The world was lately riveted by the events taking place in Cairo, Egypt. The unfolding revolution in Tahrir Square transcended ethnic and religious affiliations, inspiring people worldwide with the power of change.
In fact, this historic city has undergone many upheavals over the centuries and repeatedly risen above the setbacks with renewed fervor. Cairo, occupying land which has been constantly inhabited for more than 3500 years, has a rich history, complete with intellectual achievement, scientific endeavors, and power struggles.
Amr ibn al-Aas conquered Egypt in 641 A.D. and chose Fustat as his seat of power. In 969 A.D., the Fatimids changed history by founding Cairo and establishing it as the capital city. Al-Qahira in Arabic, it has maintained this status ever since even though it changed hands many times; in fact, over time, the metropolis expanded to envelop surrounding areas such as Fustat, al-Askar, and al-Qatta’i.
The Fatimids, followed by the Ayyubids and the Mamluks, were committed to creating a center of learning, culture, and progress. Each contributed in its own way towards the city’s character. For instance, the Fatimids established Al-Azhar, the second oldest university of the world. It has continued to represent Islamic intellectual traditions since its inception in 988 A.D. A House of Knowledge was also created by the Fatimids. The Ayyubids supported the different branches of knowledge, taking a special interest in medicine, pharmacology, and botany. The Mamluks commissioned the many mosques which dot the city to this day, lending it the nickname City of a 1000 Minarets.
Between 1170 and 1345, Cairo was at its highest point. Libraries and bookshops, scientists and astronomers, palaces and gardens enriched the metropolis. Assorted thinkers, inventors, and enterprising people flocked to Cairo, so much so that by 1340, it had a population of half a million – the largest city west of China. In addition to its reputation for the arts and letters, Cairo was at the crossroads of the spice trading route between Europe and Asia, which further augmented its towering presence.
Cairo experienced a decline after the Black Death plague struck in 1348 and diminished its population considerably. Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route around Cape of Good Hope also provided an alternate to Cairo and severely affected its eminence as a trading post. When the Ottomans took over Cairo in 1517 and reduced it to a provincial capital, Cairo’s long-held stature further suffered.
Despite the turbulence in its political past and present, its one constant bears witness to the city’s intellectual commitment: Al Azhar University. Operating continuously since its establishment in 988 A.D., it has been a paragon of higher learning across the world. Along with the oldest running institution, University of al-Karaouine in Fez, Morrocco, al-Azhar continues the tradition of university-mosques which was so common across the Muslim world at its height. In 1050, the book collection of al-Azhar library in Cairo had “more than a hundred and twenty thousand volumes, recorded in a sixty volume catalogue totaling about three thousand five hundred pages,” as mentioned in 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World.
Indeed, Cairo has survived through centuries of change and today, it is yet again on the verge of rediscovering its foundational commitments to intellectual progress, justice and prosperity for all. Meanwhile, modern-day Cairo retains its significance as a political, intellectual and economic hub of North Africa and the Arab world.