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Cairo: Histories of a City

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Overview

From its earliest days as a royal settlement fronting the pyramids of Giza to its current manifestation as the largest metropolis in Africa, Cairo has forever captured the urban pulse of the Middle East. In Cairo: Histories of a City, Nezar AlSayyad narrates the many Cairos that have existed throughout time, offering a panoramic view of the city’s history unmatched in temporal and geographic scope, through an in-depth examination of its architecture and urban form.

In twelve vignettes, accompanied by drawings, photographs, and maps, AlSayyad details the shifts in Cairo’s built environment through stories of important figures who marked the cityscape with their personal ambitions and their political ideologies. The city is visually reconstructed and brought to life not only as a physical fabric but also as a social and political order—a city built within, upon, and over, resulting in a present-day richly layered urban environment. Each chapter attempts to capture a defining moment in the life trajectory of a city loved for all of its evocations and contradictions. Throughout, AlSayyad illuminates not only the spaces that make up Cairo but also the figures that shaped them, including its chroniclers, from Herodotus to Mahfouz, who recorded the deeds of great and ordinary Cairenes alike. He pays particular attention to how the imperatives of Egypt's various rulers and regimes—from the pharaohs to Sadat and beyond—have inscribed themselves in the city that residents navigate today.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Cairo, or Al-Qahira, can be translated as both "the victorious" and "the oppressor," explains AlSayyad in his exceptionally absorbing and astute, cultural and architectural history of one of the world's most captivating cities. Professor of architecture, planning, and urban history at UC-Berkeley, AlSayyad structures his book smartly by place rather than strictly by period: each of the 12 chapters brings the reader to a new section of Cairo in an inviting, informed journey through its development. He introduces readers to the history and architecture of, among others, Coptic Cairo; the noted mosques of al-Azhar and a-Anwar; the Gezira Palace; and medieval Cairo. The final chapters, on the eras of Nasser and Mubarak, are especially gripping; AlSayyad warns that the city has been given to a "new elite" and the preservation of old Cairo for tourists is turning it into a Disney-like theme park. An important second thread of the book sees Cairo as inspiration for artists such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and writers Naguib Mahfouz and Alaa Al Aswany. The author's writing is elegantly clear and evocative, drawing the reader into the "messy and difficult" but "vibrant and innovative" city, leaving one wanting to know what he has to say about the politically transformed city's future. 73 color illus. 9 b&w illus.;13 color maps. (May)
San Francisco Chronicle

AlSayyad presents a deeply knowledgeable yet highly personal account of the city's history in its various reincarnations—from Memphis, the first capital of united upper and lower Egypt, founded by the Pharaoh Menes around 3100 B.C., to the present...The book is profusely illustrated with maps and photographs, most of them taken by AlSayyad himself. They add enormously to the value of the text, bringing the descriptions of buildings and streets alive with color. Just as the text narrates the history of Cairo from a personal point of view, the photos indicate the standpoint of the photographer as much as they illustrate the text. Some are standard shots of buildings familiar to anyone who has visited and walked around Cairo. The best include the people of the city and their relationship to its historic monuments...[This is] a book of magisterial scope. Those who plan to visit Cairo should read this book first. Those who have visited often or lived there for years will find new appreciations for aspects of the city they know, as well as features they never previously encountered.
— Joel Beinin

The National

AlSayyad's book, a colorful sweep of over 3,000 years of urban and architectural history, is as much a short genealogy of Cairo's many commentators and portraitists as it is of its buildings. He narrates a broad history of urban development from the Pharaonic capital of Memphis, "the first Cairo," on the Nile's west bank, to the Ptolemaic, Roman-Byzantine and Arab-Islamic cities that developed on top of and adjacent to each other on the river's east bank. Each chapter begins at an iconic Cairo landmark and tells a history of the building's era, bringing in both neighboring architecture and contemporary voices.
— Frederick Deknatel

Choice

This ambitious, timely volume attempts the colossal feat of tracing the history of Cairo, from its ancient to modern incarnations, through a case-study approach to its urban landscape...This work provides a lucid overview of Cairo's architectural and political history, and some food for thought.
— E. A. Waraksa

Booklist

A timely and often surprising series of vignettes serving to trace the physical and cultural evolution of the city from the pharaonic period to the present. Each of the dozen vignettes covers a specific historical period, and AlSayyad includes many fascinating details about historical figures and their impact on the city as it grew from a tiny settlement to a great metropolis. Much of the narrative is driven by the observations and activities of contemporary residents or visitors to the city. Ibn-Khaldun, the renowned Arab traveler and historian, is utilized to provide views of medieval Cairo in the 14th century under the rule of Mamluks. This is an enjoyable tribute to a great, vital city that remains, sadly, unfamiliar to most Westerners.
— Jay Freeman

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674047860
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/31/2011
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Nezar AlSayyad is Professor of Architecture, Planning and Urban History, and Chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Preamble: Reading and Writing Cairo xiii

Road Map xvii

1 Memphis: The First Cairo 1

2 From Ancient Egypt to the Coptic Enclave 19

3 Fustat-Misr: The City of Arab Islam 39

4 Al-Qahira: A Fatimid Palatial Town 55

5 Fortress Cairo: From Salah al-Din to the Pearl Tree 77

6 The Bahri Mamluks: The City of the Slave Sultans 93

7 Governing from the Tower: The Burji Mamluks 117

8 A Provincial Capital under Ottoman Rule 149

9 A Changing City: From Napoleon to Muhammad Ali 171

10 Modernizing the New, Medievalizing the Old: The City of the Khedive 199

11 The Arab Republic and the City of Nasser 229

12 Escaping the Present, Consuming the Past 255

Appendix: Notes on Transliteration and Dates 281

Glossary 283

Endnotes 289

Figures and Credits 313

Index 317

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