Cairo , The Magnificient city , the place where I received
Cairo, the Jewel of the Orient, the City of the Thousand Minarets, and the Melting Pot of Ancient and Modern Egyptian Civilizations
Cairo - the Triumphant City - is the glorious capital
of Egypt, the cradle of civilization and the beacon of religion. It
is the largest city in the Middle East and Africa and lies at the centre of all routes leading to, and from the
three continents: Asia, Africa and Europe.
Greater Cairo extends on the banks
of the River Nile to the south of its delta.
Here the Nile divides into its two distributaries:
Rosetta and Damietta. It is the city where past and present meet. On its east side stands the
evidence of 2000 years of Islamic, Christian Coptic, and Jewish culture still flourishing to this day. On its west side lies
the Ancient Egyptian city of Memphis (Giza), the renowned capital of the Old Kingdom and
the site of the Pyramids, the only wonder surviving of the Seven Wonders of the World. Indeed, a journey through Cairo is a journey through time... A journey through the history of an immortal civilization.
Officially speaking,. Cairo was
founded in AD 969However, to claim that Cairo is merely a thousand
years old is in fact historically inaccurate. The city's long journey across history started more than four millenia ago.
Throughout the ages, she managed to survive by fulfilling her rulers wishes, be they Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs,
or Turks. To please them, she assumed various
names: Memphis, Heliopolis, Babylon-in-Egypt, Al-Fustat,
Al-Qataei, Al-Askar, and most recently, Al-Qahira.
In order to appreciate Cairo's deep-rooted
history, one has to look back at history itself. When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, Cairo was older to him
than he is to us. In the fifth century BC, the great historian Herodotus visited the then 2000 year-old Pyramids as a tourist. At the time, the Ancient Egyptian civilization had generated
more than thirty dynasties, each surviving, on average, longer than the Soviet Union. Later, Cairo wintnessed the rise and fall of the Greek, Persian, Roman, Arab, Ottoman, French, and British Empires. She played major roles in the history of three
major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was here that the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus rested after their long
journey from Palestine, and that the first Islamic mosque in Africa was built by Amr Ibn Al-Aas. Cairo is at least twice as old as Paris, 7 times as old as Berlin, and 15 times as old as New York City.
Today, Greater Cairo encompasses various historic
towns and modern districts into one of the largest metropoles 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, Saqqara, the Hanging Church, and the Cairo Tower. With an estimated population of more than 15 million, she is the largest city
and the Middle East. She is the capital of Egypt, and indeed her history is carefully intertwinted with that of the country.
Today, her official name is Al-Qahira (Cairo), but to Egyptians, she is simply Masr : Egypt.
Pyramids and the Sun
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 to become 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
For the next 800 years or so, the first Capital of
the Pharaohs prospered under the rule of Zoser, Khufu (Cheops), Khafre (Chephren), Menkaure (Mycerinus),
Unas, and others. She became the most influential and powerful city in the world,
and housed the always and forever World Wonder, 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.
It wasn't until the Fifth Dynasty began (ca. 2500
BC) that the absolute power of the Pyramid-building Pharaoh declined, only to be replaced by that of the Sun-God, Ra. The
rule of Giza gave way to the authority of another city, now on the east bank, Heliopolis. Heliopolis, now known as "Matareya", (not to be confused
with the modern suburb of Heliopolis) was probably home of the first Ancient Egyptian priests. It was here that one the most
ancient, and well-documented, proof of religious authority existed. From that moment in history, the power of the Egyptian
priests would not yield for more than two thousand years. It was also here that one of the first science and learning centers
in the world existed, a center in which engineers, physicians, accountants, practiced and taught, even though they were all
identified as priests.
Slowly, but steadily, the ultimate power of Heliopolis was transferred
to a new city, further south: Thebes. In the Sixteenth Century BC, King
Ahmosis assumed full power over Egypt after expelling the Hyksos. His
reign marked the beginning of the New Kingdom which later produced Thutmosis III, Akhenaten, Tut-Ankh-Amen, and Ramesses II. Ahmosis, a native of the South, moved his Capital to Thebes, now known as
Luxor. Although the political strength of Heliopolis then declined, her religious power
The final chapter in the history of ancient Heliopolis came in 525
BC, when the Persians invaded Egypt. They destroyed Heliopolis which, to them, signified the religious power of the Pharaohs. Today, little can be found
at the site of Ancient Heliopolis. The most notable monument remaining is a single standing obelisk erected at the temple
by King Sesostris I. Four other obelisks which long ago stood at the site are now in Istanbul, London, New York, and Paris, attesting the
legacy of a once glamorous city. As the sun set on Heliopolis a new town emerged, closer to the Nile on its east bank: Babylon-in-Egypt.
The Roman Granary
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 the 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 Ancient Egyptian Canal joining the
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 B.C. marked a significant turning point in the history of Egypt and
the world at large. 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 and Egyptian. She was both Queen and Pharaoh. With her death, Egypt simple
became just another Roman province, a Roman granary rather than a world power.
With the birth of Christianity, the capital city Alexandria witnessed of a violent confrontation
between the Egyptian followers of the new religion (the Copts) and the Greek and Roman Pagans. Christianity, then widely accepted
among native Egyptians, found a safe place to grow away from the eyes of the Roman rulers. It was here that the Holy Family
rested when they came to Egypt. It was inside and near the Fortress walls that many of the oldest churches in the world
were later built: The Hanging (Muallaqa), Abu Sergah, Mar Guirguis, and others. When later the Romans adopted Christianity
as their official religion, the population of Babylon was virtually all Christian.
For many years, the Fortress of Babylon remained a symbol of Roman power. It was in the Seventh
century that the balance shifted toward a new power. Following years of exhausting war in the region between the Romans and
the Persians, both armies were swept away by the Moslem horsemen who emerged unexpectedly out the Arabian Peninsula. And it took
the Arabs little more than 10 years to conquer Syria, Palestine, Persia, and knock on the doors of the Fortress of Babylon in Egypt.
The City of Tents
In AD 640, the Moslem army, commanded by a skillful warrior, politician, and poet by the
name of Amr Ibn-el-Aas, besieged the Fortress of Babylon. It was a matter of time before the Viceroy
of Egypt, Cyrus, agreed to peacefully surrender the Fortress, and less than a year later, the Capital city Alexandria. Amr became
the first Arab ruler of Egypt and remained so until his death.
Even tough 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 declined. With the re-opening of the
Red Sea Canal, Al-Fustat became the linking bridge between the East and the West. In AD 661, a power struggle took place over the
Islamic Caliphate, and Amr, the cunning politician, sided with the powerful Umayyads who ruled from Damascus, and even
played a major role in legitimizing their reign. Egypt remained since loyal to the Umayyads until the collapse of their rule.
With the vast expansion of the Umayyad Empire, stretching from China
to the east to Spain in the west, corruption was unavoidable. Their rule was violently ended in 750 by the Abbasids
who moved their Capital to Baghdad. The new rulers moved the Egyptian Capital from Al-Fustat to the new town of Al-Askar. Although
both towns were just a stone's throw away, it was their way of imposing a new order. The lavishness of the Abbasid Empire
reached its highest point under the rule of Haroon al Rashid, but so did the taxes imposed on Egyptians. In 832, during
the reign of the Caliph Maamoon, the mostly-Coptic Egyptians peasants revolted, and Maamoon traveled himself to Al-Askar
to subdue them.
With the growing disorder within the Abbasid provinces, a new sort of rule came into existence by which local governors
started to gain more power, and some sort of independence. These governors were mostly appointed by the Baghdad Caliphate,
even though they were either elected by the locals or ascended to power through military struggle. In Al-Askar, such independence
was eventually achieved in by a young governor named Ahmad Ibn-Tulun.
Ibn-Tulun's power over Egypt grew shortly after Maamoon appointed him. By AD 870, he
declared Egypt an independent entity under the supreme rule of the Abbasid
Caliph. Not surprisingly, the young man decided to build a new capital to confirm the new order. He founded Al-Qatai,
not far from Al-Askar. In fact, Al-Fustat, Al-Askar, and Al-Qatai all cover an area of about 10 square kilometers, and constitute
a small part of today's Cairo.
The implications of Ibn-Tulun's rule are much deeper than
the founding of the city itself. For the first time since Cleopatra's death Egypt became an independent state, albeit
under the rule of a foreigner. Taxes collected were no more sent to the Caliphate in Baghdad, and the army was no more under the Caliph's
rule. And like earlier great rulers, Ibn-Tulun built a magnificent mosque immortalizing his name. Upon his death, he was succeeded
by his son Khamaraweh, who notoriously spent his time and money on embellishing his palace and capital city.
In 905, the Tulunid dynasty was overpowered back by the Abbasids who destroyed the palace
and devastated the gardens of Al-Qatai, and moved the capital back to Al-Fustat. Egypt, however,
went into a state of anarchy that lasted for 30 years, until the next powerful ruler emerged. This time, he was a Turk who
was appointed by Baghdad to restore order in Egypt. His name was Mohammed Ibn-Toughj,
better known in history as Al-Ikhshid. Under his rule, the capital city grew to encompass the towns of Al-Askar and
Al-Qatai. During the rule of Al-Ikhshid's successor, Kafoor, part of Al-Fustat was burned down. Not more than a few years later,
the city's status as Egypt capital was forever put to an end by Egypt's new rulers: The Fatimids.
The Triumphant City
It was in the Tenth Century that the A
was again challanged. This time, the new leader was a Shiite who established his strong political and military platform
and moved eastward. His legitimacy was supported by his claim (whether or not true) of being a direct descendent of the prophet
Mohammed's daughter, Fatima. His name was Al-Muez Ledin-Ellah, he who strengthens the religion of Allah,
or "Al-Muez" for short. In 969, he sent his most skilled general Gawhar, or Jewel, on a campaign to capture
Egypt. Gawhar was a former slave from Sicily who converted to Islam.
Let us stop here for a while and elaborate on the status of slavery in the Islamic Empire.
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.
5, 969, what remained of Al-Fustat was easily captured by Gawhar
who decided to build a new capital. The Sicilian general did not know he had just founded a city that would survive for the
next millenium. He did not know his city would grow to become one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. He just
knew he had laid the foundation for his new capital, Al-Mansureya, which Al-Muez later renamed Al-Qahira, Cairo, The Triumphant.
The new capital was situated a couple of kilometers north of Al-Fustat, and was better protected by the Muqattam Hills. It
had a small port on the Red Sea Canal, near today's Railway Station (At the time, the Nile was flowing further to the East, and changed its course
over the years). And although it started as a private mansion for the Caliph, its doors were open later for common citizens.
The rule of the Fatimids was one of the most controversial in Egyptian history. Under Al-Muez,
the construction of Al-Azhar University, one of the oldest in the world and still present to this day, began. His son, Al-Aziz,
was a supporter of arts and astronomy, and was known to be a tolerant ruler since he himself married a Christian. During Al-Aziz's
20-year rule, bridges, palaces, and mosques were built, and canals were dug out. But the rule of Al-Hakem, Al-Aziz's
son and successor was quite a different story. The new ruler had such a temper that he killed many of his aides, forbade women
from going out, prohibited the sale of certain foods including grapes, honey, and "mulokheya", still a popular dish in Egypt. He
randomly ordered slaves and citizens to be killed, and even tough his mother was a Christian, Copts suffered most under his
persecutionist rule. After he was mysteriously killed, Al-Hakem was succeeded by Al-Zaher who seems to have inherited
a lot from his father. Things later improved slightly under Al-Muntaser's rule, but a seven-year drought hit the country
badly, causing a widespread plague and a sharp decrease in population.
When the situation slightly improved in 1073, Al-Muntaser, with the help of his new governor
Badr Al-Gamali, revived Cairo. It was then then the new gates were built: Bab-el-Nasr, Bab el-Fotooh, and Bab Zuweila. After Al-Muntaser's death, the Fatimid Dynasty rapidly crumbled, and it was
less than a hundred years before one of the most powerful figures in Medieval history emerged to put an end to the Shiite
rule of the Fatimids.
The Age of Saladin
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 battle ground 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.
The young general is one of the few commanders in history who are tremendously respected
by their friends and enemies alike. When he took control over Cairo, the Fatimids remained isolated in their
palaces. Saladin did not seek revenge, but rather waited until their Caliph died. He then expelled the Fatimids out of their
palaces and sent them to exile. Unlike his successors, the young general did not seize the Fatimid's wealth, nor did he occupy
their palaces. Like a caring ruler, he opened the gates of Cairo and allowed Egyptian citizens to live within the city walls in areas which had been exclusively
occupied by Fatimid royalty. Beause of his sincerety and kindness, he became popular among Egyptian citizens -Moslems and
Christians alike- and even had a Jewish personal doctor. And when he later fought Richard the Lionheart, legend goes
that Saladin ordered his horsemen to carry ice down the mountain to comfort the British King when he was sick.
In Cairo, Saladin not only built mosques and palaces (in fact he did not build a palace for
himself), but also colleges, hospitals, and a fortress, the Citadel, which still remains one of Cairo's landmarks to this
day. Unfortunately, it is to be taken against him and his successors that they used some of the Pyramids stones to meet the
excessive need for building materials in the growing city. The Citadel was built on a elevated spot near the the Muqattam
Hills, and occupies a strategic spot from which you can, to this day, have a panoramic view of Cairo. New city walls were
also erected outside the Fatimid walls to defend Cairo from enemy raids.
In 1182, Saladin marched to Palestine and Syria and never returned to Cairo. For the next 10 years, he fought the Crusaders and managed to end their presence in the
region, at least temporarily. When he died in Damascus in 1193, he had almost no personal possessions, but he earned himself a remarkable place
in history. He was succeeded in Egypt by his brother Al-Adel who had to deal with an infamous famine and plague. Al-Adel
was in turn succeeded by his son, Al-Kamel who befriend Frederick II, and was even knighted in 1192 by Richard
the Lionheart. The Ayyubids (Saladin's house) rule came to an end when Al-Kamel's nephew, Al-Saleh, died in
1250. The short rule of his wife, Shagaret-el-Dorr, marked the beginning of a new era, when the slaves known as the
Mamelouks ruled Egypt.
Proceed with the historic journey
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Ruled by the Slaves
When Saladin 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 Caucasians (i.e. 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 Saladin rewarded
them extravagantly for their loyalty. They were granted ranches and palaces, and some became governers. 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 Mamelouks (lit. Owned), and the term extended to include former slaves who were often freed to become
aides and viziers.
Shagaret-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, Shagaret-el-Dorr became monarch. The Mamelouk 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 Mamelouk 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 Mamelouks who decided she had "gone
Shagaret-el-Dorr influence on the political situation in Cairo was tremendous.
Not only was she one of three women to ever govern Egypt, the first two being Hatshepsut and Cleopatra, but she was also the first Mamelouk to officially rule Egypt. From
there on, a new political system developed by which a Mamelouk ruler was "elected" -or selected- in a fashion which had little
to do with democracy. The selection process was more like a "military coup" system where the stronger survived. Among the
earlier and most famous Mamelouk Sultans are Qutoz and Beibars who fought the Mongols under Houlagou's ruler
and defeated them. They later fought each other, albeit silently, and Qutoz was apparently assassinated by Beibars' men.
Subsequent Mamelouk Sultans include Qalaun, a former Russian slave, and his son Al-Naser,
who are credited for building many of today's Islamic monuments in Cairo. It is Al-Naser, also, who is notoriously
reputed for his bad treatment of Egyptian Copts, many of whom were tortured and killed under his rule. In 1382, the Sultanate
of the Bahari Mamelouks (that is, the Mamelouks stationed on the Island of Roda) ended when the next "elected" Sultan,
Barquq, came from the group headquartered in the Citadel. These, known as the Burgi Mamelouks, or "Tower slaves",
ruled for the next hundred years or so.
During Mamelouk time, a major geographic change took place in Cairo. The Nile used to flow further east
than it does today. In fact, the Red Sea Canal port was located near today's Railway Station. In the Twelfth Century, a ship sank near
the port and caused the river course to move gradually to the west. Two Islands formed: the Elephant Island (Geziret
el-Feel) which resulted from siltation around the sunken ship, and Gezira Island which emerged further west. Later,
the region around the Elephant Island silted further to form the area occupied today by the downtown.
The absolute power of the Mamelouk effectively ended in the Fifteenth Century through major
changes in the world political scene. In 1488, Egypt's economy was struck badly by the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope. The Mamelouks were relying heavily on
tax income from European trade to India. At the same time, a new world power, the Turkish Ottoman Empire, was emerging. The Ottomans
had accomplished a major victory in 1453 by capturing Constantinople, which had never fallen to foreign invadors. In 1516, the Mamelouk Sultan Kansuh Al-Ghoury
was defeated and killed in a battle against the Ottomans. A few months later, the Turkish army commanded by the Ottoman Sultan
Selim entered Cairo, and the life of the last Mamelouk Sultan, Tooman Bay, was put to a brutal end.
Sultans and Feudal Lords
Under the rule of the Ottomans, the Mamelouks 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 Mamelouks was strong enough to subdue the local people,
yet not too strong to revolt against the Grande Porte, or the Ottoman Sultan. The Mamelouks were, therefore, left in charge
of local affairs. Feudal Lords or Mamelouk Beys were appointed to each of Egypt's districts,
and, in order to ensure no revolt attempt on the part of the Mamelouks, the Ottomans stationed their own soldiers, the Janissaries
and the Azabs, in Cairo. Both orders consisted of soldiers, much like the Mamelouks, 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 Mamelouk 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.
While common people suffered most from the Ottoman policy of isolationism and from the continuous
fighting between the different ruling factions, a class of citizens emerged and somehow continued to survive. Merchants such
as Gamal-el-din Al-Dhahabi prospered under the new system and commissioned some of the most beautiful architecture,
which still exist to this day in Khan Al-Khalili and other parts of the city. Traders and merchants who had strong
ties with Istanbul succeeded in maintaining a very decent living standard. In 1796, however, Cairo citizens, burdened by high taxes, revolted
against their Ottoman rulers. It was a premonition to what was to come in the following years.
Under European Influence
It was in the summer of 1797 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 "Description
d'Egypte", the most comprehensive reference on the country's geography and culture.
In 1799, Napoleon left Egypt after his fleet was destroyed
by the British in a battle off the coast of Alexandria (Abu-Qir). Although he realized he will no more be able to sustain his troops in Egypt, he
appointed Kléber, one of his generals, as ruler. When Kléber was assassinated by Suleiman
Al-Halabi, a Syrian Egyptian, Menou assumed power for a short period, then left with the remaining troops to France in
1801 under British pressure. Although the Ottomans still had some authority over Egypt, the
British, eager to assume more control over the country, raided the country in 1807 under the command of general Frazer.
A year earlier, a new Pasha had been appointed by the Ottoman Sultan, and had no plans to surrender. His name was Mohamed Ali, and he was soon to become one of the most prominent and controversial
characters in Egypt's modern history.
Mohamed Ali was an Albanian officer who spoke no Arabic. He was appointed by the Ottoman
Sultan, yet he managed to get the support of the Mamelouks and the Egyptian citizens, and to defeat Frazer and his troops.
When tensions rose between the Mamelouks and him, he had no desire to yield. In 1811, he organized a banquet for the Mamelouk
leaders, five hundred of them, at Saladin's Citadel in Cairo, in a "gesture of reconciliation". When all the guests were present, the doors of the Citadel
were ordered closed, and all the Mamelouks (but one who escaped) were massacred by Mohamed Ali's Turkish and Albanian soldiers.
For the first time in centuries, a single person was ruling the country unchallenged.
With Napoleon as his idol, Egypt's new expansionist leader stretched
his Empire to include Sudan, Arabia, Syria, and even parts of Greece. Although he never declared secession
from the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman Sultan could not tolerate this exercise of power, nor did the British. In the later 1830's, the Ottomans
and the British allied against Mohamed Ali and forced him in 1840 to give up all territories but Egypt and
Sudan. In return, Mohamed Ali was granted some sort of autonomy, and secured a monarchy or "khedivate"
for his successors. In 1848, the ailing ruler surrendered his power to his grandson Abbas, and, a year later, died insane.
Under Mohamed 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 Mohamed Ali Mosque, 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 Mohamed 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.
Abbas was succeeded by his uncle Said (1854-1863) then by another grandson of Mohamed
Ali, Ismail. The new Khedive led a notoriously extravagant lifestyle which cost Egypt an enormous
debt, and later cost him his throne. It was Ismail who ordered the construction of the Suez Canal, and commissioned the composition of Aida by Verdi.
Lavish buildings and hotels were raised in the Capital's downtown area, an Opera House was built, a new road was constructed
between Cairo and the Canal, and Royalty from around the world were invited to the inauguration ceremony in 1867. Burdened by the
debts, Egypt could not honor its commitments anymore, and Ismail was forced to abdicate in 1879. He was
succeeded by Tawfik who was too weak to control the situation. With little choice in hand,
Tawfik allowed too much foreign influence into the country, which eventually led to an uprising within the army. Commanded
by an Egyptian officer, Ahmad Orabi, soldiers, and citizens marched in 1881 to the Khedive Palace in Abdin
and requested governmental reform. In a smart move, the Khedive appointed Orabi as Minister of War then sought the help of
the British to regain control. In 1882, the British bombarded Alexandria and defeated Orabi at El-Tel El-Kabir
50 kilometers east of Cairo to start a 70 year occupation.
Between 1883 and 1907, Egypt was effectively ruled by the British
Consul, Lord Cromer, a diplomat highly respected by the British and despised by the Egyptians.
During Lord Cromer's tenure, the British and the elite enjoyed the introduction of electricity to Cairo in 1889, and the
building of a new suburb, Heliopolis (not to be confused with the Ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis). Meanwhile,
a sense of nationalism grew among ordinary citizens. Some were fortunate enough to receive a decent education, such as Mostafa
Kamel. The French-educated lawyer founded the Nationalist Party in 1905 in an effort to oppose the continued British influence,
but died shortly after at a young age.
Another prominent leader, Saad Zaghloul, emerged on the political scene shortly after
the end of WWI, when Britain declared Egypt as a British Protectorate. Saad, who became shortly after Egypt's prime
minister, demanded the immediate withdrawal of British troops from Egypt. In response, the British exiled
him and his followers to Malta, an act that spurred an unprecedented anger among Egyptian citizens in modern history. Thousands
of Egyptians poured into the streets of Cairo, demanding the return of Saad and his friends. Moslem and Christian leaders carried "crescent
and cross" banners in solidarity, and women who have always "stayed at home" joined the angry crowd. The British yielded,
and Saad returned to form back the Wafd (Delegation) Party and continue his struggle toward independence.
In 1922, the British declared Egypt as a sovereign country with Fouad I of the Mohamed Ali Dynasty as its King. They did not, however, withdraw their
army from Egypt, which left the situation de facto unchanged. In 1936, another treaty was signed
between Mostafa El Nahas, the Wafd Party leader, and the British which limited Britain's
intervention in Egypt's affairs, but it was no more than ink on paper. Nine years later, the Arab League
was founded with its headquarters in the center of Cairo, and a sense of Arab nationalism grew among ordinary citizens. In 1946, the British troops
had to withdraw from Cairo facing strikes and demonstrations by trade unions. The hostility toward the occupiers grew
after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the founding of the state of Israel, which was supported by the British.
On January 26, 1952, Cairo was set on fire by an angry crowd, a precursor to the events to follow that same year.
The Modern Metropolis
Years before the 1952 Cairo fire, a young Egyptian officer called Gamal Abdel-Nasser was determined to drive the British forever out of Egypt. Nasser was born in 1918 in the
poor Alexandrian suburb of Bacos to southern Egyptian parents. He graduated at the Military College and fought
at the first Arab-Israeli War. Together with a group of colleagues, he formed a semi-underground organization, The Free
Officers, and carefully planned his coup. In the morning of July 23, 1952, Egyptians heard on the news that the Free Officers,
led by General Mohamed Naguib, assumed control over strategic military zones within Cairo and elsewhere
in a white coup. General Naguib was a respected senior officer who was only appointed as a figure-leader to enhance the credibility
of the coup. On July 26, King Farouk of Egypt left Alexandria on his personal Yacht, never to return to Egypt again, and his toddler son, Ahmad
Fouad, was soon declared King. The remaining British troops were asked to evacuate the country and, by 1954, the last
British soldier had indeed left.
Whatever their motive, the Free Officers gradually engaged in politics during the following
years. Some believe they were driven by the events and supported by the long-oppressed citizens, some think they were seduced
by power, and others affirm that every step was planned from the very beginning. In 1953, the Free Officers deposed Ahmad
Fouad, the last King, and declared Egypt a Republic, with Mohamed Naguib as its first president. Naguib, who grew up within the old
system, was a courageous yet peaceful man and had no plans for radical change. So he too was deposed in 1954 by the true leader
of the coup, Nasser, who became the country's head of state. Mohamed Naguib was banned from participating in politics, and died broke
in 1981. He was the first Egyptian to rule Egypt since the Pharaoh Nectanebo I, a contemporary of Alexander the Great.
It was only when Nasser became president that the 1952 military coup started turning into a real social and political
revolution, now referred to as the 1952 Revolution. A controversial character, he is highly praised by his supporters
for his Nationalization of the Suez Canal, his Agrarian reform, and his socialist policies that brought the vast majority
of Egyptians out of poverty. His opponents, on the other hand, describe him as a dictator surrounded by a corrupt military,
and hold him responsible for the defeat of the Egyptian army in 1967 in the war against Israel. Shortly
after the defeat, Nasser resigned, but thousands of Cairenes marched in his support. For the next three years, Nasser would never emerge back as the great and ultimate
Leader of the Arabs he was before 1967.
When Nasser died of serious health complications in 1970, the Egyptian vice-president Anwar El-Sadat, another Free Officer, was elected head-of-state. He started by isolating Nasser's old guard, and in 1973
became even more popular by declaring victory in the fourth Arab-Israeli war. However, Sadat would only become an internationally
renowned character after his historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977. Sadat, the peacemaker, became the first Egyptian to win a Nobel prize after signing a peace treaty with Israel in
1979. When he was assassinated in 1981 at a military parade, he was succeeded by his vice-president Hosni Mubarak, who rules to date.
Since the 1952 revolution, Cairo's landscape has changed significantly. The city's population more than tripled, and several
satellite cities simply became suburbs of Greater Cairo. The once rural regions stretching between the Nile and the Pyramids today are
as crowded as downtown. However, some scenes still remain unchanged. A walk through the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar is a trip back
in time to the Mamelouk and Ottoman days. It was in the narrow alleys near Al-Azhar and Al-Husein that Nobel Laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, wrote his famous novels, Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street, and
many others . The stones of Saladin's Citadel, Al Azhar, the old city gates, and the spiral minaret of Ibn Tulun, the Fortress
of Babylon, the Hanging Church, and the Virgin's Tree tell about some of the city's most glorious days. And the Pyramids,
these magnificent structures, still stand at the western edge of Cairo, witness to the splendor of a civilization
that flourished at this very spot some 5000 years ago.