The cultural and historical heritage of Egypt centres around Cairo, because of the incomparable accumulation of Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic treasures located there.
Following the Muslim conquest of the Byzantine city in 641 AD, and the establishment of the military encampment Al-Fustat, the governmental seat of the province of Egypt, Cairo, as a critical part of the rapidly expanding Islamic Empire, was enlarged by a succession of powerful ruling dynasties. After the Mongol conquest of Baghdad it became the largest medieval Muslim city.
In 969 the Fatimids, moving eastward along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, established a city which they named al-Qahira, 'the Victorious', which then became the nucleus of the medieval quarter. Under the Fatimids, al-Qahira became the seat of power, a ceremonial residential centre where the Caliph dwelt with his court and army.
The princely enclave which the Fatimids established was used as a base to challenge the authority of the Abbasids in Baghdad. The Fatimid legacy, although much is no longer extant, is most evident today in the al-Azhar Mosque and University, and al-Aqmar Mosque. Defensive city walls built by the Fatimids have played an important part in protecting the historic core from encroachment by the sprawling metropolis that continues to grow up around it. These walls were subsequently expanded by the Ayyubid Sultan Salah al-Din.
The population of the city, which grew because of refugees fleeing from uncertain conditions in the east, as well as by Salah al-Din's decree that the princely enclave should be opened to all, and not reserved for the ruling class alone, forced changes in the linear, orthogonal structure, creating the twisting organic streets we see today.
Under the Mamluks, who ruled in various forms from 1250 to 1517, this central core reached its height as a metropolis. After the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1261, the seat of the caliphate was transferred to Cairo, making it the political center of Islam. Its wealth, due to its new status and the monopoly it was able to establish over Red Sea trade, was directed into the construction of many large complexes, such as the extraordinary Madrasa Mausoleum and Maristan of Sultan Qalawun, built between 1284 and 1285, which rivals the highest architectural achievements realized in Europe at this time.
Although the city never reclaimed its once exalted position after the Ottoman Conquest in 1517, the momentum that had been established continued in the form of a conscious attitude toward the enhancement of an important legacy, and many fine architectural examples date from this period.
A brief renewal of prosperity and power was achieved under the Ottoman Governor Muhammed Ali following the Napoleonic occupation of Cairo in 1798. Under the Ottomans, the decision to emulate French city planning techniques, and open up vast new boulevards that moved outward to the north and west, reconfigured the city plan and remains predominant in Cairo's downtown core until today. (Visit the collection Art Deco Architecture in Cairo) to see some of the structures from this period. In addition to neighborhoods like Zamalek, Dokki, and Muhandiseen, present day Cairo encompasses the historically distinct zones of Babylon and Fustat, as well as the nineteenth century suburb Heliopolis (Misr al-Jadida), and its contemporary counterpart, Maadi.
A group of houses still remain that were built during the Tulunid and Fatimid periods (9th-11th c.), at Fustat, which flourished until the great famine during the reign of al-Mustansir in 1054 and the ensuing epidemic of 1065/71-2. Badr al-Jamali, appointed in 1073 after his victories in Syria, permitted army officers and others to erect new buildings in Cairo out of stones and other building material from the abandoned houses of Fustat, al-Qata'i and al-'Askar. Fustat was burned by the Fatimid vizier in 1168 to preempt its capture by the Crusader king of Jerusalem. Systematic pillaging of the ruins of the houses began after the reign of Baybars I. Destruction has continued into modern times.
Excavations carried out as early as 1912 revealed important aspects of the earliest encountered domestic architecture in Islamic Egypt and have made it possible to understand the urban morphology of a Muslim town from that early period. Constellated houses formed masses that were bordered by irregular unpaved narrow streets; the outcome was a complex interwoven urban fabric punctuated by courtyards and winding thoroughfares.
Plans of houses were found to conform to a pattern of spatial organization in a remarkable way. A strong axial layout, generated by the perpendicular axes of a rectangular courtyard, was adhered to throughout the fabric. A composite, T-shaped structure serving as a majlis opened onto a courtyard via a transverse, tripartite portico which, with the rectangular, iwan-like space perpendicular to it, gave this structure its characteristic shape. This structure is replicated on the opposite side of the courtyard. The remaining sides of the court would house iwans, niches, or rooms whose openings on the court were positioned so that each elevation of the courtyard's walls would be symmetrical. This uncovered courtyard was not a cul-de-sac; it functioned as part of the circulation system of the house. The occurrence of this T-shape, a type known in Ukhaidir and Samarra, underscores the influence of Mesopotamia on built form during the heyday of the 'Abbasids. It has been suggested that it stemmed from al-Mutawakkil's innovation at Samarra of a form which al-Mas'udi (d. 957), our contemporary source for this, called a "Hiri bi kummayn wa arwiqa" or a Hiri (originated in al-Hira region in northern Iraq) with two sleeves and several porticoes, which people then incorporated into their domestic architecture. Understanding the underlying logic of the sequence of spaces found in these houses is indispensable for the study of the evolution of this open courtyard house of Fustat into the standard Mamluk durqa'a-iwan composition, both in the private dwelling and the rab' or collective housing.
Also found in Fustat were painted muqarnas fragments in the ruins of the bath of Abu'l Su'ud, dated, on stylistic grounds, to the 11th c. These are among the earliest examples of the use of muqarnas in Egypt, and are particularly interesting for their function as an element of transition.
Creswell, K.A.C. The Muslim Architecture of Egypt, vol. I. Hacker Art Books, New York, 1978.
Goitein, D. "A Mansion in Fustat: A Twelfth Century Description of a Domestic Compound in the Ancient Capital of Egypt." In The Medieval City, edited by Harry Miskimin et al., 163-178. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.