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.
The historic urban Wall is the south-eastern segment of Cairo’s Ayyubid fortifications, which were partially exposed during the works to create the new Azhar Park. The Wall measures over 1500 metres in length, running north from Bab al-Wazir to al-Azhar Street, and forms the boundary between the Darb al-Ahmar district of Historic Cairo and the new Park. It is the longest and best-preserved portion of Cairo’s old fortifications. Following preliminary investigations, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) began restoration works in 2000. Most of the work along the side facing the Park was completed in 2008.
Built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by Salah al-Din and his successors, this portion of the city wall was Cairo’s eastern boundary for centuries. Over time, its role changed: although it continued to be a defining element for the city, it long ago ceased to be a defensive structure. This shift in function meant that the city gradually spread to and into the very edge of the Wall, following an accretive process common to historic cities everywhere. From the fifteenth century onwards, the area just outside the Wall began to be used as a dumping ground and the Wall gradually disappeared under the debris, where, in fact, it remained protected from the ravages of time and weather.
Conservation of the original wall structure and preservation of the living city fabric around the Historic Wall are seen as the best antidotes against further decay on the one hand, and destructive commercialization on the other. The actions to ensure that the Historic Wall maintains its original significance and that it be properly reintegrated into its contemporary context included: firstly, creating pedestrian circulation along the western side of the Park and access through the former city gates (Bab al-Mahruq, Bab al-Barqiyya and Bab al-Wazir) to enhance the perception of the Historic Wall as a dynamic edge and meeting point, rather than as a barrier between the community and the Park; secondly, establishing didactic programmes, exhibits and an overall interpretive scheme to enhance appreciation of the Wall as an important urban feature of Historic Cairo, to explain its changing role in the development of the city and to introduce visitors to the life of the Darb al-Ahmar community; thirdly, introducing educational and training activities that are relevant to promoting a deeper understanding of the cultural heritage among visitors and residents and the development of capacity through enrichment of local skills and abilities to preserve and protect Historic Cairo; and fourthly, ensuring the future management and long-term sustainability of the Wall through the establishment of permanent repair and maintenance programmes and the monitoring of future changes and transformations.