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The city behind the square
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 01 - 2019

Earlier this month Nezar AlSayyad, professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke at the House of Architects in Cairo about the volumes he has produced on Al-Qahera — the city victorious, or the city oppressor, depending on which narrative you choose.
Central to his presentation was Cairo — Histories of a City, published in the early weeks of 2011 by Harvard University Press.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly after the presentation AlSayyad said a great deal of his work, first as a graduate of the architecture department of Cairo University and later at several American universities, has involved peeling away the layers of Cairo.
In research papers and books AlSayyad has constantly contextualised Cairo's architecture in terms of history, politics and geography, foregrounding the fact that architecture is often the byproduct of a combination of all three.
“Even when it takes a curious twist, it is always this way. I can think of one obvious example from Cairo's prominent architectural pieces: the façade of the Coptic museum, built by Markus Simika. To avoid falling into the then predominant norms of Mameluke style Simika opted for a Fatimid-style façade, rather curious given that it was under the Fatimid rule of Egypt that Copts lived through some of their most challenging moments,” said AlSayyad.
Then there is the name of Tahrir Square, “which until I finished the final draft of my book Cairo — Histories of a City towards the end of 2010 was a name short on merit, yet by the time the book was coming to publication the name was echoing all over the world — Tahrir Square serving as shorthand for the 2011 Revolution which intrigued the world”.
It was then, AlSayyad recalled, that he thought the square had finally earned its name. “And I had to add a few lines on it to the book that was set ready for print and distribution.”
But Tahrir is just one of many squares significant in the history of a city that was built by the Fatimids by expanding the site that was once, as he relates in his book, a connecting point between the two Pharaonic kingdoms of the Delta and Upper Egypt.
Other squares include the one in front of Abdine Palace, and it too saw an act of revolt when, in the late 19th century, Ahmed Orabi took the people's complaints to the space before the palace where Khedive Tawfik ruled the country with the support of the British, shortly before their 1882 occupation of Egypt.
And as he wrote in his book: “Mohamed Ali Square had existed since the time of Salaheddin, and throughout Mameluke and Ottoman times it had been used for a variety of activities, including entertainment, military parades and recreation. During Mohamed Ali's reign its edges were reddened by residential development, and during Ismail's time it was re-planned as a public square and named after Mohamed Ali. Under [Gamal Abdel-] Nasser Mohamed Ali Square was renamed Salaheddin Square, despite the fact that it had not been a public square during Salaheddin's time.”
Elsewhere, AlSayyad notes: “Ironically, Salaheddin, who was of Kurdish origin, was recast and promoted by the Egyptian revolution as the first Arab to advocate pan-Arabism. Indeed, many Egyptians and Arabs saw Nasser as the new Salaheddin, and Nasser may have seen himself as Salaheddin's successor, albeit 10 centuries later.”
According to AlSayyad, the concept of the city square did not emerge until the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Before then “the city had what was called the rahba, a wide open space that was venue for social and commercial activities” while “midan was more a place for military exercise — it was there for this purpose, and it is a more compatible function with the Arabic meaning of the word which differs from the later concept of a square.”
Since graduating in 1977 AlSayyad has amassed a formidable collection of documents and maps that put together diverse and often difficult to match pieces of the story of the city.
Many authors who wrote about Cairo in the 20th century, says AlSayyad, “often fascinated by the city and enchanted by its spell, emphasised its name, Al-Qahera, which could be translated from Arabic as the victorious. But ironically Al-Qahera also means the oppressor.”
AlSayyad read the works of historians and the travellers who have been visiting the city for centuries. He looked at the drawings of orientalists and early pictures by tourists and photographers and examined endless volumes of maps that revealed the layered development of the city.
Along the way he came across many conflicting maps and anecdotes, “with a school or a mosque appearing sometimes on one side of a main road, sometimes on the other side”.
It was possible to reconcile what appeared to be contradictory maps when AlSayyad organised a meeting of topologists and architects who pitched in information that helped the group realise that what is known today as mediaeval Cairo is in fact the outcome of the work of a committee established by khedive Ismail to preserve Old Cairo and which had only two Egyptian members, Ali Mubarak and Markus Simika.
This committee had in some cases rebuilt neglected bits and parts of the city. In doing so, it sometimes mixed parts of 10th century buildings with parts of later time construction. Further down the road, more changes were made as the city continued to develop. According to AlSayyad, this development was at times designed to give the state added grandeur and at others was just focused on the more practical housing purposes.
In over 300 pages of text, pictures and maps, AlSayyad's book reassembles the story of Cairo, a city that Florence Nightingale described in the 19th century as “the rose of the cities, the garden of the desert, the pearl of Moorish architecture, the fairest, really the fairest piece of earth below”.
“I meant it to be a book that offers an interesting and meaningful reading for a general audience but that could also be appreciated by specialists. It has no excessive use of jargon but is based on authentic and informative studies,” says AlSayyad.
This, he says, is probably the reason the Higher Council for Culture decided to translate the book into Arabic two years after Harvard University Press had published the original text in English.
AlSayyad dedicates his book “To those who know Cairo well, hoping they will find something new here, and for those who do not know Cairo at all, hoping they will go out and explore it.”
In the book AlSayyad writes: “Today Cairo is a large and diverse metropolis with global aspirations,” though for centuries it has fascinated travellers and historians who saw a beautiful thriving city, or else a crowded and misshapen one.
AlSayyad's book is divided into 12 chapters. His starting point is “Memphis: the first Cairo”, after which each chapter is allocated to a different era, drawing heavily on the accounts of contemporary historians and travellers who passed through the city though allowing the author's own voice to comment, in favour or against, some of the contemporary narratives.
In AlSayyad's book there is no mention of Cairo as an Islamic city. “There were cities that Arabs conquered and occupied like Damascus and Aleppo, and there were cities that they built, first as garrisons for their militaries and then as large and blooming cities like Cairo and Baghdad — the patterns differ and the history does too,” he says.
Throughout the book there are accounts of rulers who wished to establish their presence through the construction of monumental mosques, starting with Fatimid rulers, and moving on to the Burji Mamelukes who constructed many remarkable mosques, including some built at times of great economic difficulty such as Sultan Hassan, and larger complexes such as that of Sultan Qalawn which included a mosque alongside a mausoleum and hospital.
Cairo has seen many rulers who wished to live in royal quarters. Cairo was envisaged as a ruling/gated city by the Fatimids to which the public would come from Fustat only for a reason, before it was turned into an open city by Salaheddin who built himself a citadel to serve his security purposes. The Mamelukes followed the same pattern more or less, and so did the Ottomans in the 16th century.
Throughout its history the city has been subject to the grandiose fantasies of rulers who built themselves magnificent palaces, many of them destroyed by their successors.
AlSayyad's book depicts the expansion of the city, at times to the east and others to the west — with detailed accounts and contrasts between different rulers. “At the end of Ottoman rule, the city's population was estimated to be a quarter of a million people, of which 25,000 were local Jews and Coptic Christians and another 25,000 were foreign muslims,” AlSayyad wrote in the fifth chapter of his book. However, he adds in the ninth chapter that a decade into the rule of Nasser the city was battling to accommodate migration from rural areas even as some urban neighbourhoods were being depopulated as the nationalist policies of Nasser led foreigners to leave.
From its days as Memphis until 1981 rulers of the city tended to be buried in magnificent structures. When Nasser died suddenly in 1970 the state was perplexed. There was no precedent for a head of the republic dying in office. As the people gathered in Tahrir Square to mourn the death of the despotic but widely popular leader it was decided Nasser would be buried in a mosque, just like the rulers of mediaeval times and members of the Mohamed Ali dynasty which Nasser and the Free Officers had removed.
Nasser was interred in a mosque in Manshiyet Al-Bakri, on the eastern outskirts of the city not far from the house he lived in as president from 1954. His successor, Anwar Al-Sadat, also a member of the Free Officers, was buried under the pyramid shaped monument of the Unknown Soldier after he was assassinated during a military parade in Madinat Nasr.
One curious contrast AlSayyad's book offers is that unlike the mediaeval rulers and those of the Mohamed Ali dynasty, the rulers of the republic did not feel obliged to build mosques. The only public monument built in the city actually between 1952 and 2010 was the Cairo Tower. Otherwise, the book depicts a city busy constructing houses to accommodate an expanding population, a failed enterprise for eventually rural migrants moved into the cemeteries of the City of the Dead and by 2010 close to 50 per cent of Cairo's inhabitants were living in the ashwaaiyat (shantytowns) that had mushroomed.
AlSayyad shows that with every new political rule the city was touched by contemporary dreams and ideologies, moving from the grand constructions of the Mamelukes to the Turkish architectural imprints of the Ottomans and European influences during the rule of Khedive Ismail who demanded his minister of works Ali Mubarak turn Cairo into Paris on the Nile. There were the Soviet style buildings constructed under Nasser, and later sporadic clusters of poorly developed housing coupled with the spread of gated communities that serve the desire for leisure of Egypt's economic elite.
But what of the future?
“In a globalising era when cities no longer belong exclusively to their people the image of the thing may come to replace the thing itself. Will that happen to Cairo,” asks AlSayyad. “Will it transform itself using its invented tradition, employing an imagined historical aesthetic — mainly attempting to appeal to those who come to visit? Or will it continue to be the messy and difficult but often vibrant and innovative city that its citizens continue to shape through their actions and inactions? Only time will tell”.
AlSayyad is currently finishing his latest project on the defining aspects of the life of Cairo, and this time the Nile is the focus. The river is the subject of a new book that will be published this year, just as the city is contemplating the impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which could be operational as soon as January 2020.
“The River Nile was never static,” says AlSayyad. “It has moved a lot and the city has always responded to this movement as it certainly will do with the new dam in Ethiopia.”
“Cairo is a fascinating city that never gives up. It never dies. Even when its rulers neglect it or abandon its older quarters, the city keeps getting reborn.”


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