A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Threat to the Fustat Excavations, Part 2: The Historical and Archaeological Context

It's past midnight, but as promised, here's Part 2 on saving Fustat.

Part 1 of my post, yesterday morning, focused on links to reports about the reported public garden the Cairo Governorate is or may be building among the excavation of Egypt's first Islamic capital at  Fustat. This has gotten relatively little attention, because threats to Pharaonic archaeological sites or damage to elegant works of art at the Islamic Museum naturally get the headlines. The Fustat excavations are on a poor edge of Cairo, surrounded by garbage dumps and slums, and there is little to see but some street patterns and foundations. For centuries, slum dwellers called sebbakhin have been digging up the nitrogen-rich soil called sebbakh, a blend of decayed ancient mud-brick and organic material which is, in fact, much of what remains of the old capital.

In other words, Fustat isn't sexy or likely to draw tourists like the pyramids, Luxor, or the old Fatimid city of Cairo. To non-archaeologists, there's nothing to see.

Before I address the history of the site, though, let me note that there is plenty of precedent in the Middle East and elsewhere for archaeological parks which preserve and interpret the site. Nothing wrong with that: but the vagueness of "public garden" is what causes concern. Egypt has long planned a National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in the Fustat area, This project has supposedly been under construction for years. It's unclear when, if ever, it will be finished.

Egypt has had many capitals. In the early dynasties, as a symbol of the union of Upper and lower Egypt, a capital arose at Memphis, near the Giza Pyrsmids, and a major religious center across the Nile at On, modern Matariyya. Frequently the capitals in Upper Egypt later on, at Thebes/Luxor, with a brief shift to Amarna.

Alexander the Great moved the capital to Alexandria on the Mediterranean and it stayed there almost a thousand years (not so long in Egyptian terms). The ancient capital area between Memphis and On remained a strategic site (the base of the Delta), and by late Roman times there was a fortress known as Babylon (either from a garrison who had served in Mesopotamia or a Semitic term derived from Bab al-On, gateway to the city of On, or several other theories); hence "Babylon of Egypt." The Roman fortress was later known to the Arabs as Qasr al-Sham‘a, "fortress of the candle," with various explanations, but possibly from "fortress of Khemi," from the Coptic name of Egypt. The old fortress has finally received serious archaeological documentation in the last decade or so.

Outside the fortress (which partly survives), stretched a residential quarter of uncertain extent; most of it lies under present-day Cairo and has not been studied.

When the armies under ‘Amr ibn al-‘As invaded Egypt in 641-642, they took Babylon long before Alexandria, and had little trust off the sea in those days (though that would change). In the earliest Arab conquests the conquerors frequently chose to establish military garrison cities called amsar, to keep the conquering Arab armies initially distinct from the local populations. Kufa and Basra in Iraq are major examples. Outside the Roman fortress to the northeast, ‘Amr established such a garrison town, al-Fustat ("the tent"). Egypt's very first mosque, the Mosque of ‘Amr, was traditionally built on the site of ‘Amr's own command tent. The Mosque of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As still stands on the original site, but since every ruler down to the Nasser era liked to rebuild and refurbish the earliest mosque, no trace of the original remains. A few of the arches are late medieval and some earlier decorations, though still not original, are in the Islamic Museum,

Fustat proper grew up to the east of the mosque and the fortress. The literary sources tell us a lot about the place, naming the khitat or delineated quarters of the town, mostly ascribed to specific Arab tribes.(Remember the original purpose of the garrison town was to keep the Arab tribesmen separate from the local population.) It spread out to the north and east of the earlier settlements, mostly on non-arable land. Most of the early building foundations are built on bedrock, so this is one of those places where there is no Pharaonic or Greco-Roman substratum.

The literary sources actually give us a pretty full portrait of the original settlement, The earliest surviving Arabic account of the conquest (older accounts in Coptic or Greek survive), Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam's Kitab Futuh Misr Wa Akhbariha, spells out the khitat of Fustat, and later sources, including Maqrizi's Khitat and the work of Ibn Duqmaq, give much rich detail.

Fustat remained a key administrative core down to the crusades, but successive dynasties kept creating new capitals  to it north and east. The ‘Abbasids built their center to Fustat's north and east, and called it Al- ‘Askar (the military camp, somewhat echoing Fustat's role), while Ahmad ibn Tulun named his capital al-Qata‘i ("the fiefs," roughly), centered around the great and still-standing Ibn Tulun Mosque. Finally in the 960s the Fatimids arrived and created their new royal walled enclosure still further north and east, and called it "the Victorious," Al-Qahira, or Csiro.

A couple of centuries later the Crusaders were threatening Cairo; Fatimid Al-Qahira had solid stone walls, but the old city of Fustat did not, and in 1168 the Wazir ordered it burned lest it fall into enemy hands.

The site of the first capital was not entirely gone: the ancient fortress of Babylon and the Mosque of  ‘Amr survived and survive. But the original garrison town to the east became successively a ruin, a garbage dump, a source of sebbakh for fertilzer, and an area of furnaces burning garbage.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some scholars tried to reconstruct the map of Fustat based on the literary sources, notably R.A. Guest in English and Paul Casanova in French. Casanova created detailed maps, but only for a couple of streets do they match the archaeological record.

True excavation began in the 20th century under the Egyptian archaeologist  ‘Ali Bahgat. He uncovered much of the street system known today, though there are big unexcavated gaps. This work was continued in the 1960s and 1970s by George Scanlon of AUC and various Egyptian archaeologists, followed since by Poles such as Wladyslaw Kubiak and more recently by a French mission. Ancillary specialists such as Jere L. Bacharach for numismatics have extrapolated from the archaeologist's findings.

Most of medieval Cairo will never be excavated either because it lie under modern Cairo or because early archaeologists bulldozed it away to get to the pharaonic material beneath. Fustat has been dug up for fuel and fertilizer for years, burned and dumped upon, but it can still teach us much.

The map below (click to enlarge) shows the UNESCO World heritage Site. The map itself is in Arabic but the legend in English. For those who don't read Arabic, the rail/Metro line that runs north to south in the left portion marks where the Nile bank lay in the Middle Ages. The trapezoidal structure on the lower left (adjoining the rail) is the old Babylon fortress, and the square building to its northeast marked by a crescent is the Mosque of ‘Amr.

The pattern that looks like the streets of a medieval city some distance to the east of the fortress and just inside the marked UNESCO line are indeed medieval streets. These are the Fustat excavations.

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