyptian educational system, has the largest number of educational schools, and higher learning institutes among other cities and governorates of Egypt.

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