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Carnet de France: Visiting the fascinating and historical Cairo

By Martine P. Dulles and Frederick H. Dulles


This month’s Carnet de France is about Egypt, specifically Cairo, which we visited last month.

Egypt mostly consists of a desert, with the Nile River flowing from south to north. Its land area is 386,662 square miles (compared to South Carolina’s 32,020 square miles). However, only about 3.5 percent of its land area is cultivated or inhabited. The rest is sand.

After the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 641 CE the city of Fustat was founded along the Nile. In 969 CE, it became Cairo (Arabic al-Qāhirah, which means “the Conqueror”) when the Fatimid Dynasty (10th-12th century) made it the capital of the country.

Today, Egypt has a population of more than 100 million people squeezed along the banks of the Nile. The population of Cairo is about 25 million with 53,000 people per square mile compared to 27,000 per square mile in New York City and 1,300 per square mile in Charleston. The median age of Egyptians is 24, 15 years lower than that of the U.S. average of 39. About 86 percent of the population is Muslim, seven percent Coptic Christian and seven percent other.

Abdel Fattah al-Sissi (b. 1954) came into power in 2013 in the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011. He won the 2014 presidential election with a large majority and was re-elected in 2018 for a term ending in 2024.

Cairo is a city filled with contrasts — old and new, rich and poor, clean and dirty, medieval and 21st-century architecture, modern cars and donkey-drawn carts, overfilled decrepit buses and a metro built by the French (which is cleaner and safer than in Paris).

Do not be surprised if you hear the first call to prayer from nearby mosques at around five o’clock in the morning — the first of five calls per day. The muezzin (the caller) has been replaced by recordings broadcasted throughout the city.


The Ahmad ibn Tulun Mosque (9th century). IMAGE PROVIDED BY THE AUTHOR

The Ahmad ibn Tulun Mosque is the oldest Islamic monument in Egypt, constructed between 876-879. It is surrounded by a huge brick wall and features a minaret crafted in the Samarran style found in Iraq.

The imposing Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan (14th century) and the Mosque of Al-Rafaei (built 1819-1912) are close to the Citadel of Cair, where lie the mausoleums of King Fuad I (1868-1936) and King Farouk (1920-1965), the three wives of Khedive Ismail Pasha (1830-1895) and the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran (1919-1980).

A contrast is found with the Al-Hakim Mosque, next to the Bab al-Futuh (“Conquest Gate”), originally built in the 10th century. In 1980 the mosque was reconstructed using a modern minimalist style by the Bahaï, an international Shia sect based in India.


The Al-Hakim Mosque (10th and 20th century). IMAGE PROVIDED BY AUTHOR

Of course, every traveler to Cairo visits The Egyptian Museum located on the Place Tahrir. It is on this place where the latest uprising occurred in 2011. The Egyptian Museum was opened in 1902 in a building designed by French architect Marcel Dourgnon. The many Pharaonic artifacts on display here feature statues, sarcophagi, jewelry and other artifacts, including Tutankhamun’s famous golden funerary mask.

To accommodate the growth of the collection, a brand-new museum was opened just five miles away: The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC). The museography is excellent here: The main floor showcases Egyptian heritage with well-written explanations and just downstairs in Royal Mummies Hall, visitors may view the mummies of 18 pharaohs as well as kings and two queens kept in cool climate-controlled and dimly lit environments.


The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. IMAGE PROVIDED BY THE AUTHOR

The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) was established in 1903. In 2014, a car bomb aimed at the nearby police station seriously damaged the museum and part of its collection. It has been magnificently restored in 2017. The collection, displayed in chronological order, is excellently displayed.


The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA). IMAGE PROVIDED BY THE AUTHOR

One of the most imposing sites in the center of old Cairo is the Al-Azhar compound, which contains the university buildings, the mosque and a large green park. The Al-Azhar University dates from 970 during the Fatimid Califate (which was Shiite). After this califate was overthrown in the 12th century by Saladin (founder of the Ayyudic Dynasty), the University became a Sunni establishment and remains one to this day. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University is an office appointed by the Egypt’s president and in 2010, President Mubarak selected Sheikh Ahmed-Mohamed Al-Tayed, who studied at the Sorbonne in Paris as well as the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He is still in his post. The university is attended by tens of thousands of students 40,000 of which come from 150 different countries. The young men and young women may be studying the same subjects, but it is done separately, in different rooms.

If Al-Azhar is one of the oldest universities in the world, the American University in Cairo (the main campus of which is now located in the New Cairo) is one of the more recent, created in 1919 by a Protestant missionary devoted to the education of Middle East students. There are nearly 7,000 students, mostly Egyptians. The classes are all in English.

In 2000, three communities outside the edge of Cairo were combined to form New Cairo, a district situated about 20 miles from the original city center. A few years later in 2015, the government started the New Administrative Capital (NAC) about 28 miles east of Cairo, which includes the Egypt Grand Mosque, the largest mosque in Africa and the Nativity of Christ Cathedral for the Coptic Orthodox community. In 2019, The Capital International Airport was opened in the area, and the government recently announced that 14 ministries had moved to the NAC and that embassies also plan to be transfer to the district. The aim of the New Cairo City and the New Administrative Capital is to relieve the space constraints of the old city.

Cairo is truly a city rich with history, with plenty of culture to be discovered and appreciated.


Martine and Frederick Dulles live in France. Martine was a docent at the MET, in New York and was a licensed tour guide in Charleston (mpd@dullesdeleu.com). Frederick is an international business lawyer and adjunct professor in French business schools (fhd@dullesdeleu.com)

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