4 An Arab powerhouse
Under its Muslim rulers, Cairo became one of the largest cities in the world
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