Cairo (al- Qāhira, “the Victorious”), the capital of Egypt, is a major cultural center in the Islamic world. The city developed from the camp established in 969 by General Jawhar al- Siqilli (“the Sicilian,” d. 992) in the service of the Fatimid caliph Mu’izz (r. 953– 75), on the east bank of the Nile several miles south of where the river divides into channels to form the Delta. An escarpment of cliffs known as the Muqattam approaches the river at this locale, assuring its strategic significance. Successive governments have constructed fortifications there since Pharaonic times, and following the Arab conquest in 641, a permanent settlement called al- Fusṭāṭ (Gr. Phossatun, or “tent”) was established near a Byzantine garrison tower. Over the following three centuries, Fustat grew into a large port town, and successive ruling regimes built their residences and ceremonial mosques to the north. Jawhar plotted the parameters of Cairo partially on sightings of the planet Mars (al- Qāhir, hence the title Miṣr al- Qāhira, “Egypt the Victorious”). He designed a rectangle roughly one mile square and designated it as the seat of governance for the Fatimid caliphate and Isma’ili Shi’i missions (da’wa). Two large palaces, divided by a central avenue running south to north (Bayn al- Qaṣrayn, “between the two palaces”), and a cathedral mosque, al- Azhar, occupied most of this rectangle.
Habitation in al- Qahira was initially limited to the Fatimid elite. But after the Ayyubid termination of the Fatimid caliphate (1169) and restoration of Sunnism, Sultan Saladin (d. 1193) ordered the construction of a vast citadel (al- Qal’a) on a western spur of the Muqattam. Subsequently, the zones between the southern gate of al- Qahira (Bāb Zuwayla) and the citadel were urbanized. The town of Fustat, already diminished in population under the late Fatimids, was effectively abandoned after fires were ordered by the vizier Shawar (d. 1169) to empty the site during the Crusader period preceding the Ayyubid coup. From its foundation, the citadel replaced the former Fatimid palaces as the primary seat of governance and military power in Egypt and remained so until the onset of modernization following the reign of Muhammad ‘Ali (1805– 48). The Ayyubid sultans surrounded the urbanized zone with defensive walls extending from Fustat to the citadel and then north to al- Qahira. Aqueducts leading from the Nile to the citadel supplied water to the government center, and the population began to expand across the canal (al- Khalīj) to the Nile shore some miles west of the citadel and Fatimid al- Qahira.
After Mamluk soldiers who had served the last Ayyubid sultan, al- Malik al- Salih (d. 1250), seized control, the entire urban area became known as al- Qahira and underwent massive development. During the 267 years of independent Mamluk rule, Cairo attained its medieval apogee with a population of several hundred thousand. Following the fall of Baghdad to the Ilkhanids in 1258, Cairo became the leading center of literary and scholastic activity in the central Islamic lands, which it has subsequently remained. Under the Mamluks, Egypt experienced its final phase as a great power, and Cairo witnessed the construction of numerous mosques, colleges (madrasas), and Sufi hospices (khānaqāhs). Even in the aftermath of successive plague epidemics during the 14th and 15th centuries, Cairo persisted as the largest city in the Arabic- speaking world.
Following the Ottomans’ defeat of the Mamluks in 1517, Cairo continued as the seat of government in Egypt, their most prominent Arab province. Direct Ottoman rule persisted for approximately 100 years and was followed by semiautonomous control at the hands of local military officers who belonged to an elite descended from indigenous Mamluks and Ottoman Janissaries (Muslim infantry soldiers of European Christian origin). Cairo maintained its significance as one of the primary cities of the Ottoman Empire and as a center of trade between northeast Africa, Southwest Asia, and Mediterranean Europe. This period of autonomy was abruptly terminated in 1798 by the invasion of Egypt by the French under Napoleon Bonaparte. Although the French occupation lasted only three years, the resultant interregnum was ultimately resolved by Muhammad ‘Ali, an officer of Albanian descent sent by the Ottomans to restore their authority. Muhammad ‘Ali entrenched himself as the effective autocrat in Egypt, founded a dynasty that lasted until 1952, and proceeded to launch programs for the modernization of Cairo and its integration into the emerging European- dominated global economy. From Muhammad ‘Ali’s reign, Cairo has been gradually transformed into a modern megalopolis with a population eventually exceeding 15 million. Yet Cairo has retained its character as the leading center of culture and intellectual vitality in the Arabic- speaking world, and much of its medieval architecture has been restored.
See also Ayyubids (1169– 1250); Egypt; Fatimids (909–1171); Mamluks (1250–1517)
Janet L. Abu- Lughod, Cairo: 1,001 Years of the City Victorious, 1971; Marcel Clerget, Le Caire, Étude de géographie urbaine et d’histoire économique, 2 vols., 1934; K.A.C. Creswell, The Muslim Architecture of Egypt, vol. 1: Ikhshids and Fatimids, A.D. 939– 1171, 1952; Idem, The Muslim Architecture of Egypt, vol. 2: Ayyubids and Early