American Stories, Connected Histories

'Cairo' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article describes the capital city of Cairo, Egypt, the backdrop for G. Willow Wilson's memoir The Butterfly Mosque. The article by Massimo Campanini is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


The capital of Egypt, Cairo was founded in 969 C.E. by the Shīʿī Ismāʿīlī dynasty, the Fāṭimids. Its name in Arabic is al-Qāhirah, “the victorious,” in commemoration of the conquest of Egypt by the Fāṭimids.

The Medieval City

The place where the capital rose was north of both the Byzantine fortress of Babylon and the first Arab settlement in the Nile Valley, the camp city of al-Fustāt. When in 642 C.E. the Arab army led by ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ invaded Egypt, the first city was founded in a strategic place where it was easy to dominate Lower Egypt. The first mosque in Africa was erected, the ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ mosque, later enlarged many times and enriched by a minaret. Al-Fustāt, called Old Cairo today, remained the capital of Egypt for three centuries; it was a cosmopolitan city inhabited by Muslim Arabs, Copts, and Jews. Nowadays, visitors find in al-Fustāt, near the ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ mosque, the oldest churches and synagogues of Cairo. The famous Cairo Jewish Genizah was an important commercial center for many decades and the documents kept in its archives are an essential source of knowledge of the medieval history of the Mediterranean world. During the Ṭūlūnid dynasty (868–905 C.E.), a great mosque was built on the outskirts of al-Fustāt, the Ibn Ṭūlūn mosque, characterized by a wide central court and a minaret similar to that of the great caliphal mosque of Sāmarrāʿ. This remained the central (congregational) mosque, while the sulṭān erected his palatine complex far from the urban center. This precedent was followed by the Fāṭimids when they conquered Egypt in 969 C.E. Thus, the first nucleus of al-Qāhirah was built far away from al-Fustāt, similar to Madīnat al-Salām (Baghdad) built by the ʿAbbāsids: a city founded to host the court.

The Fāṭimid city was encircled by walls, and delimited by two monumental doors, Bāb al-Futūḥ in the north, and Bāb Zuwaylah in the south. The Muʿizz li-Dīn Allāh Road runs in a straight line from Bāb al-Futūḥ to Bāb Zuwaylah and is lined with mosques and other buildings on each side. Along this road, the Fāṭimid caliphs celebrated their military with gala parades.

The Fāṭimid caliphs enriched their city with at least two important mosques: al-Azhar and al-Ḥākim. The first was built immediately after the foundation of the city, the second by the controversial caliph al-Ḥākim bīʿAmr Allāh (996–1021 C.E.). Al-Azhar is probably the most important mosque in Cairo. It was the congregational mosque of the Ismāʿīlī dynasty and the center of Ismāʿīlī education. When Egypt returned to Sunnī rule, al-Azhar was converted to Sunnī education and kept its prestige as the most important center of religious education in the Sunnī world. Al-Ḥākim mosque, very simple in its architectural lines, remains a well-known place of worship for Ismāʿīlī Muslims. Another important mosque, revered by both Sunnīs and Shīʿah, is Sayyidnā Ḥusayn's mosque, located in front of al-Azhar.

The Fāṭimid dynasty was replaced by the Sunnī Ayyūbids. The founder and most prominent Ayyūbid sulṭān was the famous Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn (Saladin; r. 1169–1193 C.E.) who built the Citadel, a complex of fortifications, barracks, and religious buildings. His aim was to concentrate political and military authority and separate it from the city itself.

Following Ayyūbid rule, Cairo underwent a deep transformation with the Sunnī Mamlūks (1250–1517 C.E.), the slave dynasty that changed the face of the city. Under the Mamlūks, Cairo was one of the most important centers of Sunnī Islam, both politically and intellectually. The Mamlūks were munificent builders. Their sulṭāns and military chiefs filled Cairo with hundreds of mosques, religious schools (madrasahs), and mausoleums. Thus, Cairo became the “city of a thousand minarets.” One of the most magnificent buildings was Sulṭān Ḥasan's Mosque and madrasah, built below the Citadel. It was a mosque where all the four “orthodox” Sunnī juridical schools were represented. The Mamlūks did not restrict themselves to religious architecture, however. For instance, in 1284 C.E. Sulṭān Qalāwūn built a hospital (māristān) organized with medical wards, a pharmacy, and four thousand beds to serve the public. The Qalāwūn hospital is still in operation today. Arriving in Cairo in 1382 C.E., the historian Ibn Khaldūn wrote:

"Cairo: metropolis of the world, garden of the universe, ant-nest of humankind, wonder of Islam, seat of power. Innumerable buildings are standing therein; religious schools (madrasahs) and Ṣūfī monasteries (khanāqāt) flourish everywhere; as bright stars, the scholars shine therein. The city extends on the borders of the Nile—river of Paradise, granting to all people abundance and prosperity. I walked in its streets: people crowd them, the markets are swarming with all kinds of goods."

(Ibn Khaldūn, Le Voyage d’Occident et d’Orient (Travel in the West and in the East), edited by A. Cheddadi, Paris 1995, pp. 148–149).

The Modern City

During the Ottoman period (1517–1805 C.E.) Cairo remained unchanged in its main nucleus, although a few boroughs were organized anew: Būlāq along the Nile north of al-Qāhirah, and Ḥusaynīyah, outside Bāb al-Futūḥ, from where the caravans for the pilgrimage to Mecca left. Urban planning became a priority during Khedive Ismāʿīl's reign (1863–1879). Ismāʿīl, Muḥammad ʿAlī's grandson, wanted to Europeanize the city. He ordered the demolition of wide areas in order to separate the ancient nucleus from the new residential and administrative quarters. Large new thoroughfares, like Parisian boulevards, were opened and four connective points between the ancient and the modern urban webs were singled out: Bāb al-Ḥadīd Square, al-Ezbekīyah Square (near the Opera house), ʿAbdīn square (where the royal palace still stands), and Sayyidah Zaynab Square just outside the old borough of Ibn Ṭūlūn. Ismāʿīl's transformations gave Cairo the shape it has today. At the beginning of the twentieth century, additional wide roads were opened in order to establish the main traffic directions; these are still important today. They include the al-Azhar Road, from Mīdān ʿAtabah al-Khayrāʿ to the great mosque; Ramsīs Road connecting the Mīdān Qaṣr al-Nīl with the main railway station; and Port Saʿīd Road that runs from the center to ʿAbbasīyah.

Contemporary Cairo has undergone major social transformations as a result of exponential population growth, including a massive influx of working people from the countryside and the concentration of most of the economic, cultural, and service activities of Egypt. The fast growth of the population began in the 1930s. In 1927 the population of Cairo was 1 million people; ten years later it had risen by 50 percent; in the 1950s it was almost 3 million. In 2007, the population is nearly 16 million. The greater Cairo region is presently an enormous agglomeration extending from Ḥelwan in the south to Qalūbīyah in the north.

One of the main features of the contemporary city is the difference between the formal and the informal urban textures, the organized structure of the center and the old city compared to the uncontrolled development of the suburbs. The exponential growth of population led to the birth of many suburbs, whose offshoots stretch out into the desert. These satellites (Nasr city, Sadat city, 6th of October city, and others) are often badly served in terms of sanitation services, shops, or schools; they escaped any planning logic. Sometimes they are residential for the middle class, but more often they are places for marginal communities. Particularly interesting is the colonization of the so-called “city of the dead,” the wide cemetery below the hill of Muqaṭṭam. Initially it was simply a bidonville wherein the poorest people lived roughly. Slowly, it became a real city with an infrastructure.

Cairo's current and future challenges include transport congestion, difficulties in food supply, and the difficulty of providing efficient services to its growing population. At the same time, as the center of political and economic power, Cairo represents a crucible of enterprises, social promotion, and social strains, making it the seat of all the change and transformation Egypt undergoes. Al-Azhar University remains a lighthouse for Muslim education all over the world, with many faculties devoted not only to religious studies, but also to medicine, engineering, and agriculture, and with a network of primary and secondary schools enrolling millions of students, from Egypt and around the world.


  • Behrens-Abouseif, Doris, ed. The Cairo Heritage. Cairo and New York, 2000.
  • Elyachar, Julia. Markets of Dispossession: NGO's, Economic Development and the State in Cairo. Durham, N.C., 2005.
  • Ghannam, Farha. Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation and Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo. Berkeley, Calif., 2002.
  • Ismail, Salwa. Political Life in Cairo's New Quarters: Encountering the Everyday State. Minneapolis, Minn., 2006.
  • La Greca, Paolo. Il Cairo. Una metropoli in transizione (Cairo, a Metropolis in Transition). Rome, 1996.
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  • Raymond, André. Cairo: City of History. Cairo and New York, 2001.
  • Rodenbeck, Max. Cairo, The City Victorious. Cairo and New York, 1998.
  • Staffa, Susan Jane. Conquest and Fusion: The Social Evolution of Cairo a.d. 642–1850. Leiden, 1977.


Campanini, Massimo. "Cairo." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #182: 'Cairo' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 17, 2024