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Behind Cairo's Walls

Notes from Robert Ivy, AIA, Editor-in-chief

Photos © Robert Ivy

Ironic that we focus on Pharaonic Egypt, when so much life is bursting before us today. Cairo, one of the world's largest cities with 20 million or so inhabitants, flows like the river, a restless, ceaseless sea of humanity, without beginning or end, jostling along the ancient pathways, calling out, decrying, exclaiming, punctuated by the symphonic cacophony of car horns honking from the throbbing arterials that constantly bring life and decay to this linear, burgeoning oasis.

For this recent visitor, an Egyptian representative from the Aga Khan Cultural Services unlocked doors that most casual visitors never see--behind the walls of Islamic Cairo. For three days, we trooped through tangled alleyways, navigating an urban scene that apparently had been little changed for 1,100 years, a bustling, bumptious walking feast of carts laden with figs or melons, women bearing loads on head-top, children darting about, spiced with the odors of food and dung and garbage, enlivened by the occasional small goat ambling by. It might seem to be a decaying slum, until a horn announces the approach of a scooter or a small truck, and the rhythm picks up.

That single loud beep shatters your initial perception. Far from remaining an ossified relic, Islamic Cairo breathes. Reality brings shades of meaning that complicates any single-minded reading. Lining those tight streets are small workshops filled with craftspeople--working metal, applying inlay to wooden boxes, assembling water pipes, building furniture, fixing cars. Hardly a structure, even the most decrepit, lacks an industrious ground floor operation, all powered in a rudimentary way with electricity, and all headed for a marketplace.

Street by street, the city unfolds, bends, and opens itself like a book. Portions of the 12th century walls, massive stone structures that formed the city bounds, were recently unearthed by the Aga Khan's efforts. They still delimit the old Islamic quarter, setting its easternmost bounds. Inside these sheltering forces, the web of interior courts opens to alleyways, to streets, and to modern-day Cairo. To nineteenth century visitors, this seemingly limitless collection of houses, souks, and mosques, formed an incomparably exotic urban landscape. Artists like Frederick Church were so taken with the "Moorish" example that he built an ornate mansion called Olana up the Hudson based on patterns and architectural motifs witnessed there.


It was Seif el Rashidi with the AKCS who acted as my Virgil, leading me past the guarded front doors into the core of the district. Following Seif, it seemed that every bend opened to a major mosque, some of them twisted on their sites to more perfectly align with Mecca: the Khayrbek mosque, for example. This outwardly simple-seeming structure contains an interior of such pure proportion and scale as to appear paradisiacal. Although I have not personally visited the Taj Mahal, the interior mausoleum captures a three-dimensional truth that is almost palpable. The great geometricians and spiritual leaders that dreamed this vision encapsulated larger ideas that elevate the human spirit--in the way that only great architecture can.

By contrast with Khayrbek's smoky interiors, the low-scaled fatimid period mosques opens onto vast marble courtyards. Encircled by porticos formed by clustered columns supporting graceful hull-form arches, the Fatimid period mosques from the 10th century seem oasis-like, pools of space in a crowded place.

After two days, the periods begin to speak above the hubbub: early Fatimid, Mamluk, Ottoman--each carries distinctive markings. Together they form one of the great living urban fabrics, a place still alive, and while poor in contemporary terms, vibrant and viable. Piece by piece, the historic structures are being restored, reconstituted as a living community in an incomparably rich setting.