Battleground of empires: Cairo in 5 cultures

The city of Cairo is an architectural masterpiece 5,000 years in the making, created by some of humanity's greatest empire-builders. From the pharaohs to Napoleon, Michael Scott reveals how five civilisations left their mark on Egypt's teeming capital

An elevated view of Cairo's Old City, which is home to a Roman tower, a Greek Orthodox church and an array of historical mosques and madrasas. (Photo by Getty Images)

This article was first published in the October 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Playground of the pharaohs

This article was first published in the October 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Playground of the pharaohs

Long before Cairo appeared, the Nile delta was a pivot of one of the ancient world’s great civilisations

You can’t tell a history in Egypt without the ancient Egyptians. Cairo didn’t appear for more than three millennia after Pharaoh Khufu commissioned the Great Pyramid at Giza, but that doesn’t mean the ancient Egyptians weren’t active in the region the city now occupies. The reason for the site’s importance is a simple geographical one. Cairo sits at the base of the Nile delta, the point where the mighty river starts to split into many tributaries heading towards the Mediterranean. From the earliest civilisations, this was one of the most strategically desirable pieces of real estate in all of Egypt.

From c3100 BC, when Egypt was united under one ruler, to the end of the so-called Old Kingdom a thousand years later, the ancient Egyptians had their political capital on the outskirts of modern Cairo. It wasn’t called Cairo, of course, but Memphis – and, sadly, very little survives from that once splendid city.

Pyramids built by the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure tower over the outskirts of Cairo. These awesome edifices were constructed three millennia before the city's foundation. (Photo by Getty Images)
Pyramids built by the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure tower over the outskirts of Cairo. These awesome edifices were constructed three millennia before the city’s foundation. (Photo by Getty Images)

Pharaohs were laid to rest in the great burial grounds at Saqqara, also in the outskirts of modern Cairo, within sight of Memphis. The exception to that rule was the fourth dynasty (c2600–2490 BC), whose rulers had their pyramids constructed on the Giza plateau. The plateau (which, again, was situated on the site of modern Cairo) was a natural plate of limestone, high above sea level. At the time of the fourth dynasty, it actually sat next to the river Nile (the Nile has shifted its course east and west continuously over the millennia).

During the building of the pyramids, 8,000–1,000 workers lived in this area

The western part of the plateau acted as the quarry where the bulk of the stone for the Great Pyramid was cut. During the building of the pyramids, 8,000–10,000 workers lived in this area. They were supplied by goods brought in by boat along the Nile to a harbour area just south of where another of ancient Egypt’s architectural masterpieces, the Great Sphinx, now sits.

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Egypt’s mini Babylon

Cairo’s Persian rulers proved that the pharaohs weren’t alone in having grand designs

The seventh and sixth centuries BC delivered two hammer blows to pharaonic Egypt. First, in 663 BC, the Assyrians seized Memphis and Thebes (modern Luxor). Then, in 525 BC, the Persians destroyed Heliopolis. This was another ancient settlement in the suburbs of modern Cairo, and a major religious centre attached to Memphis.

The age of the pharaohs was now fading. And, as the Persians focused increasing attention on the Mediterranean coast, so was the pre-eminence of the Cairo region – at least as a political and religious centre.

A seventh-century BC Assyrian relief shows soldiers storming an Egyptian city, as the power of Egypt's once mighty pharaohs waned. (Photo by Bridgeman)
A seventh-century BC Assyrian relief shows soldiers storming an Egyptian city, as the power of Egypt’s once mighty pharaohs waned. (Photo by Bridgeman)

However, the Persians still prized the Nile delta for its strategic and military value. In fact, they began constructing a canal that joined the Red Sea to the Nile at the point where it split into the delta. To do this, they brought in thousands of labourers from all over their empire, and those labourers in turn built themselves a settlement at the spot where the canal joined the Nile. It became known as ‘Babylon in Egypt’ and can today be found in the region of Coptic Cairo. The Persians built a fort on this site, from where they taxed boats sailing along the river.

The Persians were to dominate Egypt for two centuries – until, in 332 BC, they were ousted by an even more formidable conqueror, Alexander the Great. Soon, Cairo had ceded yet more power to Alexandria, the port renamed in the celebrated Greek commander’s honour. But that didn’t stop Egypt’s Ptolemaic rulers (descended from one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Ptolemy) styling themselves as pharaohs and performing rituals at the ancient Egyptian capitals of Thebes and Memphis.

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The bread basket of Rome

The Roman empire dined out on the Nile delta’s fertile farmlands

The battle of Actium – fought on the Ionian Sea in 31 BC – was one of the great turning points in Egyptian history. It saw Egypt’s last Ptolemaic ruler, Cleopatra, and her Roman lover, Mark Antony, confront a navy commanded by Octavian. Their defeat would have enormous ramifications – Octavian would be made Roman emperor (as Augustus), Cleopatra would take her own life, and Egypt would be gobbled up by the Roman empire.

The Romans soon regarded Egypt as one of their most important provinces – and with good reason. The fertile lands of the Nile delta provided enough food to keep the population of Rome fed for several months a year. Egypt also offered Roman merchants a gateway to the eastern trade routes. The Romans used the cities on the northern Egyptian coast, the navigable Nile, along with ports on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, to set off on trade missions across the Indian Ocean. The taxes extorted by the Roman state on goods entering and leaving Egypt provided, in some estimates, a third to a half of the entire Roman imperial tax revenue.

The Nile was one of this trade route’s vital arteries, and so it was perhaps inevitable that the Cairo region would become a hub of imperial activity. The Romans occupied Babylon in Egypt and based a Roman legion there. At the start of the second century AD, Emperor Trajan recut the canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea and built a stone harbour and a major fort at the meeting point of the canal and the Nile, which was enlarged by later emperors. Today, this sits under the streets of Old Cairo: parts of the structure of the fort were used as foundations for a later Greek Orthodox church.

The taxes extorted by the Romans on goods entering and leaving Egypt provided a third to a half of the entire imperial tax revenue
The remains of a Roman tower in Coptic Cairo. This was part of a major Roman fort that sits under the streets of the modern city. (Photo by Shutterstock)
The remains of a Roman tower in Coptic Cairo. This was part of a major Roman fort that sits under the streets of the modern city. (Photo by Shutterstock)
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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.

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

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.

The Saladin Citadel, topped by the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, was the seat of Arab power in Cairo – and Egypt – for centuries. (Photo by Getty Images)
The Saladin Citadel, topped by the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, was the seat of Arab power in Cairo – and Egypt – for centuries. (Photo by Getty Images)
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The scramble for Suez

European colonialists jostled for control of the gateway to the eastern hemisphere

In 1798, one of the world’s great cities fell to one of its most formidable military leaders. Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt – including, of course, its capital, Cairo – triggered an explosion of Egyptomania in western Europe. This was further fuelled by the discovery – near Alexandria in 1799 – of the Rosetta Stone, providing the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Napoleon was quickly ousted by the Ottomans (with British support), but French interest in Egypt wouldn’t end there. The Congress of Vienna of 1815 gave a number of European powers the green light to focus their energies on the north African nation. On the one hand, that interest was archaeological; on the other, it aimed at vastly increasing trade and exploiting Egypt’s position between the Mediterranean and Red Sea. It was this latter ambition that informed the construction of the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869. Nineteenth-century Cairo itself saw huge investment in buildings and infrastructure.

The Suez Canal is officially opened at Port Said, 1869, linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. (Photo by Getty Images)
The Suez Canal is officially opened at Port Said, 1869, linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. (Photo by Getty Images)

The British now became the dominant force in Egypt, formally occupying the nation in 1882. While the protectorate ended in 1922, British troops stayed on in the Suez area beyond the Second World War. It was only with the Egyptian revolution of 1952, and the declaration of an Egyptian republic in 1953, that the country truly gained its independence – with Cairo as its capital.

Cairo has a complex history. When you look out over its skyline today, you can see elements of nearly all these cultures – ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Roman, Arab, French, British – rubbing shoulders. But that’s what makes it such an intoxicating, if overwhelming, city. As a father says to his son in The Thousand and One Nights: “He who has not seen Cairo has not seen the world.”

Michael Scott is professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick. 

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Michael Scott has written and presented the series Ancient Invisible Cities: Cairo, Istanbul and Athens, airing on BBC Two from Friday 7 September.