May 3, 2012

Cairo the Mother of Cities

Cairo | Mother of Cities
Cairo changes daily and yet has remained the same for centuries. The Cairo of al- Muqaddasi at the end of the first millennium and that of Ibn Battuta, in 1326, is the Cairo that visitors and residents know today. One only has to step off a busy street into the garden of a mosque or into one of the narrow lanes that run between buildings or pass into the spice market to step back to timeless Cairo.

Cairo, c. 1000 
Al-Fustat [old Cairo] is a metropolis in every sense of the word; here are together all the departments of government’s administration, and moreover, it is the seat of the Commander of the Faithful. It sets apart the Occident from the domain of the Arabs, is of wide extent, its inhabitants many. The region around is well cultivated. Its name is renowned, its glory increased; for truly it is the capital of Egypt. It has superseded Baghdad, and is the glory of Islam, and is the market place for all mankind.

It is more sublime than the City of Peace [Baghdad], It is the storehouse of the Occident, the entrepot of the Orient, and is crowded with people at the time of the Pilgrimage festival. Among the capitals there is none more populous than it, and it abounds in noble and learned men. Its goods of commerce and specialities are remarkable, its markets excellent as is its mode of life. Its baths are the peak of perfection, its bazaars splendid and handsome. Nowhere in the realm of Islam is there a mosque more crowded than here, nor people more handsomely adorned, no shore with a greater number of boats.

It is more populous than Naysabur, more splendid than al-Basra, larger than Damascus. Victuals here are most appetizing, their savouries superb. Confectionaries are cheap, bananas plentiful, as are fresh dates; vegetables and firewoods are abundant. The water is palatable; the air salubrious. It is a treasury of learned men; and the winter here is agreeable. The people are well-disposed, and well-to-do, marked by kindness and charity.

Their intonation in reciting the Qur’an is pleasant, and their delight in good deeds is evident; the devoutness of their worship is well-known throughout the world. They have rested secure from injurious rains, and safe from the tumult of evildoers. They are most discriminating in the selection of the preacher and the leader in prayer; nor will they appoint anyone to lead them but the most worthy, regardless of expense to themselves. Their judge is always dignified, their muhtasih deferred to like a prince. They are never free from the supervision of the ruler and the minister. Indeed were it not that it has faults aplenty, this city would be without compare in the world.

The town stretches for about two-thirds of a farsakh, in tiers one above the other. It used to consist of two quarters, al-Fustat and al-Jiza, but late on, one of the khalifs of the house of al-Abbas had a canal cut around a portion of the town, and this portion became known as al-Jaziri (the island), because of its lying between the main course of the river and the canal. The canal itself was named the “canal of the Commander of the Faithful,” and from it the people draw their drinking water.

Their buildings are of four storeys or five, just as are lighthouses; the light enters them from a central area. I have heard it said that about two hundred people live in one building. In fact, when al-Hassan bin Ahmad al-Qarmati arrived there, the people came out to meet him; seeing them, as he considered, like a cloud of locusts, he was alarmed, and asked what this meant. The reply was: “These are the sightseers of Misr; those who did not come out more numerous still.”

Coming through North Africa from Tangier to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, Ibn Battuta traveled up the Nile from Alexandria to the city of Misr Cairo.

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