In 1962, on a trip around the world, I arrived in Cairo. It was Christmas Eve and with nothing else to do I bought a ticket to the Son et Lumiére program at the Citadel. It was a memorable performance. I was the only person there, the only person in an otherwise empty bank of surrounding seats, the only person sitting below the towering dome and slender minarets of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali which dominated the fortress area. As the main lights dimmed and the turrets and walls of the massive enclosure were illuminated, a voice in modulated and accented English began the historical narrative: “Ahlan wa-Sahlan! Welcome!” Salah al-Din himself ! The great anti-Crusader, the first Ayyubid ruler of Egypt, the initiator of the Citadel spoke directly to me, his exclusive and personal guest. I was riveted, transfixed, and, as I felt my hair rising, literally electrified. I can’t remember now the specific words of the program, but the overall effect was so compelling that a few years later I returned to the city to study its art and architecture at the American University in Cairo.

As a medieval Islamic city, Cairo had been discovered already, first by Western Orientalist painters in the 19th century who painted its novelty, its color, its mysterious places and exotic atmosphere, and then later, in the early 20th century, by collectors of Islamic artifacts and scholars of Islamic monuments. Even so, by the mid-1960’s when I arrived, Islamic art and architecture was a field in its infancy, a subject barely defined.

There were few textbooks from which to learn. As students, we made our own notes and drawings. Photographic aide-memoires were rare since superstitious and suspicious citizens, low indoor lighting, bad local developing made photography problematic. There were few maps or portable books to guide us around the streets and alleys of the medieval area of al-Qahira, the “victorious” city founded in the tenth century. We did acquire The Monuments of Cairo map, published in 1948 by the Ministry of Awqaf (Endowments), but in 1966 only the Arabic version was available. In order to accommodate the six hundred and twenty-two monuments of historic Cairo, the map was in two pages, each 110 by 80 centimeters (or 44 x 31 inches). We, students and other curious onlookers, would stand in narrow streets with the huge sheets flapping around us as we deciphered the small print of the Arabic letters. Neither the people of the quarter, nor our friends in Zamalek or Garden City seemed to have heard of any of the mosques or buildings for which we were looking. In fact my Egyptian friends could not understand where I was going, and what I studying, and why I was tramping around parts of the city they found squalid and forbidding. Individually and actively, thus, we were forced to find our own way to the continuum of monuments we wanted to study. In this way we became intimate with the old city, its fascinating architectural heritage and its welcoming inhabitants.

The 1960’s were a wonderful time to be in Cairo. The city’s population was only slightly more than three million, a tenth of the country’s total. Vestiges of the medieval city and its pre-industrial ways of life still remained, urban aspects which to me over the next years became an endless source of fascination and delight. Yes, it was during the years of President Nasser, when the socialist adventure made everything seem gray and bleak, and the Secret Police made it dodgy to take photographs of monuments or people in urban contexts. But we had an unparalleled opportunity to visit real monuments and to handle real artifacts. We did not just sit in classrooms: our teachers–with doctorates from Princeton, Oxford, Berlin–took us around the city. They showed us how to look at the buildings, and placed them in their historical and urban contexts. Wafiya Ezzi, the then Director of the Museum of Islamic Art, at least 6′ 2” with wild hennaed hair, instructed us in artifacts. She took objects from showcases and from storerooms to illustrate her points. I remember the day when she extracted from an old carved box in her office, with our class of four crowding around her, a special treasure: the brocade shroud of a Mamluk Sultan beautifully inscribed, but still stained with his blood.

Architecturally much of medieval Cairo survived. There were streets, major and minor, lined with an architectural history that stretched a thousand years, from 870 to 1870, in a rich variety of religious and secular monuments, and in a development of artistic styles that reflected the succession of multiple dynasties. For example, in an area less than half mile long, known as Between the Two Palaces (residences built for the Fatimid Imams) the following monuments were grouped: a 12th century Fatimid Mosque, the Moonlit, so called for the pale color of its stone facade; a few yards further was the mid-13th century theological school built by the last Ayyubid Sultan to which his concubine-wife, the only female Sultana to rule Cairo, had attached his mausoleum when he was killed in the Ninth Crusade. Opposite this building complex, the first Sultan of the Bahri Mamluk Dynasty, the only Mamluk ruler to establish a three generation family continuity, erected his late 13th century multi-purpose monument in a Gothic style imported from Syria. Next door, his son, Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun, built his monument. He ruled for more than thirty years in the 14th century, a reign in which the Egyptian stories were added to the collected tales of the thousand and one nights. The first Sultan of the next dynasty of Mamluks, the Burgi Mamluks, also aligned his funerary-teaching-residential building to those of his predecessors. And to this walled canyon of monuments, the 16th and 18th century Ottoman governors ruling for an Overlord living in Istanbul added their legacy, the sabil-kuttab, a building type unique to Cairo. The first floor room–the sabil–provided public water, while in the loggia above–the kuttab–a shaykh taught young boys the Qu’ran. Although these constructions were more modest in size than those of the Mamluks , they were also evidence of political and financial power, and they also served civic needs. The final monument to be built in this area, a handsome curve of white marble inset with wrought-iron grilles, was the fountain of Muhammad ‘Ali, Egypt’s 19th century Pasha.

The Khan al-Khalili, the great bazaar of medieval Cairo, paralleled the main ceremonial avenue of the area. Here, its small alleys provided an opportunity for endless visual delight. It was another place for looking and lingering, and for buying. Stalls were organized loosely by categories. The spice market, with its wares – henna, paprika, curry, mint – heaped in powdery and colorful mounds ; or the copper market with the glint of shiny brass basins and copper pots; or the stalls selling jewelry whose glitter of gold bracelets or piles of silver Bedouin ornaments which beckoned. In other areas, shops displayed specially tailored and chic galabiya adaptations, or sold souvenirs, such as village or Pharaonic scenes in vividly appliquéd colors, or boxes and trays of inlaid ivory and mother of pearl.

These alleys also provided plenty of action to watch: a metal smith expeditiously hammering out a design on a brass tray, or a woodworker, who with a piece of wood on a lathe guided the adz with his big toe to make the delicate lattice pieces that formed the design of a mashrabiya screen or window. Konafa was a pastry that included toasted nuts and raisins bound with syrup to its shredded-wheat like base. The konafa producing man worked in a tiny space with room only to stand behind his tray-topped oven. From a bottom-pierced container, he would striggle the runny dough over the hot surface in decreasing circles. Seconds later, with a practiced arm movement and graceful swish, he would gather the cooked dough into a skein of strands, and heap it for purchase. The rhythmic clicking of finger symbols alerted us to the presence of the sharbatli, the ambulant seller of drinks: licorice, lemon, karkade (hibiscus). We watched the all- purpose, self-contained way he served his customers. First, he aimed the liquid expertly from the large glass container attached to his body by leather straps into the tiny glass he took from his belt attachment. When the glass was returned, a swirl of water from the ewer he also carried, a swipe with his well-used towel, readied it for a new customer. The saqqa, or water man, provided water for houses without pipes. He arrived in the area pulling his two handled cart piled with as many goatskin containers as he could trundle, carry them, one at a time, to individual customers and return to his cart to reload when the skin was empty.

The perfume man was an old friend, who claimed that by mixing essences he could duplicate any fashionable Western perfume, such as Chanel #5 or Midnight in Paris. He couldn’t really, but he would concoct a marvelous substitute that was both fragrant and unique, a process that required much reaching for golden liquids from the shelves behind him, much daubing of the wrists and arms, and much aromatic smelling

Bargaining was the life blood of the bazaar merchant, It was an art, an exercise in human psychology, a bantering of wit and hyperbole, an exercise which made buying fun. The process began with a leisurely exchange of greetings, a hospitable glass of tea or demitasse of coffee, and proceeded in a back-and-forth sparring towards a satisfactory middle between the too-high initial price and the too-low counter offer, punctuated with many expostulatory phrases such as alhamidillilah, (Praise be to God), inshahallah (God willing) and subhanallah (how surprising!), ending possibly with shukranlilah (Thanks be to God).

When we became hungry, Dahan’s was a good place for lunch. It served grilled meat, as kebab (pieces) or kufta (minced), accompanied by flat bread warm from the oven and various side dips made from chic peas or eggplant. The men monopolized the lower level, while women and families were sent upstairs, not really banished since they commanded a wonderful over-view of the establishment and its happenings. For lighter fare there was the Egyptian Pancake stall. A fitir was not a pancake as we know it, but a baked package for savory or sweet ingredients. The chef or impresario would start with a small round mound of dough, knead it, roll it, and finally pick it up and stretch it by twirling it lariat style in midair to twenty times its original size. Laid out on his marble surface the chef would fold into the dough its cheese/meat ingredients or sprinkle it with spices, sugar, nuts, raisins–pop the package to bake in the oven, and presto! And for an afternoon ‘drink with a view’–coffee, tea or juice–there was the fourth-floor terrace of the Husayn Hotel! There, below us, lay the heart and soul of medieval Cairo: the Mosque of al-Husayn, where the head of the Prophet’s beloved grandson was supposedly buried in the 12th century, and the Mosque of al-Azhar, since its 10th century foundation one of the oldest universities in the world. Spreading out towards the horizon were many of the spires which gave Cairo its designation as the “city of a thousand minarets.”

When my course of studies ended, I stayed on in Cairo. By 1981 there were 9,000 Americans in Cairo. They lived primarily with other expatriates in the villa-garden suburb of Ma’adi, The Ambassador’s wife felt it would help them over culture shock if they were given an insight into Cairo’s glorious past. I was happy to do so with lectures and tours. Since the Muhammad ‘Ali dynasty, but especially during and after the reign of Ismail (1863-1879), a second Cairo had been created. The city had become bifurcated: the colonial, imported world of the new lay along the Nile, while next to it, to the east, around the Fatimid city area and its Mamluk extensions, was the Islamic, authentic world of the old. Often when I felt frustration with the problems of new “transformations,” I would seek beguilement in the old city. I shared these historic sights, and showed foreign newcomers that even though they couldn’t speak Arabic, with a smile and good intentions, it was safe and fun to explore the old areas. The rewards were manifold and restorative,

I took them to the places I loved, the places since my student days I had continued to revisit: the ceremonial streets of old Cairo lined with medieval monuments and people- doings. We would stop to see the baking of baladi (pita) bread, or the making of konafa dough. We would enter pharmacies selling dried roots and exotic animal body parts. We watched craftsmen sewing appliqué pictures or geometric hangings, and went down narrow streets to see old Ottoman houses with their practical, sensible and beautiful domestic arrangements. The result was existential therapy, a view of Cairo that was fun, intriguing, human, and which made us feel better about some of the cultural dislocations we faced in living in a world that was different or not as “modern” as it first appeared.

In 1979 UNESCO gave medieval Cairo World Heritage status. Tourists to Egypt, one million in 1980, by the end of 2010 had risen to fourteen million. There are now a plethora of guidebooks and finding aids to make sightseeing easy. But by 2015 the population of Greater Cairo had exploded to eighteen million, a figure just under a fourth of Egypt’s total. The old city is currently embattled by population pressures, new construction, wanton theft, indifference to its heritage and an apparent hardening of religious views. Still, no visit to Cairo should be without a stop to the nucleus that incorporates al-Qahira, city “victorious.”



This work was published in the Coldnoon Cities (Mapping the Metropolis) Vol I., as part of the Coldnoon journal.


Caroline Williams

Caroline Williams

Caroline Williams has graduate degrees from Harvard University in Middle East history and from the American University in Cairo in Islamic art and architecture. She wrote The Islamic Monuments of Cairo: The Practical Guide (now in its 6th edition, AUC Press). As an independent scholar she has written also many articles on the 19th century Western artists who painted Cairo’s life and people.