Story of Cairo 5: Enemy at the Gates

When the armies of the Ottoman Empire arrived at the gates of Cairo in 1517, they found no walls to speak of on either side. The defences of the city had long fallen into disrepair, and the Mamluk soldiers who garrisoned the city had nothing to defend against their attackers. The crumbled walls no longer served as anything more than a stark image of the faded glory of the Egyptian Sultanate. The empire, which had defeated the Mongols less than three centuries before, had stagnated in the face of recurrent plague epidemics, economic decline, and corrupt, ineffectual leadership. The defenders had no other choice but to ride out and meet their enemy on the desert plains surrounding the city. They were rewarded with a massacre; the 800 Mamluks who were captured alive were decapitated, their heads set on pikes and triumphantly paraded through the city's gates.

In the early 16th century, the Ottoman Empire, under Selim I, was more vast and expansionist than at any other point in previous centuries. Its territory stretched from the Balkans to Persia and from Georgia to the Arabian Peninsula. Upon Cairo’s capture, the city was demoted instantly from a seat of Empire, to a provincial capital. This is not to say that Egypt suffered economically from the change. After a dire state affairs before the Ottomans arrived, Cairo underwent a period of development and economic success for the next three centuries of Ottoman rule. It does mean, however, that Cairo’s skyline was not greatly altered during this period. Previous Egyptian Sultans tended to rule until death and devoted large parts of their wealth to patronising great monuments in their honour – particularly the Mamluk slave sultans who were disallowed from leaving an inheritance. The Ottoman governors, on the other hand, saw their post in Cairo as a step on the career ladder, often leading to the most prominent positions in Istanbul. Their tenure lasted an average of three years, far too little time to amass neither the funds nor the motivation for large-scale building projects. 


The few that do exist, however, are of great interest. One of the best examples of Ottoman architecture in Cairo is from the early days of occupation. The mosque of Sultan Sulayman Pasha, built within the citadel, was completed in 1528 and is a wonderful example of Ottoman architectural style. Prominent artisans from the fringes of the empire were often brought to Istanbul, one way in which Ottoman styles were disseminated so quickly through the provinces. The mosque of Sulayman Pasha lacks any distinguishing Egyptian features and is entirely Ottoman in design, with its wide flat domes and distinctively elegant Ottoman “pencil-top” minaret. 

Most architecture during this period, however, was a hybrid between Mamluk and Ottoman styles. Usually the Ottoman style of minaret was used, but the mosque to which it was attached was often a mixture of styles, sometimes totally Mamluk. Buildings like this served as a more accurate analogy for the relationship between Istanbul and Cairo. While through nearly all of this period the Ottomans maintained nominal control over the city, they were in perpetual rivalry with the Mamluk emirs. From the beginning, the Mamluks had an official role in the governing of Egypt, and a number of times the rivalry escalated into pitched battles within the city with large armies and artillery – the rebellion of 1609 is sometimes referred to as the “second capturing of Egypt.” 

For the most part, however, Cairo was relatively safe. The draconian punishments meted out to criminals were performed with such gruesome theatrics as to capture the attention of any would-be thieves. An observer around 1640 tells of two men sentenced to death paraded through the streets each with ‘a round stake about the thickness of an arm, pointed on the end and the top coated with soap, apparently to penetrate more readily…After they arrived at the designated place…[the executioner]…started to make the stake penetrate him…making it pass with great blows from a wooden mallet until it emerged above the shoulders…and the subject was left upright…some remain alive for almost two days in this state.’ It was not uncommon for the Sultan himself to take walks through the city with his men, killing on sight anyone he considered in violation of the law. 

However, other methods of policing were less extreme, such as the mandate that those who walk at night were obligated to carry a torch, keeping the streets and its occupiers well lit. The close communities also upheld the law, such as in 1740 when a woman was found dead in the public baths. A man’s vest was found close to her, which was taken to the head of the tailor’s syndicate. He ascertained the garment’s creator who in turn was then able to identify the murderer. 

The Ottoman administration not only provided security to their subjects, but also a number of public works. Fountains were built on a grand scale and a vast network of water carriers was created. Many fountains became institutions in their own right, housing schools for children within their walls. A most famous example of this is the Sabil Kuttab Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda on the top of Al-Muizz Street in Fatimid Cairo. Although commissioned by a Mamluk emir, it was built in a distinctively Ottoman style and opened in 1744. The main building that houses the fountain and primary school over two floors has been preserved in good condition, while the northern sections of the complex are now local residences. 

Further down the road, just south of Bab Zuwayla is the little known but visually impressive covered market of Ridwan Bey, established in 1650 by the Ottoman governor. Although he only served for three years in Cairo before returning back to Istanbul and becoming Grand Vizier, his market is still active. With the exception of some businesses, such as those on Suq al Silah Street (The Weapons Market), many craftsmen still operate in the same trades as previous generations, weaving baskets and fabricating tents. 

But the weakness of the Ottomans in Egypt and the ambitions of the Mamluk emirs proved destructive for the empire. Repeated rebellions and power struggles created constant unrest for the Sultan. Powerless to prevent it, the expulsion of the Ottoman elite by the Mamluks from the city in 1711 is described to us as a wandering troop of lords and noblemen, sobbing through the desert back to Istanbul. The symbiotic unease of Mamluk–Ottoman relations came to a halt only towards the dawn of the nineteenth century. On the morning of 1st of July 1798, a large fleet of ships bearing tri-coloured flags was spotted heading towards the closed harbour at Alexandria. European imperialism had arrived.


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