The Architecture of Cairo

Professor Nasser Rabbat

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Course Description

Among the cities associated with the Islamic civilization, Cairo is perhaps the most representative culturally and certainly the richest architecturally. Founded in 634 at the strategic head of the Nile Delta, the city evolved from a military outpost to the seat of the ambitious and singular Fatimid caliphate between the 10th and 12th century. Its most spectacular age, however, was the Mamluk period (1250-1517) which established it as the uncontested center of a resurgent Sunni Islam and produced a wealth of religious, palatial, and commemorative structures that synthesized the achievements of previous periods and symbolized the image of the city for centuries to come. After that, Cairo was reduced to an Ottoman provincial capital until the end of the eighteenth century. Then it witnessed a short and capricious renascence under the independent-minded Muhammed 'Ali Pasha (1805-48) followed by a period of vacillation between conservatism and modernization that was exacerbated by the late-twentieth-century problems of population explosion and underdevelopment.

Yet, Cairo still shines as a cultural, political, and economic center in three spheres of influence: the Arab world, Africa, and the Islamic world. Moreover, many of its Islamic monuments (456 registered by the 1951 Survey of the Islamic Monuments of Cairo) still stand, although they remain largely unknown to the world's architectural community and their numbers are dwindling at an exceedingly alarming rate.

In this course we will recount the story of Cairo. We will review its urban and architectural developments form the initial settlement on the site to the twentieth century and interpret them in light of the cultural, political, and social history of the country, the region and the world. We will examine Cairene architectural types and urban patterns to see how they reflect various regional influences and relate to their counterparts in the wider Islamic and Mediterranean contexts. 

Beginnings: History, Geography, and Religion

  • History and Geography
  • The Nile and the Site of Cairo
  • The Legacy of Ancient Egypt

  • Egypt on the Eve of Islam
  • Hellenism, Christianity, and the Copts
  • The coming of Islam

The Foundation of al-Fustat

  • The Mosque of `Amru ibn al-`As: the first mosque in Africa
  • The vocabulary of the mosque: the minaret, the mihrab and the minbar
  • The Nilometer

Imperial Ambitions: Ibn Tulun and al-Ikhshid

  • The foundation of al-Qata'i`: The Mosque of Ibn Tulun
  • Buildings of the Ikhshidids


  • Behrens-Abouseif, 3-34, 47-57.
  • Abu-Lughod, 3-25.
  • Briggs, 47-62.
  • Encyclopedia of Islam, 2d Ed., vol. 4, article "Kahira," vol. 5, art. "Mihrab," and "Minbar."
  • Dickie, James. "Allah and Eternity: Mosques, Madrasas, and Tombs," In: ed. G. Michell, Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social
  • Meaning. 65-79.

Age of the Caliphate: The Fatimids

  • The foundation of Cairo
  • Fatimid palaces
  • Comparison with contemporary Islamic cities
  • Fatimid Mosques of Cairo: new traditions and old forms
  • The Azhar Mosque and the Institution of religious learning
  • The centrality of the mosque in a medieval Islamic urban setting
  • Mosques of al-Hakim, al-Aqmar, and al-Salih Tala'i`.

The Cult of Saints: mashhads and mausolea

  • Genealogy as a propaganda tool for the Fatimids
  • The evolving function of the dome
  • The appearance of the muqarnas: decorative purposes and symbolic meanings

The defenses of Cairo

  • The first walls of al-Mu`izz
  • The walls of Badr al-Jamali
  • The gates of Cairo and the question of regional influences
  • The Crusades, the fall of the Fatimids, and the rise of Salah al-Din


  • Behrens-Abouseif, 58-77.
  • Briggs, pp. 63-75.
  • Rabbat, The Citadel of Cairo, pp. 1-17.
  • Rabbat, "Al-Azhar Mosque: An Architectural Chronicle of Cairo's History. "Muqarnas 13 (1996): 45-67.
  • Bloom, Jonathan. "The Mosque of al-Hakim in Cairo," Muqarnas 1 (1983) 15-36.
  • Behrens-Abouseif, "The Facade of the Aqmar Mosque in the Context of Fatimid Ceremonial," Muqarnas 9 (1992): 29-38.
  • Idem, "The Mosque of the Qarafa in Cairo," Muqarnas 4 (1987): 7-20.
  • Williams, Caroline. "The Cult of the `Alid Saints in the Fatimid Monuments of Cairo. Part1: The Mosque of al-Aqmar," Muqarnas 1 (1983): 37-52.
  • Idem, "The Cult of the `Alid Saints in the Fatimid Monuments of Cairo. Part 2: The Mausolea," Muqarnas 3 (1985) 39-60.
  • Sanders, Paula. Rituals, Politics and the City in Fatimid Cairo, N.Y., 1994. Pp. 39-67.

Rise to Prominence: Ayyubids and Bahri Mamluks

  • The relationship of the citadel to the city
  • The emerging importance of the citadel as the residence of the ruler
  • The Roda Citadel and the urban development of Cairo in the Ayyubid period

Ayyubid Architecture and the Sunni Revival

  • The Mausoleum of al-Imam al-Shafe`i
  • The introduction of the madrasa: The Madrasa of al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub
  • The political and social functions of the madrasa
  • The mausoleum of the ruler

The Bahri Mamluks: continuity and change

  • A brief introduction to the Mamluk system
  • The Mosque of al-Zahir Baybars and traditional forms
  • The Complex of Qalawun and the Syrian import

The Apogee of Medieval Cairo

  • The City under al-Nasir Muhammad
  • The charitable institutions of al-Nasir Muhammad's princes
  • The Waqf system

Mamluk Madrasas and Khanqahs and the problem of the Four-Iwan Plan

  • The royal madrasas on the main thoroughfare of Cairo
  • The Madrasas of Sultan Hasan

Residential and Palatial architecture

  • A brief survey of residential architecture up to the Mamluk period
  • Royal and princely palaces of the fourteenth century

The urban character of Mamluk architecture

  • A short film, Medieval Cairo by Nezar AlSayya


  • Behrens-Abouseif, pp. 35-44, 78-132.
  • Abu-Lughod, pp. 27-36.
  • Briggs, pp. 76-109, 145-64 (Domestic Architecture).
  • MacKenzie, Neil D. Ayyubid Cairo: A Topographical Study, Cairo, 1992.
  • Rabbat, The Citadel of Cairo, 283-95.
  • Irwin, Robert. The Middle East in the Middle Ages, The Early Mamluk Sultanate 1250-1382, (Carbondale, 1986).
  • Bylinski, Janusz. "Darb Ibn al-Baba. A Quarter in Mamluk Cairo in the Light of Waqf Documents", Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, 31, (1994): 203-22.
  • Fernandes, Leonor. "The Foundation of Baybars al-Jashankir: Its Waqf, History, and Architecture," Muqarnas 4 (1987): 21-42.
  • Grabar, Oleg. "Reflections on Mamluk Art," Muqarnas 2 (1984): 1-12.
  • Humphreys, R. Stephen. "The Expressive Intent of the Mamluk Architecture in Cairo: a Preliminary Essay," Studia Islamica 35 (1972): 69-119.
  • Ibrahim, Laila A. "Residential Architecture in Mamluk Cairo," Muqarnas 2 (1984): 47-59.
  • Williams, John Alden. "Urbanization and Monument Construction in Mamluk Cairo," Muqarnas 2 (1984) 33-45.

Afterglow of Empire: Burji Mamluks and Ottomans

The mosques, madrasas, and mausolea of the Burji Sultan
  • Urban complex from Barquq to Khayer Bak
The growth of Cairo and the development of the Qarafas
  • The royal charitable complexes from Umm Anuk to Qaytbay
The Mamluk style
  • The development of the dome, the minaret, and the Qa`a under the Mamluks
  • The development of Mamluk decorative techniques and patterns
The coming of the Ottomans
  • The urban changes in Cairo from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries
  • Ottoman mosques in Cairo: wavering between the local and the official
Cairene Ottoman houses
  • The stabilization of a hybrid type
  • Comparison with houses of other Ottoman provinces
The legacy of the pre-modern city
  • The French Expedition and the Description de l'Egypt
  • Behrens-Abouseif, pp. 133-67.
  • Abu-Lughod, pp. 37-79.
  • Briggs, pp. 110-44.
  • Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. Azbakiyya and its Environs: From Azbak to Ismail (1476-1879). (Cairo, 1985).
  • Idem, "The `Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda Style in 18th century Cairo," Annales Islamologiques 26 (1992): 117-26.
  • Hanna, Nelly. An Urban History of Bulaq in the Mamluk and Ottoman Periods. (Cairo, 1983).
  • Kessler, Christel. The Carved Masonry Domes of Medieval Cairo. (Cairo, 1976).
  • Idem, "Funerary Architecture Within the City," Colloque International sur l'Histoire du Caire (27 Mars-5 Avril 1969). 257-67.
  • Campo, Juan Eduardo. The Other Sides of Paradise: Explorations into the Religious Meanings of Domestic Space in Islam. Columbia, S C, 1991. Pp. 74-94.
  • Gillispie, Charles C. and Michael Dewachter (eds), Monuments of Egypt: the Napoleonic Edition: the complete archaelogical plates from la Description de l'Egypte. Princeton, 1987. Pp.1-30.
Modernization and After: Muhammad 'Ali to the Present

The architectural and urban works of Muhammad Ali
  • The Mosque at the Citadel
  • The Westernization of the palatial architecture
  • The modernization of the city of Cairo
Orientalism and the Fascination of Egypt
  • Ethnographer-Painters and the romanticization of Cairo
  • The Comite de preservation des monuments du Caire and preservation
Cairene architecture in the late nineteenth century
Historicism and the Mamluk revival
The Mosque of al-Rifa`i
Other Orientalizing styles
Cosmopolitan architecture

The emergence of vernacular style in the 1940s
  • The works of Hasan Fathy, Ramses Wissa Wasef, and their students
Cairo's expansion and modernization
  • Population explosion and urban chaos
  • Problems of preservation and accommodation
  • The image of Cairo: past and present
  • Behrens-Abouseif, pp. 167-70.
  • Abu-Lughod, pp. 83-117.
  • Lane, Edward William. Cairo Fifty Years Ago. Edited by Stanley Lane-Poole. London, 1896.
  • Al-Asad, Mohammad, "The Mosque of Muhammad `Ali in Cairo," Muqarnas 9 (1992): 39-55.
  • Asfour, Khaled, "The Domestication of Knowledge: Cairo at the Turn of the Century," Muqarnas 10 (1993): 125-37.
  • Al-Asad, Mohammad, "The Mosque of al-Rifa`i in Cairo," Muqarnas 10 (1993): 108-24.
  • Raymond, Andre. "Cairo," in The Modern Middle East. A. Hourani, P.
  • Khoury & M. Wilson (eds.), Berkeley, 1993. Pp. 311-37.
  • Meinecke, Michael, ed. Islamic Cairo: Architectural Conservation and Urban Development of the Historic Centre. (AARP, June 1980) pp. 8-46.
  • Ilbert, Robert, and Mercedes Volait, "Neo-Arabic Renaissance in Egypt, 1870-1930," Mimar 13 (1984): 26-34.
  • Volait, Mercedes. L'architecture moderne en Egypte et la revue al-`Imara, Cairo, 1988.
  • Caroline Williams, "Islamic Cairo: Endangered Legacy," Middle East Journal 39, 3 (1985): 231-246.
  • `Ali Pasha Mubarak, al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyya al-Jadida, Cairo: Dar al-Kutub, 1969.
  • Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, A Short History of Modern Egypt, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, Egypt in the Reign of Muhammad `Ali, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • Andre Raymond, Le Caire des Janissaires: L'apogee de la ville ottomane sous `Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda, Paris: CNRS Editions, 1995.
  • Andre Raymond, Le Caire, Paris: Fayard, 1993.
  • Andre Raymond, The Great Arab Cities in the 16th-18th Centuries, New York: New York University Press, 1984.
  • Arthur Rhone, L'Egypte a petites journees, Paris: 1910.
  • Carl F. Petry, The Civilian Elite of Cairo in the Later Middle Ages, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
  • Caroline Williams, Islamic Monuments in Cairo: A Practical Guide, Cairo: AUC Press, 1993.
  • Charles Coulston Gillispie and Michael Dewachter (eds), Monuments of Egypt: the Napoleonic Edition: the complete archaelogical plates from la Description de l'Egypte, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
  • Christel Kessler, The Carved Masonry Domes of Medieval Cairo, Cairo: American University Press, 1976.
  • Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Azbakiyya and its Environs: From Azbak to Ismail (1476-1879), Cairo: IFAO, 1985.
  • Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Egypt's Adjustment to Ottoman Rule: Institutions, Waqf and Architecture in Cairo, 16th and 17th Centuries, Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1994.
  • Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Islamic Architecture of Cairo, An Introduction, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989.
  • Doris Behrens-Abouseif, The Minarets of Cairo, Cairo: AUC Press, 1985.
  • Edmond Pauty, Les palais et maisons d'epoque musulmane au Caire, Cairo: IFAO, 1932.
  • Edward William Lane, 1801-1876, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians Written in Egypt During the Years 1833-1835, London: East-West Publications, 1978.
  • Edward William Lane, Cairo Fifty Years Ago, ed. S. Lane-Poole, London: John Murray, 1896.
  • Edwige Lambert and Isabelle Vinatier, eds., Autrement Le Caire (Feb 1985).
  • Gaston Migeon, Le Caire, le Nil et Memphis, Paris: Librairie Renouard, 1928.
  • Gaston Wiet, Cairo: City of Art and Commerce, Westport, Ct: Greenwood Press, 1983.
  • Gaston Wiet, Mohammed Ali et les beaux-arts, Cairo: Dar al-Maaref, 1949.
  • Hassanein Rabie, The Financial System of Egypt A.H. 564-741 A.D. 1169-1341, London: Oxford University Press, 1972.
  • Henriette R.L. Devonshire, Rambles in Cairo, Cairo: R. Schindler, 1931.
  • Ira Lapidus, Muslim Cities in the Later Middle Ages, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.
  • Jacques Berque, Egypt: Imperialism & Revolution, ed. tr. Jean Stewart, London: Faber & Faber, 1972.
  • Jacques Revault, ed., Palais et maisons du Caire, I- epoque mamelouke, Paris: CNRS, 1982.
  • Janet Abu-Lughod, Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.
  • K.A.C. Creswell, Muslim Architecture of Egypt. 2vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.
  • Louis HautecOur and Gaston Wiet, Les mosquees du Caire, Paris: Librairie Ernest Leroux, 1932.
  • M. Georges Salmon, Etudes sur la topographie du Caire, la Kal`at al-Kabch et la Birkat al-Fil, Cairo: IFAO, 1902.
  • Mahmoud El-Gawhary, Ex-Royal Palaces in Egypt From Muhammad Aly to Farouk, Cairo: Dar al-Maaref, 1954.
  • Martin Briggs, Muhammadan Architecture in Egypt and Palestine, (New York: Capo, reprt 1974.
  • Max Herz, La mosquee du sultan Hassan au Caire, Cairo: Comite de conservation des monuments de l'art arabe, 1899.
  • Max Herz, La mosquee el-Rifai au Caire, Milan: H. Allegretti, 1912.
  • Max Van Berchem, Materiaux pour un Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum, Memoires publies par les Membres de la Mission Archeologique Francaise au Caire. 19 (1-4). Paris: Librairie Leroux, 1894-1903.
  • Mercedes Volait, L'architecture moderne en Egypte et la revue al-`Imara (1939-1959), Cairo: CEDEJ, 1988.
  • Michael Meinecke, Die Mamlukische Architektur in Agypten und Syrien (648/1250 bis 923/1517), Gluckstadt: Verlag J. J. Augustin GMBH, 1992.
  • Muhammad M. Amin, Al-Awqaf wa-l-Hayyat al-Ijtima`iyya fi-Misr (The Waqfs and Social Life in Egypt 684-923 A.H./ 1250-1517 A.D.), Cairo: Dar al-Nahda al-`Arabiyya, 1980.
  • Nasser Rabbat, The Citadel of Cairo : A New Interpretation of Royal Mamluk Architecture, Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1995.
  • Nelly Hanna, An Urban History of Bulaq in the Mamluk and Ottoman Periods, Le Caire: Institut francais d'archeologie orientale, 1983.
  • Nelly Hanna, Habiter au Caire, la maison moyenne et ses habitants aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siecles, Cairo: Institut francais d'archeologie orientale, 1991.
  • Panayiotis J. Vatikiotis, The History of Modern Egypt from Muhammad Ali to Mubarak, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
  • Pascal-Xavier Coste, Architecture Arabe ou Monuments du Kaire mesures et dessines de 1818 a 1826, Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1839.
  • Robert Anderson and Ibrahim Fawzi (eds), Egypt Revealed: scenes from Napoleon's Description de l'Egypte, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1987.
  • Robert Hay, Illustrations of Cairo, London: Tilt and Bogue, 1840.
  • Robert Ilbert, Heliopolis, Le Caire, 1905-1922, genese d'une ville, Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1981.
  • Stanley Lane-Poole, The Story of Cairo, Nendeln/Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1902, reprint 1971.
  • Sylvie Denoix, Decrire le Caire Fustat-Misr d'apres Ibn Duqmaq et Maqrizi: l'histoire d'un partie de la ville du Caire d'apres deux historiens egyptiens des XIVe-XVe siecles, Cairo: Institut francais d'archeologie orientale du Caire, 1992.
  • Tarek Sakr, Early Twentieth-Century Islamic Architecture in Cairo, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1992.
  • Timothy Mitchell, Colonizing Egypt, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
  • Ulrich Haarmann, Quellenstudien zur fruhen Mamlukenzeit, Freiburg: D. Robischon, 1969.
  • Wladyslaw Kubiak, Al-Fustat, Its Foundation and Early Urban Development, Cairo: American University Press, 1987.



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