By Adel Murad
Whilst many would support the claim that first impressions are all important; holding that once formed, they are almost impossible to change, Im thankful that books present us with an opportunity to take our time when deciding whether we like them or not.
A brief scan through Historic Cairo: A Walk Through the Islamic City, by Jim Antinou RIBA, MRTPI, FRSA; combined with the authors position as UNESCO consultant to the Supreme Council of Antiquities, led me to believe that this would be the ideal guide for those wishing to explore Cairos Islamic monuments in greater detail. Certainly there are many who feel they would prefer to explore the area at leisure, following on from the standard; & normally, rather hurried, organised, tour of the Citadel, a couple of mosques & the Khan al Khalili bazaar.
Certainly, the examples of maps & scale plans of the monuments, on pages 8 & 9; almost as an appetiser for things to come, would lead one to believe that the rest of this work would continue in a similar vein & with an equal attention to detail. Sadly, like a huge entre in an expensive restaurant, one is destined to be somewhat disappointed with the main course.
Before getting to the guide proper, we are first given a, brief, overview of the history of the city. Starting with the Pre-Dynastic period & the foundation of Pharaonic Memphis, we are then taken through the Greco-Roman period, the Islamic Conquest, featuring the founding of al Fustat, & finally to the history of medieval Cairo itself.
There are clues here that the author probably isnt all that comfortable with parts of this subject; e.g. His statement that Babylon in Egypt was a Persian fortress, founded by troops under Nebuchadnezar. This is despite the fact that this Babylonian king had been long dead by the time that Cambyses marched in & extinguished the 26th Dynasty. He also fails to mention that the most widely accepted theory as to how this fortress got its name was due to a Greek corruption of the Egyptian Per Hapi en Iunu; or the Nile house of Heliopolis, just as Men Nufer became Memphis.
The account of the founding of al Fustat gives the impression that this was Amr ibn al As first choice as the site of the capital of the newly conquered province of the Islamic Empire. In fact Amr preferred Alexandria, but was overruled by the Caliph, in Damascus, & so returned to the site of his old siege camp outside the walls of Bablyon fortress.
Once he actually reaches the Fatimid Period, he appears to be on much firmer ground. However, he does fail to mention why it was decided to change the name of their new palace city from al Mansariya to al Qahira.
Coverage of the Ayyubid & Mamluk periods is fairly broad in scope; though this is to some extent made up for within the later sections of the book, whilst fairly scant details of the Ottoman & later periods are given; possibly as these are seen as falling somewhat outside the topic with which the book aims to deal.
A nice feature of the guided walk through the old city is that it is broken down into 3, easily manageable, sections; thus simplifying life for those of us who would like to space out such a tour over the course of more than one visit. This also has the advantage of making the whole walk seem less daunting.
Starting in the north, by the Fatimid gates of Bab al Nasr & Bab al Futuh, the author proceeds to lead the reader southwards along Sharia Muizz li Din Allah; with occasional meandering to either side, pointing out the many major & minor monuments on the way.
The authors familiarity with this subject is much in evidence, as he is able to point out little details that would otherwise be missed.
Additionally, the guide is able to offer advice as to locations for one to have some rest & refreshment; e.g. the Naguib Mahfouz & Fishawis cafs, at the end of each section of the walk. This only serves to emphasise the more relaxed attitude of the author, when compared to many organised tours of the area. Whether intentional or not it has the additional benefit of encouraging those utilising his guide to take the time to actually sit back & watch the activities being carried out around them and, in some way, experience the life of this part of the city to even a small degree.
Vignettes, with accompanying text, give further details of characters, events & terms encountered in the main body of the text, whilst charming sketches of street scenes provide a backdrop to each page.
Again, however, there are omissions; whether by the author, or by the editing staff at the AUC press, which detract for the utility of the guide to those who are not already familiar with the layout of the area.
First, although we are given a general plan of the area of Khan al Khalili around the Mosque of Sayyidna al Husayn; showing the areas where various goods can be found, the promised guide to recommended shops/stalls never actually appears. Perhaps this was dropped from the final text as being too commercial or, perhaps, someone has finally realised that such information, when given in a guide, is often out of date by the time the book gets to print. Whichever is the case I do feel that leaving it out will seriously reduce the books popularity; in the light of the number of shopping enquiries received on the Tour Egypt Bulletin Board.
The absence of street names from the maps provided could present the possibility that users of this guide could find it much more difficult on the ground; especially as the directions given are generally based on distances & compass directions.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment is that, after tempting us with his marvellous plans of Sultan Hassans Mosque, Madrasa & Mausoleum complex; in various scales, at the start of the book, the similar plans for the other monuments, though promised, fail utterly to materialise. This, in my opinion is a oversight which is serious enough to place the utility of the guide to its intended, non-specialist, audience open to question & it is to be hoped that it will be rectified in future editions.
Overall, although this book is open to criticism, there are many things to recommend it to those who wish to remind themselves of a tour of Old Cairo and those who can only wish to visit her. The sketches & vignettes; I especially like the one of Shagarat ad Dur, who looks like a brunette rendition on Baby Spice, in sun glasses, alone make it worthy of consideration for these latter purposes. Judged purely as a guidebook for the area I do feel that it would be advisable to supplement it with a decent map or to invest in a copy of Michael Haags "Discovery Guide" to Cairo. The best option of all would be to get someone local to the area to show you around.
(Historic Cairo: A Walk Through the Islamic City, Jim Antinou RIBA MRTPI FRSA, ISBN 977-424-497-4, published by the AUC Press, 1998 should be available from decent booksellers and is priced in the UK at 13.95p)
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Last Updated: June 1st, 2011