Cairo is not a Pharaonic city, though the presence of the Pyramids leads many to believe otherwise. At the time when the Pyramids were built, the capital of ancient Egypt was Memphis, 20km southeast of the Giza Plateau.
The foundations of Cairo were laid in AD 969 by the Fatimid dynasty, but the city’s history goes further back than that. There was an important ancient religious centre at On (modern-day Heliopolis). The Romans built a fortress at the port of On, which they called Babylon, while Amr Ibn Al As, the general who conquered Egypt for Islam in AD 642, established the city of Fustat to the south. Fustat’s huge wealth was drawn from Egypt’s rich soil and the taxes imposed on Nile traffic. Tenth-century travellers wrote of public gardens, street lighting and buildings up to 14 storeys high. Yet when the Fatimids marched from modern-day Tunisia near the end of the 900s, they spurned Fustat and instead set about building a new city.
Construction began on the new capital when the planet Mars (Al Qahir, ‘the Victorious’) was in the ascendant; thus arose Al Madina Al Qahira, ‘the City Victorious’, the pronunciation of which Europeans corrupted to Cairo.
Many of the finest buildings from the Fatimid era remain today: the great Al Azhar Mosque and university is still Egypt’s main centre of Islamic study, and the three great gates of Bab An Nasr, Bab Al Futuh and Bab Zuweila straddle two of Islamic Cairo’s main thoroughfares. The Fatimids did not remain in power long, but their city survived them and, under subsequent dynasties, became a capital of great wealth, ruled by cruel and fickle sultans. This was the city that was called the Mother of the World.
Cairo eventually burst its walls, spreading west to the port of Bulaq and south onto Roda Island, while the desert to the east filled with grand funerary monuments. But at heart it remained a medieval city for 900 years, until the mid-19th century, when Ismail, grandson of Mohammed Ali, decided it was time for change. During his 16-year reign (1863–79), Ismail did more than anyone since the Fatimids to alter the city’s appearance.
When the French-educated Ismail came to power, he was determined to build yet another city, one with international cachet. The future site of modern central Cairo was a swampy plain subject to annual Nile flooding. For 10 years the former marsh became one vast building site as Ismail invited architects from Belgium, France and Italy to design and build a new European-style Cairo, which earned the nickname ‘Paris on the Nile’.
Since the revolution of 1952, the population of Cairo has grown spectacularly, although at the expense of Ismail’s vision. In the 1960s and 1970s, urban planners concreted over the sparsely populated west bank of the Nile so they could build desperately needed new suburbs.
In more recent decades, growth has crept well beyond Muqattam Hills to the east and the Pyramids to the west. Luxe gated communities, sprawling housing blocks and full satellite cities, complete with malls and megastores, spring up from the desert every year while Cairo's slums have expanded as well. Whether the desert and the economy can sustain them remains to be seen.