Cairo City of Memories- Chapter 2

On the 5th of February 969, a great army set out in the direction of what would soon be known as Cairo. This invasion force was phenomenal in size. The troops numbered 100,000 men, both on foot and horseback. They took with them, not just their weapons and supplies, but huge caskets of silver and giant millstones made of gold, to impress their vast wealth on the people of the towns and villages they passed through. At the head of the army, marched Jawhar Al-Siqilli (‘The Sicilian’).

Jawhar had been brought to North Africa as a slave, and found his way into the service of the Fatimid Caliph Ismail Al-Mansur. Under his son, Caliph Al-Mu’izz, Jawhar gained his freedom and climbed the ranks of the palace to be the highest ranking military officer in the Fatimid Caliphate. The Fatimids began as a Shia movement in Syria and took their name from Fatima, the daughter of the prophet, from whom they claimed legitimacy. However, it was in Northwest Africa where the Fatimids gained a political foothold. As the army marched through Egypt and Fustat, they encountered only token resistance: a new age in Egypt’s history had begun.


Jawhar chose not to settle in Fustat. For one thing his army numbered almost the same as the native inhabitants, but he also noted the benefits of keeping his troops separate from the settled civilian population. He chose a spot a few kilometres north of Fustat, far enough east to avoid the annual floods, and flanked on the other side by the Muqattam Hills. Jawhar initially named the city after Al-Mansuriya, after the capital in modern day Tunisia. When the Caliph Mu’izz visited the new city four years later, however, he gave it a new name: Al-Qahira. This name is variously translated as ‘The Victorious’, ‘The Conqueror’, ‘The Oppressor’ among others. Cairo historian Doris Behrens-Abouseif also suggests that this name might be named after Mars (Al-Qahir) which was in ascendance at the time construction on the city began.


The city was not intended to be a replacement to Fustat. It was designed as a palatial compound and an extension of the old city. The outer walls marked out a modest 135 hectares in a rectangular shape. Its difference from Fustat was stark. Whereas the old city was built up around a central point (Amr Ibn Al-As Moque) the new city began construction with the demarcation of its boundaries. Close to the centre was the palace, in truth, more of an assortment of different buildings rather than a single structure. Whilst in Fustat, residents meandered through narrow streets, flanked with tall buildings to protect against the sun, Al-Qahira was designed with wide roads and spacious squares where the Caliph could inspect his troops. Residents of the old city were discouraged from settling in Al-Qahira. Only the Caliph could own commercial or residential property, which he leased out to his subjects.


The Fatimids also brought a turning point in Egyptian architecture. Whilst previous dynasties had modelled their buildings on previous designs in Central and Southwest Asia, the Fatimids were the first to formulate an indigenous ‘Egyptian’ style.


It is unfortunate that nothing remains of the grand palace. The Fatimids were known to create magnificent palaces wherever they settled, and the Grand Palace complex was the focal point of Al-Qahira. Made up of three buildings, with nine gates between them, there were in fact two palaces: the large Eastern palace, and the more modest Western palace. They stood on either sides of the famous Al-Muizz Street, which today leads down from Bab Al-Shaeria to Khan Al-Khalili. The palaces were lavished in gold and expensive materials, and we know about their grandeur from eye witness accounts at the time. In 1197, a European traveller described the central courtyard of the western palace: ‘It was so beautiful, so pleasant to the eye, that the most preoccupied man would have stopped to look at it. There was a fountain in the center, fed on all sides by gold and silver channels carrying water of admirable clarity…Flitting here and there were an infinite variety of birds of the rarest colours…brought from different parts of the Orient, which no one saw without marvelling.’


It is ironic then, that the best known of Fatimid buildings in Cairo does not take its fame from its architectural importance. The mosque of Al-Azhar exists today as the centre of Sunni Muslim learning in the region; its name synonymous with Islam in Egypt. Built in 970 by the Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz Al-Din, it was originally a Shia place of worship. The original structure still stands, but with additions and replacements made over the years by various Fatimid, Mamluk and Ottoman rulers. Of the five minarets which now stand above Al-Azhar and the schools attached to it, not one was made during the Fatimid caliphate. Most, however have been built with Fatimid influences in mind, comprising of an octagonal tower placed upon a rectangular base.


The Fatimids also displayed their architectural care in the walls and gates of the city. The initial walls which were drawn up by Jawhar after the invasion were soon realised to be insufficient. Less than a century after his death, the walls were rebuilt under the orders of the vizier Badr Al-Jamali, using the rocks of many Pharaonic temples in the process. Under the new design, the area of the city was increased by only 24 hectares, to make a modest 160 hectares in total. The walls, however, were significantly improved. They were made up of three levels. The lowest level, although at ground height today, was in fact in elevated; large ramps lead up to the gates for access. On the second level, within the walls, the defenders had full movement, except for at the gates which were divided for extra security. Arrow slits were placed regularly on the outer edge, whilst the inside wall had larger windows looking over the city. The third level was the terrace, on which defenders could look down on their attackers, but in practice served other functions: the terrace to the north was known to boast an observatory. The walls were in fact never assaulted and became a rather casual boundary, houses being allowed to be built right up against them so as to disguise their existence altogether.


The gatehouses are further feats of Fatimid ingenuity. Unfortunately, the gates which were most celebrated in contemporary accounts no longer exist. However, three gates do still stand today: the northern gates of Bab Al-Futuh and Bab Al-Nasr, and the southern gate of Bab Al-Zuwayla. All were built by Badr Al-Jamali, around the same time. The two gates to the north (‘the gate of conquest’ and ‘the gate of victory’ respectively) are placed either side of Al-Hakim mosque. The former includes two large semi-circular towers, whilst Bab Al-Nasr features two rectangular ones. Of the surviving gates, however, it is Bab Zuwayla on the southern wall which best captures people’s imaginations today. Named after the Berber tribe which settled around the gatehouse, Bab Zuwayla features two semi-cylindrical towers with minarets built on top of them.


Just before these new walls went up, however, was one of the most difficult periods in the life of the city. Some of the political strife is reflected in the fact that between 960 and 966 the country saw 27 vizirs. Food was scarce and the price of wheat increased 25-fold. People were forced to desperate measures, as recorded by a French observer: ‘People ate all their beasts of burden, and the caliph only had three horses left. Next they set on their dogs and cats. Finally…people began to eat human flesh…Men stood on their terraces and caught passers-by using hooks on the end of ropes.’


As time went on the Fatimid Empire began to crumble. The further commanders travelled from their central base, the greater the chance of them declaring autonomous states. The Fatimids fought costly wars in North Africa and Syria in an attempt to keep the empire together, depleting their funds and quickening their demise. Eventually the empire fell and was divided up between different factions over North Africa and Southwest Asia. In Egypt, the leader who founded the next major dynasty went on to turn Cairo until a military hub, to build up a revolutionary new army, and to defeat the European Crusaders in Syria: Salah Al-Din Yussuf Ibn Ayyub – Saladin.


Edmund Bower is a freelance journalist and assistant editor of the Maadi Messenger. He can be found at and tweets @edmund_bower

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