A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Readings on the History of Cairo, Part One: A Few Essential Books

Unless you haven't been paying attention or just found this blog for the first time, I have a lot of interest in and fascination with Cairo, and since the revolutionary events of January and February I've been frequently remembering earlier events in that city's long and fascinating history. Given the fact that this blog is supposed to have an educational purpose and go beyond just commentary, I think it's time to begin an ongoing and perhaps open-ended series on the city's history. One must start with some readings; there will be a quiz. But first some discussion.

When Egyptians say Misr Umm al-Dunya, "Egypt is the Mother of the World,"  they are also giving that attribution to Cairo, since the city and its ancestors have been known as "Misr" at least as long as the country itself has. Some say the Umm al-Dunya phrase originally referred to Cairo, not to the country as a whole. The identification of the country and its capital is not unique: "Tunisia" is a Western term; most Arabic speakers use "Tunis" for both the country and its capital, as they use "Al-Jaza'ir" for both Algiers and Algeria, or as "Al-Sham" is a traditional name for both Damascus and Syria.

Cairo is not just an Arab capital, of course. It is the largest city in Africa (here counting both the Cairo and Giza governorates, which are equally part of the capital and jointly surpass Lagos by a bit), as well as the largest city in the Arab world by far. With a population estimated at 15 million it represents somewhere close to a fifth of the entire population of Egypt.

You will usually read that Cairo was founded by the Fatimids in 969 AD. It is true that the name Al-Qahira (the Conqueror or the Victorious, from the Arabic name for Mars) was coined then, but there have been cities within the general area covered by modern Cairo since the beginnings of civilization: Memphis, On (Heliopolis), Babylon of Egypt, Fustat, al-‘Askar, al-Qata‘i, and finally Cairo. Misr was used for some or all of them, as it is still used for Cairo. Only the name Cairo is as recent as 969 AD. The exact spot where the Nile divided into the many branches that form the Delta has shifted with time and the floods, until stabilized at the Nile Barrages north of Cairo. But because this was where Upper Egypt (the Nile Valley) and Lower Egypt (the Delta) came together, it has always been an essential place for a city. That's why it has the pyramids.

Although the name Cairo is more than a millennium old, the reality of the city is as old as Egypt itself. Few places on earth have such a rich and fascinating history. In this new series of posts on the History of Cairo, I plan to offer suggestions for readings as well as observations of my own.

Each of the periods of Egyptian history — the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms of the Pharaohs, the Persian and Hellenistic eras, the Roman and Coptic eras, and the multiple periods of the Islamic era — are integral parts of Egypt, categorized by the rulers and dominant religions and cultures, while many aspects of Egypt have endured unchanged.

Offering suggested readings on this history is no easy matter: there is an enormous literature. It is a well-documented city: Al-Maqrizi's 15th century Khitat painstakingly described every street and every mosque, and Ali Mubarak Pasha's Al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyya did the same at even greater length for the Cairo of the khedives in the late 19th century. Neither of those wonderful books has ever been translated into English, and only bits of Maqrizi have appeared in French. I plan over time to talk a lot about the sources for the city, including those in Arabic, but to begin with let's start at the introductory level.

One could begin with guidebooks; any newcomer needs a good guidebook, maybe three or four (Ancient Cairo, Coptic Cairo, Islamic Cairo, Modern Cairo). Or one could come to Cairo through fiction. The only Arabic winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, the late Naguib Mahfouz, is Cairo's great novelist: his massive Cairo Trilogy captures the city and many of its social classes between the two World Wars, while some of his later works do something similar for the Nasser and Sadat eras. For the long dry Mubarak years, Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building is perhaps the best novel available to the English-only reader. But I'll post on guidebooks and novels somewhere later on (though go ahead and read the ones I've mentioned).

I will, in time, offer detailed readings on every period of the city's history, but for this first post I want to offer four or five titles that everyone should read if they have a serious interest in the city and its history, emphasizing but not limited to the modern city. Here goes. (I'm listing US editions but most should be available elsewhere.)

If you can read only one book about Cairo.

1. If you're going to be living, working, or studying in Cairo you ought to read more than one book, but this is a good place to start; if you're only casually interested and plan to only read one book, it's the one to read This would be Max Rodenbeck,   Cairo: The City Victorious (London: 1998 and New York: 1999.) Rodenbeck arrived in Cairo at the age of two; his parents ran the American University in Cairo Press and he has lived there most of his life. Today he is The Economist's Chief Middle East Correspondent. As you would expect for someone who is a virtual native and who writes for The Economist, his book is informed, accurate, engaging, and intelligent. It is also a lot more fun than most of the books on this list, as entertaining as it is educational. It is your best bet for the first in the door.

Getting more scholarly.

2. My second essential reading is quite readable but aimed at a slightly more scholarly audience and also translated from the French. Don't let that scare you off. This is Andre Raymond, Cairo (Harvard: 2000). Raymond is a social historian who once directed the French Institute in Damascus; he tells the whole history of Cairo in a clear and highly perceptive way. It gives the whole story in a serious but readable form.

Two Books to Be Read in Sequence.

 For those seriously interested in the city, the first of these books is essential, but is now 40 years out of date. The second, while not intended as a sequel, works well as one. If you really want to understand this city, you need to have read them both.

3. Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious. (Princeton: 1971). Sadly, it does not seem to be in print and copies can be expensive. This is the most serious and scholarly overview in English of the development of the city from the beginnings to the date of publication by a serious student of urban development and social history. It is irreplaceable and essential. The only bad thing about is that the Cairo of 1971, just after the death of Nasser, was 40 years ago, and while it seemed enormous at the time, it was a mere foreshadowing of the enormous urban agglomeration of today. But for a real understanding of how the city developed down to 1970 or so, through the Nasser era, this is the gold standard and doubtless always will be. And now, it has what I think is a worthy successor.

4. David Sims, Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control. Foreword by Janet Abu-Lughod. (Cairo: AUC Press, 2010). The "Foreword by Janet Abu-Lughod" ought to tip you off that this is a worthy successor to her own great book. Sims is an American economist and urban planner who has lived in Cairo since the 1970s, and given the advances in technology and imaging his book not only has plenty of graphs and tables, but excellent maps and Google Earth photos. He describes all of contemporary Cairo's aspects, but is particularly strong on those things that have developed since Abu-Lughod's book: the "informal" quarters (unplanned slums), the "satellite cities" in the desert and the elite gated communities and indoor malls that were unimaginable in 1970; and he has the statistics and analysis to prove it. He also writes awfully lucidly for an alleged economist. If you read Abu-Lughod and Sims in succession, you'll have a great socioeconomic picture of the city's evolution. And as a 2010 imprint, it's pretty current.

Those are, really, my four essentials: Rodenbeck, Raymond, Abu-Lughod and Sims. If you read all four you'll have a good understanding of modern Cairo and a pretty good grasp of its earlier history. But since five is usually a better number than four for a list, I'll add another recent general book I like a lot, though it doesn't contain much in the way of facts you won't find in the others listed, but packs a potent punch on aesthetics. This is:

5.  Nezar AlSayyad: Cairo: Histories of a City. (Harvard: 2011). This, the newest book on my list, is a fine scholarly work by a Professor of Architecture and Urban History at Berkeley, and published by Harvard, so there's nothing at all wrong with its academic pedigree, and it's (as far as I as a non-aesthete can tell) a fine synthesis of the architectural side of the historical development of Cairo. But part of what makes me include it in my top five, when I analyze it, boils down to the scholarly equivalent of "Oooh . . . Shiny." This is a beautiful book. Color photos of monuments from every era of the city's history from Memphis to the City Stars Mall. Elegant, full-color, historical maps of key regions of the city in each period of development.

If Rodenbeck is read for entertainment, Raymond for a profound historical overview, Abu-Lughod and Sims for the urban socioeconomic history, then AlSayyad does the artistic and architectural side, one of Cairo's greatest strengths.

Those are my top five. But there will be more posts, and more lists, in this Cairo history series.


Al Farabi said...

City Victorious is also my favorite book on Cairo. Rodenbeck interweaves history with current predicaments and social tensions in Egypt with ease. His account on the rival cities, as you mentioned, Memphis and Fustat, was also fascinating. Great list. I will be sure to check others you referenced.

Tom Lippman said...

Check out the CAIRO volume in the Time-Life Books Great Cities series. (1980) Text by Malise Ruthven. Fabulous old photos, plus new ones by Robert Azzi. It has an extensive bibliography on the history of Cairo and of Egypt. And if by some odd chance you haven't read it, don't miss Edward W. Lane's Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, first published in 1836. Tom Lippman

Tom Lippman said...

Check out the CAIRO volume in the Time-Life Books Great Cities series (1980) Text by Malise Ruthven, fabulous old photos, plus new photos by Robert Azzi. Extensive bibliography on history of Cairo and of Egypt. Also, if by some remote chance you haven't read it, don't miss Edward W.Lane's Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, first published 1836. Tom Lippman

Michael Collins Dunn said...


The Time-Life book by Ruthven is quite good; I wasn't sure how easy it is to find these days. Since every September on Edward William Lane's birthday I run my elegiac post on Manners and Customs I didn't repeat it here, but will when I post on the 19th century sources. Also his "Cairo 50 years ago," edited by his nephew, which deals more with the neighborhoods than Manners and Customs does.