Cairo -- The Past
While the City of Cairo sprang from the foundations of a "recent" town, by Egyptian historical standards, it is no wonder that this location developed the foremost Egyptian city. With one of the few river crossings, the area around Cairo was originally settled in Paleolithic times and later saw the development of Neolithic trading communities.
Yet it was Menes, the legendary first King-God of the Dynastic period who united upper and lower Egypt and established his capital at Memphis. While it has been suggested that Memphis already existed upon Menes arrival, what is known is that this city, with its ruins 15 miles south of current Cairo, was a dominate influence throughout most of Egypt's pharaonic history. Nearby Memphis (nine miles north and on the opposite side of the Nile) was the contemporary religious center of On located in the community the Greeks called Heliopolis, not to be confused with the nearby modern suburb of Cairo by the same name.
In 525 BC, the invading Persians conquered Egypt and built a strategic fort north of Memphis called Babylon-on-the-Nile. This was where the Persians controlled Egypt until its capture by Alexander in 332 BC. During the Greek period, the fort held little importance, but after the Roman conquest, it regained prominence as a stronghold because of its strategic location guarding the Roman trade routes. The Roman general Trajan repaired the old Red Sea Canal, originally built by the pharaohs, which allowed vessels to sail up the Red Sea, turn west toward Babylon, and then down the Nile to the Mediterranean.
During the Roman period, Babylon continued to be a dominant influence in the region and a Christian community grew up around it, which was likewise a prominent center of the new religion. It was here that St. Mark lived, and where St. Peter sent his greetings from the sister church in Rome. But in the later Roman period, the Coptic church of Egypt grew apart from most of the world's Christianity. This split resulted in unrest and often persecution of the Coptics. Hence, when the Arab Muslims led by Amr arrived in 640 AD, Babylon was an easy target and was captured after a disastrous battle for the Romans. Soon, all of Egypt was in the hands of the Islamic Arabs.
Legend has it that when Amr departed the Babylon area to lay siege to Alexandria, he left his tent standing in the tent camp next to Babylon. Upon his return, the tent was still standing and a dove had built a nest in it. So it was here that Amr built his Mosque, the first in Egypt, and around the Mosque, Fustat or al-Fustat al-Misr (the Camp of Egypt), the City of the Tents and the original Muslim capital of Egypt grew up from his original tent encampment. This encampment was divided into khittat, or districts which originally divided the various Arab tribes which made up Amr's army.
Throughout ancient times, Egypt has been one of the most important trade routes for the world and so it was from that, just as the archaic cities which proceeded Fustat, this new city also prospered from all manner of goods which where transshipped to wealthy markets in Europe. They also developed their own markets in spices, textiles and perfumes which were legendary throughout the world. Beginning as a haphazard conglomeration of tents and huts, Fustat grew into a sophisticated commercial center where its residents enjoyed great wealth. They built high rise houses with rooftop gardens, public baths modeled from the Romans (but smaller, earning the name al-hammamat al-far, or mouse baths). Their architecture grew in both splendor and magnitude, and they even built covered streets to protect themselves from the sun.
Last Updated: June 9th, 2011