4 An Arab pow­er­house

Un­der its Mus­lim rulers, Cairo be­came one of the largest cities in the world

BBC History Magazine - - Cairo In Five Cultures -

By the sev­enth cen­tury AD, the Cairo re­gion had been play­ing sec­ond fid­dle to the city of Alexan­dria, the Ro­man pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal, for a mil­len­nium. But then the pen­du­lum swung de­ci­sively.

The cat­a­lyst was the col­lapse of Ro­man power. In the early 640s, an army un­der the Arab gen­eral ‘Amr ibn al-‘As swept into Egypt and cap­tured the Ro­man gar­risons at Baby­lon in Egypt and He­liopo­lis. Egypt now had a new master. His name was Caliph Umar, and he de­clared that he wanted no wa­ter be­tween his Ara­bian strongholds and his new Is­lamic Egyp­tian cap­i­tal. An­nual flood­ing of the Nile delta ef­fec­tively placed a sea be­tween Alexan­dria and Med­ina, and so Caliph Umar was forced to look else­where. The city he alighted on sat on the site of mod­ern- day Cairo.

That city was called Misr al-Fu­s­tat, or ‘ the city of the tent’ – its name in­spired by a story in which ‘Amr ibn al-‘As found a dove nest­ing in his tent. Be­liev­ing the dove to have been sent by Mo­ham­mad, ‘Amr ibn al-’As built the set­tle­ment’s first mosque on that very site.

Al-Fu­s­tat’s role as Is­lamic cap­i­tal of Egypt was cut short in AD 750, when the last leader of the rul­ing Umayyad caliphate burned the city to the ground as he fled from a ri­val Arab group, the Ab­basids. In AD 969, the Ab­basids were them­selves ousted – by the Fa­timids, who es­tab­lished a new seat of power at the base of the Nile delta. The city was named al- Qahira.

Al- Qahira be­came the strong­hold of the great Mus­lim war­rior Sal­adin dur­ing the era of the cru­sades. It was Sal­adin who con­structed a citadel strong­hold, which would be­come the seat of the Mus­lim rulers of Egypt over the fol­low­ing cen­turies (the Fa­timids gave way to the Ayyu­bids, the Ayyu­bids to the Mam­luks and the Mam­luks to the Ot­tomans).

Al- Qahira’s rep­u­ta­tion as a trad­ing city now grew, not only mak­ing it wealthy, but also re­sult­ing in its rapid ex­pan­sion. By the 14th cen­tury, al- Qahira was one of the world’s largest cities. And it was Ital­ian mer­chants, trad­ing in Egypt, who turned the name of the city, al- Qahira, into the one we recog­nise in the western world to­day: Cairo.

As a trad­ing hub, Egypt’s cap­i­tal grew rapidly and be­came enor­mously wealthy

The Sal­adin Citadel, topped by the Mosque of Muham­mad Ali, was the seat of Arab power in Cairo – and Egypt – for cen­turies

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