Book Review: History of Cairo through its monuments

19th Mar 2021
Book Review: History of Cairo through its monuments

Old Cairo (Wiki Commons)

Cairo: Histories of a City by Nezar AlSayyad. Pg 323, published by Belknap Press of Harvard University. 2013. Paperback. £16.99.

Cairo – from my travels – always felt like a city of extremes. You either love it or hate it. Either way, you are in awe of its history and the footprints left of people long gone. As the oldest inhabited urban city in the world, it is rich in monuments.

AlSayyad, Professor of Architecture, Planning and Urban History at the University of California, Berkley, has lived in the city and can narrate Cairo’s history through its buildings.

This book is well-written and thoroughly researched. Cairo: Histories of a City reads like a travel book, written with a keen eye on history and gives the reader a comprehensive, cultural understanding of the city. Chronologically arranged, the book begins with the earliest records of the inhabitation of Cairo or Memphis as it was known as, using the iconic pyramids of Giza as a starting point. AlSayyad speaks about Auguste Mariette, a Frenchmen who travelled to Egypt in 1850 and began a formidable love affair with the history of the country, which continued to his death.

It is through the projects that Mariette embarked on that the author gives his comprehensive understanding of Ancient Egypt. Divided into 12 chapters with a period starting from 4000BC to 2009 CE, each chapter covers major actors in the era, travellers and commentators, as well as the monuments erected in that time. It gives a detailed history of its construction and how the monument expanded as the needs of the times changed.

For those that are using this book as a point of reference, there is a wonderful chart at the beginning of the book that tells you key commentators, actors and monuments covered in each chapter. This book has been incredibly well-thought-out giving you a real sense of the evolving history of the place.

For example in Chapter 3 titled Fustat Misr: The City of Arab Islam. The primary actor in the chapter is Amr ibn al-‘As who was a General who led the Arab military campaign to take over Egypt from the Byzantines in 640 and founded the garrison town for fifteen thousand soldiers, which increased to thirty thousand at its peak. The city of Fustat centred on the mosque of Amr ibn al-‘As and the book explains how the organisation of the garrison town reflected the organisation of the Bedouin culture. AlSayyad can form connections between the monuments that have been designed and how they resemble urban sprawls found elsewhere in the world.

This book is wonderful to read from cover to cover, but its organisation lends itself well to being used as a reference tool to study specific eras or monuments in this great city.

Aasiya Versi

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