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Cairo: History
Islamic Cairo


The Arab armies invaded Egypt in 640 AD and Babylon fell in April 641, after a siege of some seven months. Alexandria was taken in September 641, and all Egypt was surrendered by the Byzantines in November of that year. The Arab commander, Amr ibn al-As, wanted to establish his capital city in Alexandria, but permission to do so was refused by the Caliph, Umar.

The reason quoted for his refusal is that he did not want a body of water to separate the capital from Arabia, so it had to be built on the east bank of the Nile; however, an attempt to keep control of the Egyptian forces and their leader may have been his real motive. The new capital city (called Fustat, possibly from the Arabic for tent, or camp) was thus established just to the north of Babylon.

The new town was laid out as a series of tribal areas, or khittas, around a central area with the communal mosque, administrative buildings and residences for the highest status tribal groups. The majority of tribes who settled here were of Yemeni origin, with the remainder of the Arabs from the western Arabian peninsula; a few Jews and some Roman mercenaries were also present.

At this stage the population must have consisted almost entirely of soldiers and their households, and Fustat exhibited the typical plan of a garrison town. Originally founded in 642 AD, the Mosque of Amr still stands but has been continually rebuilt: nothing remains of the earliest structure. Large piles of stone- and woodwork have been dumped across the ruins of the town and these almost certainly came from older versions of the Mosque and include many reused Roman column capitals.

The town grew rapidly in size, expanding out into the desert and up onto higher ground. It became an important commercial center, and excavations on the site have found artifacts from places as far apart as China, India, Vietnam, Iraq, Italy and Spain.

The Museum of Islamic Art contains many objects from Fustat.

The city did not retain its status as capital of Egypt; other administrative districts were planned and built to the north of Fustat: the Abbasid al-Askar, Tulunid al-Qata'i and the great Fatimid town al-Qahira, which gives modern Cairo its name. However, Fustat remained an important trading post for the eastern Mediterranean world. In 1168 the town was completely burned to prevent its use by Crusaders, but it recovered its prosperity and population fairlyquickly. Fustat eventually declined in importance as trade-routes between the Far East and Europe shifted northwards, depriving the town of much of its income. It is unlikely, though, that it was ever completely abandoned, and until recently a potters' quarter existed upon the site.

Today, little remains of the rich city that once flourished on the site. The area behind the Mosque of Amr has become a convenient place for Cairo citizens to dump their rubbish and is a desolate and unhygienic place. Further east, around the ticket office, house walls still stand and streets can be traced.

A couple of buildings have been reconstructed to waist height, and early quarries and the Ayyubid city wall (around the eastern edge of the site), as well as drainage channels and cisterns, are still visible. Fustat suffers badly from Cairo's wastewater problem: stands of reeds, which shelter many bird species, grow in polluted ponds. Although absolutely fascinating, this site is really only for those with a reasonable interest in archaeology or a strong imagination; others will be put off by the mobs of difficult children often encountered in the slums around the site. (Alison Gascoigne)


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