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 maristan was built by Sultan al-Mu'ayyad between 1418 and 1420; it was the second public hospital built in Cairo after that of Qalawun (1284). It is noted for its monumental scale, unprecedented in a civic building, which was clearly inspired by the nearby free-standing grandiose Madrasa of Sultan Hasan, and also for its portal, which is set in a pishtaq, a feature which gives the facade a Persian character. The portal has a muqarnas hood and a window with a pair of colonnettes with a snake, a symbol of healing.
The maristan is built on the site of the madrasa of Sultan al-Ashraf Sha'ban, which was founded in 1375/776 AH and demolished by Sultan Farag ibn Barquq in 1411/813 AH. The building is a shell and has lost many sections of its outlying structure. The area in front was leveled ca. 2005 by the Supreme Council of Antiquities to allow a full view of the maristan's facade.
Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. Islamic Architecture in Cairo. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989.
Jarrar, Sabri, András Riedlmayer, and Jeffrey B. Spurr. Resources for the Study of Islamic Architecture. Cambridge, MA: Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, 1994. http://archnet.org/publications/2704.
Meinecke, Michael. Die Mamlukische Architektur in Ägypten und Syrien (648/1250 bis 923/1517). Glückstadt: Verlag J. J. Augustin, 1992.
Warner, Nicholas. The monuments of historic Cairo: a map and descriptive catalogue, 137. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005.