Cairo’s layers tell a tale of 3 historical cities

January 17, 2004 12:00 AM

Cairo is one of the cities whose history can be read by looking at almost anything, from architecture to jokes, and from books to advertisements atop the city buildings. The impression Cairo gives to the passing tourist is one of a chaotic, improvised, and all in all a mad city. One could find functioning butcheries and groceries inside the walls of a five-century-old palace, laundry lines hanging out of balconies built by the Ottomans and the Mamlouks, and a museum the majority of whose contents are stored in the basement. Nevertheless, there is method to Cairo’s madness. To the Cairenes, Cairo is a magical city of contradictions whose riddles get more complex as they unravel.

Cairo is a city of layers. It was built by the Fatimid general Jawhar al-Siqilli (Jawhar the Sicilian) in the 10th century. The place is strategically located south of the Nile Delta, giving the rulers of Cairo full control over the flow of water to the fertile lands in the north. The city, which prosperously lies in the valley, contains an easily accessible hill in the east overlooking the Red Sea desert plateau, the traditional route for invaders. Precisely for such reasons, with the exception of Thebes and Alexandria, all major capitals of Egypt had been located somewhere near the site chosen by the Fatimid general. Fatimid Cairo engulfed most of the previous capitals of Egypt around it. Two of the most famous exceptions, however, are Pharaonic Memphis and modern Cairo. The three-quarters of today’s greater Cairo accurately tell the story of Egyptian politics and history.

What remains of Memphis is not so much the capital city as the capital city’s cemetery. It was the tradition of ancient Egyptians to build their cities on the east bank of the Nile, and build the necropolis in the west. The design of ancient Egyptian cities was supposed to reflect the religion of the sun-god Amun-Ra. The religion changed more than once and there was more than one version, at any point in time, depending on the relative power of Egyptian cities and their priests.

The core of the myth stayed the same, where the movement of the sun from east to west was the cause and symbol of life, and another nocturnal journey of the sun god, that took place underground from west to east, was paralleled by the afterlife of humans, where they were tried and judged for their worldly deeds.

Since life is temporary, while afterlife is eternal, buildings for the living were made of clay, while temples for the gods and tombs for the dead were made of stone. Almost no worldly building of a Pharaonic city survived; yet, tombs and temples remained. Today’s Memphis lies to the west of Cairo, in the governorate of Giza. However, the expansion of the city made the pyramids seem as if they were downtown.

The story of Memphis is very telling, not of Egypt’s ancient past, but of her present. Pharaonic Egypt is a necropolis, it is dead, but its death is strikingly beautiful and breathtaking. Egyptians admire their Pharaonic past, but such admiration would not bring the past back to life.

In an amazing contrast to the Pharaonic necropoli stands Islamic Fatimid Cairo, the real heart of the city ­ tired, crowded and may be broken but very much alive. Everything here is relevant to life. At the heart of the city lies the oldest functioning university in the world: Al-Azhar, built by the Fatimids in the 10th century, is a mosque and university. Its dorms still stand; carrying the names of people from the furthermost quarters of the early Fatimid Empire; the Syrians, the Moroccans and the Southern Egyptians.  Hospitals built by Mamlouk Sultans of the 13th century still function as hospitals, the specialized markets of jewelers, furniture makers and artisans are as busy and crowded as ever and, unlike the Pharaonic temples, the millennial mosques of Cairo are busy with worshipers. Pharaonic Egypt is more the realm of the tourist than the native, while Islamic Cairo is just the opposite.

When the tourist goes to Islamic Cairo, he or she is offended by the scene of the laundry lines hanging out of ancient buildings. A tourist would prefer the city to be turned into a museum, a mummy in an air-conditioned hall, but to the native, who lives in that part of the city, turning his or her home to a museum is an act of aggression. The laundry line then becomes an act of defiance and resistance. Personally it does not bother me at all.

To the west of Islamic Cairo, you find the colonial city, European Cairo. Originally built by Khedive Ismail to become a second Paris on the Nile, European Cairo symbolizes the inferiority complex of colonially created elites in the third world. Using Franz Fanon’s expression, Ismail’s city is nothing but the improvised white mask over Cairo’s beautiful black skin. It is the city of longing ­ a hundred years ago it longed to become part of Europe and that was frustrated. Now is inhabited by the descendents of her first inhabitants, the children of a British created elite, that had to give way to a US created elite. Not as poor, crowded and vibrant as Islamic Cairo, and not clean, tranquil and ugly as American Cairo to the west, European Cairo lies in the middle of middles, a city of nostalgia and confusion.

Moving west one crosses the Nile back again toward Giza and the Pharaonic necropolis, yet at the foot of the Pharaonic plateau, lies the quarter of Al-Mohandeseen, the city of Compradors, business men who worked in the Arab gulf, and Army generals. Al-Mohandeseen is rich and ugly, its architecture has no identitywhatsoever. It was the first of a series of quarters that were built in the second half of the twentieth century as an escape from the city’s poverty. Yet, as soon as the rich build their quarter the poor follow with their slums. There is a whole category of such quarters like Masr Al-Jadeeda, Al-Maadi and lately Ard-al-Golf. All of them are rich and extremely ugly. Of course such quarters are inhabited by today’s elite.

The three cities and the necropolis coexist, yet at times they seem tired with one another. When the forests march things change. The future of Egypt and, to a great extent, that of the Arab world depends on which of the three cities marches first.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::