capital of Egypt (30°04′ N, 31°15′ E). The Fatimids, a Shi῾i Muslim group, invaded Egypt In 967 CE and founded Cairo as their capital two years later. Like all Shi῾is, the Fatimids were strongly inclined to mysticism, which often led to a deep dependence on astrology. They chose the time of the conjunction of Mars and Jupiter in the sign Aries (the ram) for their conquest. Apparently the capital's original name was to have been al-Mansuriyah (“the victorious”), named after a suburb of Kairouan (Qayrawan, the capital of the Shi῾i sect at that time in Tunisia). The name al-Kahira (Cairo), which was given to the city later, derives from Kahir el-Falak (“the conqueror of the planets”), the designation of the planet Mars. After the Byzantine general Jawhar captured al-Fustat (the early Islamic city founded by the Arabs in Egypt), he immediately began building an enclosure of very large unbaked bricks, measuring about 1,188 sq m (12,915 sq. ft.), which would include a palace, barracks, and administrative buildings.

A major north–south street of al-Kahira linked the old gates of Bab al-Futuh and Bab Zuwayla; both are named after gates at al-Mansuriyah (the Fatimids' headquarters in Tunisia). Part of this street survives in the modern Sharia al-Muizz Li-din Illah. On either side of this sheet, north of the Mosque of al-Azhar, stood the eastern palace, which was laid out by Jawhar, and the western palace built by al-Aziz (975–996). Between them was a very large open square called the Bayn al-Kasrayn (“between the two palaces”). No trace remains of the eastern palace, but literary sources inform us that it consisted of a walled enclosure with nine gates of stone and burned brick.

The gates were the most important architectural feature of this period. At the southern side of the city were the doors of Bab Zuwayla and Bab al-Farag. These portals are prime examples of medieval military fortification. To the west were the gates of Bab Saada and Bab al-Kantara. Bab el-Futuh (“the conquest gate”) and Bab el-Nasir (“the victory gate”) were at the north. Bab el-Futuh contained two cylindrical towers, and Bab al-Nasir had two square towers. The two eastern doors, Bab Barquyah and Bab el-Qarratin, were connected by two vaulted galleries with domed chambers. Bab Zuwayla was named after a tribe of the same name that lived nearby. During the Mamluk period, the door was called Bab el-Metwalli, “the gate of the tax collector.” According to tradition, the revenue official would sit by the door to collect the annual levy. Bab Zuwayla is considered architecturally the most beautiful gate.

Among the most important monuments that the Fatimids erected is the mosque of al-Azhar, which was built in the center of Cairo. Al-Azhar became an institution for the Shi῾i rite and a famous Islamic university. During the Ayyubid rule, prayers were not permitted at al-Azhar. The Ayyubids, who were Sunni, terminated Fatimid rule in Egypt. They stopped the Shi῾i ritual and closed al-Azhar as a center for Shi῾i teaching. Although they ruled for only eighty years, they had a remarkable influence on the arts, and particularly on architecture. The mosque was restored during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries CE, but the central part still preserves its original brick form.

Many Fatimid mosques remain in Cairo, such as al-Aqmar at Nahasein, as-Salih Talai near Bab Zuwayla, al-Fakahani, and al-Hakim, which follows the same plan as al-Azhar. At the end of the Fatimid period, Cairo reached its peak in terms of art and culture, and became a large city with beautiful mosques, parks houses, palaces and markets.

The first expansion of the city occurred when Salah ad-Din (Saladin) extended the original walls of Cairo farther south to enclose such early Islamic cities as al-Fustat, which was built by the Arab General Amr ibn al-῾Aṣ In 641, al-Askar, founded by the ῾Abbasids In 750, and el-Qatai, founded by Ahmed ibn Tulun In 870.

The origin of the name al-Fustat is not clear; some find that it derives from the Arabic word meaning “camps,” and other scholars suggest that it is from the Greek word phossaton (Lat., fossatum), meaning “fortress” or “town.” It is also called “the city of the tent.” The site of the new capital, al-Fustat, was protected by natural hills to the east and north. On the west, the city was protected by the Nile, which at that time was the link between the northern and southern Egypt. Early historians and travelers, such as al-Kudai, wrote that there were 3,600 mosques, 8,000 roads, and 1,700 public baths at al-Fustat. Writers may have exaggerated the numbers to show the progress of this new capital in the Islamic world.

Amr ibn al-῾Aṣ built the al-Atique (old) mosque In 641 in the center of the city. It is the oldest mosque in Egypt and is regarded as the first building of Islamic architecture. The mosque was expanded to its current size in the tenth century during the Umayyad period, and many additions were made by succeeding governors. The most impressive characteristics of early Islamic architecture as seen in this mosque are the magnificent large open court, the colonnades, and the marble columns. Early Arab historians named the mosque “the crown of the mosques” and “the mosque of conquest.” Amr built a house for himself to the north of the mosque and another one to the west for his son.

Wanting to prevent the conquest of the city by the Crusaders, the governor of al-Fustat in the twelfth century ordered it to be burned. The fire lasted for fifty-four days and destroyed almost the entire capital, creating a beneficial situation for archaeologists because the event preserved the entire stratigraphic record. Scientific excavation of the debris of al-Fustat settlement could provide us with information about the socioeconomic status of the people, as well as details of early Islamic art and architecture.

Despite its status, al-Fustat for many decades went without scientific excavation. In 1912–1913, Ali Bahgat excavated approximately fifty acres and found the wall that surrounded al-Fustat, the Citadel, and Cairo, built by Salah ad-Din. Hassan el-Hawary and A. Marzouk conducted an excavation at the site. K. A. C. Creswell, in cooperation with Mehriz, also worked at the site. Although the Egyptian Antiquities Organization excavated for many seasons, most of their archaeological reports are unpublished. A team from the American University in Cairo under the direction of George Scanlon, as well as a Japanese group, has been working at al-Fustat.

After the ῾Abbasids defeated the last Umayyad caliph in Egypt In 750, they ordered their governor in Egypt to build another capital for their troops. This new site was called al-Askar, “the barracks.” It was built as a suburb to the north-east of al-Fustat, in an area known as al-Hamra al-Kuswa and extended to the Yashkur Hills. The ῾Abbasids built their houses and the governor's headquarters, known as Dar el-῾Imarah, in al-Askar. The soldiers' barracks and the mosque of al-Askar were established by al-Fadl ibn Salih; during his tenure the two cities al-Fustat and al-Askar merged to form one large city. With the destruction of al-Fustat, al-Askar became the principal city. A series of sixty-five governors ruled Egypt from al-Askar on behalf of the ῾Abbasids for a period of approximately 118 years. The significance of the new capital al-Askar did not affect al-Fustat, which was still an important trade center.

Ahmed ibn Tulun founded the new city of al-Qata'i, “the wards,” In 870. The city was built in a one-square-mile area located between al-Askar and el-Mokattam. Ibn Tulun built his palace, and ordered his people to build new houses, in the new city. He built one of the finest mosques in Egypt and in the Islamic world. It took him two years to finish it, from 879 to 891. The mosque covers approximately 6.5 acres and is the largest mosque in the Islamic world. It is known as Ka'lat el-Kabsh or “fort of the ram.” The court measures ninety-nine m (325 ft.) on each side and is surrounded by arcades resting on massive square brick pillars. There are three hundred pointed horseshoe arches, constructed of brick and covered with stucco decorated with arabesque carvings. Some architectural features used in this mosque (such as brick pillars) were new to Islamic architecture. The minaret with external corkscrew stairs shows Mesopotamian influence. The pointed arches and handmade arabesque carvings are the best example of the Islamic style of decoration.

Salah ad-Din commissioned many important monuments that can still be seen today. The Citadel (intended to house his administration at el-Mokattam) and its aqueduct were built In 1177. Several buildings were added to the Citadel during the Ottoman period. Muhammad Ali Pasha expanded the Citadel, beginning with his mosque, which dominates the area, In 1845. The Citadel later served as the royal palace until Khedive Ismail moved it to the Abdeen Palace In 1850.

Salah ad-Din also introduced the architectural design known as el-Madrasa, which he adapted from Syria. Madrasahs were Islamic institutions used both as schools for Sunni Muslim subjects and as mosques for prayer services. The earliest known madrasah had two iwans (porticoes). The only surviving madrasah in Egypt was built by Sultan as-Salih Najm ed-Din (the last ruler of the Ayyubid period) and is an example of the important Ayyubid style, which was followed by the Mamluks. They built madrasahs on a cruciform plan to accommodate the four orthodox schools of Islam. The madrasah complex also contained a school, dormitory space, mausoleum, and mosque. The Mamluk “collegiate mosque” style of madrasah was a distinctive feature in the Islamic architectural vocabulary in Egypt. An extant example is the mosque of Sultan Hasan (1356), which stands in front of the Citadel. The best statement to describe that mosque was written by the historian Makrizi, “(it) surpassed all the mosques ever built in any part of the world.”

The Mamluks ruled for about one hundred years, leaving a large number of important and beautiful artifacts and buildings. Forty mosques are known from this period, and their art and architecture are considered by Islamic scholars and historians to be the most refined in all of Egypt's Islamic history. The minaret was introduced in this period and became an important architectural element of the mosques. Many artists and artisans from Syria and Iraq came to Egypt and introduced other new features. Cairo attained its current size during the Mamluk period. No monuments of distinction were added to Cairo during the reign of the Ottomans.

Today Cairo is the most famous Islamic city, because of its role in the politics of the Middle East as well as its central role in Islam. Al-Azhar Mosque remains the oldest and largest Islamic educational institution and the seat of Dar al-Fatwa (“the house of constitutions”) for all Muslims. A thriving urban center with fifteen million inhabitants, it has endured centuries of change to prove worthy of its glorious history.

[See also Egypt, article on Islamic Egypt; Fatimid Dynasty; and Fustat.]


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Zahi Hawass