The cultural and historical heritage of Egypt centres around Cairo, because of the incomparable accumulation of Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic treasures located there.
Following the Muslim conquest of the Byzantine city in 641 AD, and the establishment of the military encampment Al-Fustat, the governmental seat of the province of Egypt, Cairo, as a critical part of the rapidly expanding Islamic Empire, was enlarged by a succession of powerful ruling dynasties. After the Mongol conquest of Baghdad it became the largest medieval Muslim city.
In 969 the Fatimids, moving eastward along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, established a city which they named al-Qahira, 'the Victorious', which then became the nucleus of the medieval quarter. Under the Fatimids, al-Qahira became the seat of power, a ceremonial residential centre where the Caliph dwelt with his court and army.
The princely enclave which the Fatimids established was used as a base to challenge the authority of the Abbasids in Baghdad. The Fatimid legacy, although much is no longer extant, is most evident today in the al-Azhar Mosque and University, and al-Aqmar Mosque. Defensive city walls built by the Fatimids have played an important part in protecting the historic core from encroachment by the sprawling metropolis that continues to grow up around it. These walls were subsequently expanded by the Ayyubid Sultan Salah al-Din.
The population of the city, which grew because of refugees fleeing from uncertain conditions in the east, as well as by Salah al-Din's decree that the princely enclave should be opened to all, and not reserved for the ruling class alone, forced changes in the linear, orthogonal structure, creating the twisting organic streets we see today.
Under the Mamluks, who ruled in various forms from 1250 to 1517, this central core reached its height as a metropolis. After the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1261, the seat of the caliphate was transferred to Cairo, making it the political center of Islam. Its wealth, due to its new status and the monopoly it was able to establish over Red Sea trade, was directed into the construction of many large complexes, such as the extraordinary Madrasa Mausoleum and Maristan of Sultan Qalawun, built between 1284 and 1285, which rivals the highest architectural achievements realized in Europe at this time.
Although the city never reclaimed its once exalted position after the Ottoman Conquest in 1517, the momentum that had been established continued in the form of a conscious attitude toward the enhancement of an important legacy, and many fine architectural examples date from this period.
A brief renewal of prosperity and power was achieved under the Ottoman Governor Muhammed Ali following the Napoleonic occupation of Cairo in 1798. Under the Ottomans, the decision to emulate French city planning techniques, and open up vast new boulevards that moved outward to the north and west, reconfigured the city plan and remains predominant in Cairo's downtown core until today. (Visit the collection Art Deco Architecture in Cairo) to see some of the structures from this period. In addition to neighborhoods like Zamalek, Dokki, and Muhandiseen, present day Cairo encompasses the historically distinct zones of Babylon and Fustat, as well as the nineteenth century suburb Heliopolis (Misr al-Jadida), and its contemporary counterpart, Maadi.
The Buffalo Agency: Maghribi Ibadis in Cairo, 1850-1950
2019 July 19
"In this interview, Paul Love discusses the early stages of his new book project on the history of Ibadi Muslims from the Maghrib who lived, worked, and studied in Ottoman Cairo. Tentatively titled The Buffalo Agency: Ibadi Muslims in Ottoman Cairo, the book follows the history of a trade agency, school, and library known as the ‘Buffalo Agency’ (Wikalat al-jamus), operated by Ibadis for nearly four centuries in the Tulun district of Cairo. From its founding in the 17th century to its closure in the 20th, the Agency served as a waystation for students, scholars, and merchants on their journeys through Cairo. During that same period, it also became a school and library for Ibadi students and scholars connected to the famous al-Azhar mosque, some of whom stayed in Egypt for decades. By exploring the lives of Ibadi Muslims as they moved through the world of sharʿiah courts, made use of waqf to endow properties and books, and studied alongside and did business with their Sunni coreligionists, The Buffalo Agency shows the way in which Ibadis belonged fully to the Ottoman world. At the same time, the book shows how Ibadis in Cairo maintained connections with their coreligionists in North Africa, East Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula.
The interview focuses on the early chapters of the book, including those based on research in the Tunisian National Archives during summer 2019. Paul spent part of the summer on an AIMS grant, which allowed him time to examine the correspondence of one of the most prominent Ibadis of the Ottoman Empire: Saʿid b. Qasim al-Shammakhi, who served as both the director of the Buffalo Agency and the representative of the Tunisian Bey in Egypt during the mid-19th century.
Paul Love earned his PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan (2016). He is currently Assistant Professor of North African, Middle Eastern, and Islamic History at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco. His research focuses on the history of Ibadi Muslim communities in northern Africa, the Arabic manuscript traditions of the Maghrib, and colonial knowledge production in North Africa and the Sahara. His first book, Ibadi Muslims of North Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2018), traced the history of the formation of an Ibadi Muslim tradition in the Maghrib from the 11th-16th centuries. His recent publications have appeared in the Journal of African History, the Journal of Islamic Manuscripts, and Etudes et Documents Berbères.
This interview was led by CEMAT Director, Dr. Laryssa Chomiak, and was recorded on July 19, 2019, at the Centre d'Études Maghrébines à Tunis (CEMAT)."