See a map of the Cairo area at this time
Azhar at Sunset
1) In the early part of the first
millennium, al-Qahira was one of
the grandest and most developed
cities in the world, known for its
centers of learning like al-Azhar
university, seen here, which is
arguably the oldest university in
the world.

In the year 969, Egypt was ruled by a group of people called the Ikhshidids, who were the descendents of Suleiman al-Katib, the general sent by the Abbassid Caliph to reclaim Egypt from the Tulunids. The Ikhshidids had quickly followed the Tulunids' example and had quickly set themselves up as the more-or-less independent rulers of Egypt. The Ikhshids, unlike the Tulunids, cared little for the people of Egypt. They placed a very high poll tax on Egypt's non-Muslim population, and around this time, barely three hundred years after Islam had first been introduced to Egypt, non-Muslims still formed the majority of the population. The tax on the non-Muslims effected the Muslims as well. Many of the merchants were Muslim, so if the non-Muslims were made poor by the high tax, they didn't have money to spend, and then the Muslims became poor. And so, at this point, just about everyone in Egypt was unhappy, except for the Ikhshids, who had grown rich and lazy. Egypt had grown weak and vulnerable to invasion.

To the west, in what is now Tunisia, another group of people called the Fatimids had set up power. The Fatimids were Shi'i Muslims, unlike the Muslims in Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula, who were Sunni Muslims. The Fatimids wanted to expand Shi'ism to the greater Muslim world. To do so, they needed to conquer Egypt and Syria. So, they set off to the east, made hopeful by reports that Egypt was weak and easy to conquer.


There are lots of different denominations of Christianity - Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant -- and different kinds of Judaism - Conservative, Orthodox, Reform. There are also different branches of Islam. The two main branches of Islam are Sunni and Shi'i (sometimes called Shiite - pronounced "she-yite"). The split between them goes back almost to the death of Muhammad.

When he died, Muhammad named as his successor his friend Abu Bakr, who became the first Caliph. After Abu Bakr came Omar, Othman, and Ali, who were also close friends of Muhammad, known collectively among Sunni Muslims as the four rightly guided Caliphs. The problems began when Ali was murdered in 661.

After Ali's death, the Muslims split into two main factions: those who thought that the Caliphate should be kept within the family of Muhammad, and those who thought that the Caliph should be elected by consultation and popular consensus. The first group rallied around Ali's son, Hussein. The second group decided that the new Caliph would be a man named Muawiyah, who had been the loyal governor of Syria for many years. Muawiyah moved the capital of the empire from Mecca to Damascus, where he lived, and he started the state that bears his name - the Ummayad Empire. He was succeeded by his son Yazid when he died.

Those who supported Hussein were not happy about this new development. They rallied around Hussein and raised an army to support his cause. Yazid's forces met them at a place in Iraq called Kerbala, and they massacred Hussein, his entire family, and many of Hussein's supporters. The remaining supporters of Ali and Hussein became known as the Shi'a.

The Shi'a differ from the Sunnis in some ways that they practice Islam. Their belief in the Qur'an and the hadith is the same as the Sunni, but the Shi'a also have an organized system of clergy, while the Sunnis reject an organized heirarchy. The Shi'a also have a greater emphasis on the hidden meanings of the Qur'an and the life of Muhammad.

Most Shi'is today live in southern Iraq, where Kerbala is still an important center for pilgrimage, and in Iran.

2) Al-Aqmar mosque, completed
in 1125, is one of the few
buildings that still survive from
the Fatimid period.

Under the leadership of a man named Gohar al-Siqili (a Greek who had been born in Sicily–Siqil is the Arabic name for Sicily–and converted to Islam), the Fatimid armies set out to conquer Egypt. There are two stories about what happened next, and both have to do with astrology.

One story says that the Fatimids set out on the campaign because the court astrologers saw that Jupiter was aligned with Saturn, the way it had been when the Fatimids had risen to power in Tunisia. The other is that, the night before the Fatimids were to attack, the planet Mars, in Arabic "al-Qahir," was sighted in the skies to the west. In both stories, the planetary signs were considered to be good omens. And whichever story you believe, the omen turned out to be true.

The Fatimids had little problem conquering Egypt and taking over. Gohar planned to build yet another city, to the north (of course) of Fustat, on high ground. This city was planned to be an exclusive city for the rulers and their immediate family. This would provide a sense of mystery and divine guidance about the rulers, who would be inaccessible to the people. The new city was called Medinat al-Qahira, or "the city victorious." This is the Arabic name for the city of Cairo to this day.

Cairo was built to be a grand city that would inspire awe in everyone that saw it and were deemed worthy to enter its walls. The new Caliph of Egypt, al-Mo'izz, was determined to build a city that would rival Baghdad as the most important and influential city in the Muslim world. He built a new port, repaired roads, sewers and canals, and refurbished the mosque built by Amr ibn al-'As, which was still considered a very important place.

Al-Mo'izz also got to work on his new city. High walls were built around Cairo, with two forbidding gates, Bab al-Nasr (the Gate of Victory) and Bab al-Futuh (the Gate of Conquest) on the northern side, and Bab al-Zuwayla on the south side, from which a road led to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun and into al-Fustat. A grand avenue ran between them, separating the palace of the Caliph and the palace of his son, al-Aziz. The central section of the road is still known by the name "Bayn al-Qasrayn" or "Between the Two Palaces" even though the palaces themselves are long gone.

3) Al-Aqmar mosque was one
of the first Fatimid era buildings
to have a decorated stone facade.
Bab Futuh

4) Bab al-Futuh, (the Gate of
Conquest), which stands on the
northern side of the old city of al-
Qahira, and now serves as the
backdrop to an active market.

Al-Mo'izz died in 975, and his son, al-Aziz succeeded him. Under al-Aziz, the large mosque built in Cairo was established as a teaching mosque, designed to spread Shi'i ideas to the students who would come to learn in its halls. The mosque was called al-Azhar, meaning "the Splendid," and it remains to this day one of the most important and influential schools of Islamic teaching in the world.

At this time, Cairo was still a fairly small city geographically. The majority of Cairo's inhabitants lived around the new city, since the common people were not allowed to enter the royal city of Cairo. Many of them lived in al-Fustat. Some people had moved to one of the islands in the Nile river, called Roda Island, and a bridge made up of 36 boats connected Roda to the mainland. From Roda, a ferry service would take passengers to the other side of the river, to the small trading village of Giza. Over time, however, al-Fustat began to decay. The old stone buildings began to crumble, and sections of the city were blocked off because they were too dangerous.

Al-Aziz was succeeded by his son al-Hakim in 996, and al-Hakim remains one of the most intriguing figures in Egyptian history. His rule was marked by a series of laws against the Christians and Jews, laws against the Sunni Muslims, a large number of executions for seemingly unimportant crimes, and his own personal eccentricities.

Al-Hakim's laws against the Christians sought to separate them from the rest of Egyptian society. He banned wine, which was used in the communion rites, forced Christians and Jews to wear black belts and turbans, and confiscated all of the possessions of the churches and monasteries in Egypt. He also forbade Christians from riding on horses. He issued decrees stating that prayers should be said following the Shi'i practice, and that anyone who was caught praying according to Sunni practice would be arrested.

Bab Zuwayla
5) Bab al-Zuwayla, at the
southern end of the city of Cairo.
This gate dates from 1092, and
was named after a Berber tribe
of soldiers who were living in
the quarter of the city where
the gate was built.
Bayn al-Qasrayn

6) Bayn al-Qasrayn, or,
"Between the Two Palaces"
was the central section of
the main north-south street
in the royal city of al-Qahira.
It is still a heavily used
thoroughfare in the old city.

Al-Hakim also targeted women in his proclamations. He forbade women from wearing jewelry or going to the public baths, and, in an effort to keep women indoors, he banned the manufacture and sale of women's shoes. He forbade the citizens of his city from walking the streets at night, and ordered all of the dogs in the city to be exterminated because their barking annoyed him. He also ordered that the city of al-Fustat be burned to the ground.

In 1021, al-Hakim disappeared while on one of his nightly walks through the Muqattam hills, to the east of Cairo. He was never seen again, although his clothes were found several days later, cut by dagger marks. Legend has it that his sister, whose property he had ordered confiscated, had arranged to have him murdered.

Despite these quirks, the Fatimids were generally well liked by the Egyptians. Though the Egyptians were still heavily taxed, the taxes were used on projects that benefited them, instead of being sent off to Baghdad as tribute to the Caliph, as had been the practice under the Ikhshidids.

Understanding what happened next requires a history lesson. To the east, in what is now Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, a group called the Seljuks, who were of Turkish origins, had succeeded in conquering large areas of land that had once belonged to the Abbassid Empire. Although the Caliph still ruled at Baghdad, he ruled only the area immediately around Baghdad. By 1071, the entire Middle East, from Asia Minor to Persia, and down through Palestine was in the hands of the Seljuk Turks.

Bayn al-Qasrayn

7) Currently, Bayn al-Qasrayn
functions as a market, where
Egyptians and tourists alike
come to bargain and shop.


8) The courtyard of al-Azhar mosque, founded in 971. It
remains one of the most
important mosques in the Sunni

When the Turks had conquered Jerusalem, they had cut off the pilgrimage routes to that city, and, before long, reports began arriving in Europe that Europeans were being tortured on arrival in the Holy Land. In response, the Europeans had begun waging a series of wars in an attempt to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims. These wars were called the Crusades. The wars were successful, and by 1099, Jerusalem had fallen to the Crusaders, along with a large part of what is now Lebanon and Israel.

The Crusades did not initially reach Egypt, passing instead through Asia Minor on their way to the Holy Land. As they grew stronger in Palestine, however, the Fatimids became worried that the Crusaders would try to take over Egypt. In 1160, the Fatimids began paying a yearly tribute to the King of Jersualem, in return for which the Crusaders agreed to leave Egypt alone. In 1162, the leader of Egypt, a man named Shawar, was warned in advance that a coup was plotted against him, and he fled Egypt for the relative safety of Damascus. At the same time, a new King of Jerusalem, Amalric, came to power, and he was obsessed with the idea of conquering Egypt. Although his initial advance was unsuccessful, it alerted the Egyptians, and others, to his intentions.

The Fatimids, being Shi'i, were at a real disadvantage, since most of the other Muslims kingdoms were Sunni, and had in common their dislike of the Shi'i Fatimids. However, Shawar was able to negotiate with the leader of Damascus, a man by the name of Nur al-Din to help him regain control of Egypt. Since Nur al-Din was faced with the choice of having Shi'is control Egypt or having the Crusaders control Egypt, he chose to help out. The Fatimids at least were Muslim and hadn't waged open war on the rest of the Muslim world. However, when Shawar had been replaced to power, he began to rethink his decision to accept Nur al-Din assistance. Shawar had agreed to pay tribute to the leaders of Syria in exchange for their help, and now found the idea unappealing. He ordered Nur al-Din's armies out of Egypt, and when they refused to leave, he sent a letter of appeal to Amalric in Jerusalem. The forces of Nur al-Din entrenched themselves in the Sinai and held out against the Crusader attack. A two year siege followed, after which the weakened Syrian army went home, and the Crusader forces, also weakened, went back to Jerusalem. Shawar was in control of everything, and could not be threatened.

9) The mosque of al-Azhar has
two mihrabs because the mosque
was expanded at one time, and
a second was added in order to
remain in a location central to
the prayer hall.
10) The second of the twin mihrabs
at al-Azhar.
11) Over time, expansions and additions
were made to al-Azhar in recognition of
its prominence. The minaret was added by
the Sultan Qaytbey in 1469.
City walls

12) Even today, the new city has followed the
old city pattern. Although the city walls have
long since been pulled down, the street in this
photograph follows the line of the old walls,
with the apartment buildings standing in
place of the old fortifications.

The Syrians, this time led by Nur al-Din's nephew, Salah al-Din, tried again in 1167 to prevent the Crusaders from taking Egypt. This time, it was the Syrians who negotiated with the Crusaders, telling them in effect that the Syrians would leave them alone if they withdrew from the battle and went back to Jerusalem. The Crusaders agreed. In less than a year, Shawar was deposed, and Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi came to power in Egypt. The Crusaders called him Saladin.

Saladin became the ruler of Egypt, and he left a great impression on Cairo. He refused to live the grand life of the Fatimid caliphs, and he did not want to be seen as a religious ruler. He called himself al-Sultan, "the power," and his longest lasting contribution to the geography of Cairo was the Citadel. Having grown up in Syria, where the Seljuk Turks built military fortresses on high places and spurs of rock, he decided to emulate this example. He selected a spur of rock near the Muqattam range, which forms the geographic barrier to the east of Cairo, and there he set up his place of government. The Citadel was built like a separate town for the military rulers of Egypt, and remained the center of government all the way through the 19th century.

Bayn Qasrayn
13) A number of public works
were installed throughout the city
of al-Qahira, including this
building, which houses a public
fountain, in Bayn al-Qasrayn.
14) The citadel, built by Salah
al-Din, still forms an imposing
part of the Cairo skyline.

Saladin expanded the walls of the city to an area much larger than had been previously included. One result of the burning of the older cities by the Crusaders was that the common people had moved into the royal city of al-Qahira, and Saladin set about making sure that the people were taken care of. Visitors to the city reported about the city's large and effective hospitals, their teaching mosques, which provided an education to boys, and the large number of public works projects designed to make movement easier and provide basic services for the people. Saladin was remembered for his generosity and dedication to the people of Egypt, even though he only spent eight years of the twenty-four years of his reign in Cairo. The rest of the time, he was off conducting military campaigns in Syria, which included making life very difficult for the Crusaders.

Saladin is also remembered for having brought the Mamluks to Egypt. The Mamluks were Christian slaves who were brought from Turkey, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and they were raised to be good soldiers. They were converted to Islam, and they were brought up to serve God and their country through military service, and they made effective and powerful leaders. Older Mamluks were responsible for training the new recruits, and so they perpetuated their own ranks.

After Saladin's death in 1193, there was a lot of arguing over who would get to take control next. His dynasty, the Ayyubid dynasty, was characterized by instability and struggles for power. One after another took power, and would die or be forced out of power a short time later. The golden age of Saladin was fading into the past, and Egypt became weak. The last of Saladin's descendants was called al-Salih, and his second wife was a woman by the name of Shajarat al-Durr, which means "Tree of Pearls."

15) The Mosque of Sultan
al-Nasir Muhammad on
the Citadel, completed in 1335.
City of the Dead
16) Among the marks left on
Cairo by the Mamluks were the
large and elaborate tombs that
they built for themselves and
their families. This is the
Northern Cemetary, one of two
large cemetary complexes that
make up the City of the Dead,
which now house over one
million people.

In 1249, the Crusaders, led by King Louis IX of France, invaded Egypt once again. They landed at Damietta, where the Nile River meets the Mediterranean Sea. The Egyptian armies marched out to meet their enemies, and suffered defeat. At this crucial moment, al-Salih died. His older son, Turan Shah, was fighting the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan in Iraq, and his second son was just a baby.

In this tense political environment, Shajarat al-Durr made a bold decision. She and several of her husband's advisors decided to hide the news of his death, so that the Egyptian armies would not lose hope, and so that the French would not find out that the armies were leaderless. Shajarat al-Durr worked with her husband's chief advisor to control Egypt. The armies trapped the French at a Delta town called Mansoura, and Louis IX was captured. At this point, Turan Shah returned home to claim his inheritance and was killed shortly after.

The Mamluks then asked Shajarat al-Durr to take on the role of sultana, the first time in Islamic history that a woman became the leader of a nation. She ascended to the throne in 1250. Shortly after she was appointed, she married one of the Mamluks, a man named Aibek, and she conferred the title of sultan upon him. However, Shajarat al-Durr continued to run the country, signing orders in her own name, and ruling from behind the throne -- literally. Chroniclers tell of an arrangement whereby Aibek would sit on the throne, and his wife would sit behind him, concealed by a screen, and whisper instructions in his ear.

By 1257, after several years of this, Aibek tired of being a puppet to his wife, and sought to weaken her by taking a second wife. When Shajarat al-Durr found out about his plan, she arranged to have Aibek killed. There are several stories about how she met her end. One version has her killing her husband herself, then committing suicide. Another states that Aibek's son by his first wife found out what his stepmother had done, and left her to the mercy of his mother and her handmaidens, who beat her to death and had her body hung in the streets. Regardless of which is accurate, her death marked the end of Ayyubid rule in Egypt.

17) It was under the Mamluks
that the pyramids suffered
degradation as the limestone
coverings were stripped
away for new projects.
18) The Mamluks also built a large cemetary at
the pyramids around this knoll.
19) From the top of the knoll, the Mamluk
cemetary bears a striking resemblance
to some of the Pharaonic-era tombs
that cover the Giza plateau.
Sultan Hassan
20) The Madrassa (theological
school) of Sultan Hassan,
completed in 1351, is
considered by many to be one
of the finest examples
of Mamluk architecture in Egypt.

After the death of Shajarat al-Durr and Aibek, the Mamluks took power in Egypt, and their system of government, which lasted into the 19th century, was unique and unparalleled by any other government in history. In 1258, the Mongols, led by Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad and murdered the caliph and his family. The caliph's son managed to escape, and came to Cairo, where he and his descendants remained the official head of state for centuries, even though they had no real power.

The Mamluk system of power involved self-perpetuation and appointment: the Mamluks would rise through the ranks to an executive council, which would then vote on the sultan, who would be the head of state. Political factioning was common: and of the fifty-three sultans who ruled between 1257 and 1517, only 10 died in office of natural causes. 19 were assassinated, murdered or executed, and the rest were deposed. The right to rule was simple: despite the choice by one sultan of his successor, the real successor would be the most powerful and most ambitious Mamluk.

Sultan Hassan
21) The Madrassa has only one
minaret: a second was built,
but it collapsed during an
earthquake in 1360, and
was never rebuilt.

At the same time, however, the Mamluk era, though violent for the Mamluk sultans, was a period of stability in Egypt. The Mamluk period is often referred to as the golden age of Egyptian Islamic civilization. The Mamluks were great patrons of the arts, and sponsored the building of hundreds of structures that can still be seen in Cairo today: mosques, madrassas (religious schools), hospitals, caravanserais, and other public buildings. The Mamluks also sponsored historical projects, hiring scholars to write encyclopaedias, biographical dictionaries, and chronicles. Trade also flourished under the Mamluks during the 13th and 14th centuries.

Sultan Hassan
22) The Madrassa is unique in
that it has four wings, each
devoted to teachings of one
of the four schools of Islamic law.
Oil lamps like this provide light.
Sultan Hassan
23) Today, the Madrassa is a
popular destination for
Egyptian families on the
weekend, like these children.

It was, however, during the Mamluk era that the status of Christians in Egypt declined. It is estimated that when Salah al-Din came to power, the number of Christians in Egypt was about equal to the number of Muslims. Under the Fatimids and the Ayyubids, the Christians and Jews in Egypt had been left largely alone: so long as they paid the poll tax, they were not mistreated on the basis of their religion. Christians and Jews would serve in the government, often at high positions of power. Under the Mamluks, however, this came to an end. Tensions between the Muslim populations and the Christians may have been ignited over the Crusader presence, and the perception that Christians were favored in the Mamluk government. Tensions erupted into rioting several times during the Mamluk era, and historical records indicate that by the time of the Ottoman invasion in 1517 the ratio of Muslims to Christians in Egypt was about ten to one, the same as it is today. It also appears to have been during this time that Coptic disappeared as a spoken language, and was replaced by Arabic.

In the late 15th century, the Mamluk system had begun to decline, aided by the loss of the Asian trade to the Portuguese, who discovered the route around Africa to India. Egypt was soon to fall to a more powerful force -- the Ottomans.

Photography Credits:
Photograph 16: Copyright 1987 by Thomas Hartwell
Photographs 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23: Copyright 1995 by Christopher Rose
Photograph 1: Copyright 1996 by Christopher Rose
Photograph 14: Copyright 1984 by Diane Watts
Photograph 4: Copyright 1980 by Caroline Williams
Photographs 2, 3, 13: Copyright 1998 by Caroline Williams

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