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.
By the time of the powerful Fatimid vizier Badr al-Jamali, who ruled Egypt from 1074 to 1094, Cairo had outgrown the sun-dried brick wall of Jawhar. This, coupled with the attempts of the Turkoman Atsiz to take Cairo, among other threats from the East, spurred al-Jamali to rebuild the walls of the city, including three new gates. The Gate (Bab) of al-Futuh, along with the Bab al-Nasr was built in 1087, and the Bab Zuwayla was built in 1092.
An Armenian himself, al-Jamali is reported to have employed Armenians from northern Mesopotamia as well as Syrians in a vast building campaign which he embarked on shortly after he assumed power. This work marks the beginning of a newly cultivated taste for stone in Cairo. The Bab al-Futuh and Bab Zuwayla mark the northern and southern limits respectively of the Fatimid city and function as termini for al Mu'iz Street, the major Fatimid north-south spine.
Each of the three gates comprises two massive towers, which are square in Bab al-Nasr and rounded in the Bab al-Futuh and Bab Zuwayla. The towers flank a recessed, highly articulated gateway and are joined above the gateway by a curtain wall. The three gates demonstrate remarkable architectural and iconographic features hitherto unknown in Muslim Egypt. For example, spherical-triangle pendentives are employed to carry the dome over the entrance-passage of the Bab al-Futuh and Bab Zuwayla, and the room which occupies the upper part of each tower of Bab al-Nasr. Also without antecedents in Egyptian architecture is the intersection of rising tunnel vaults, a feature to be seen in the great Staircase Tower west of the Bab al-Futuh, in the staircase rising to the platform of Bab al-Nasr, in the small staircase descending from the same platform to the rampart walk, and in the gallery which crosses Bab al-Futuh.
The use of the semicircular arch, along with the horizontal arch, with the complete absence of the pointed arch, is an anomaly in Fatimid Cairo. The cushion voussoirs of Bab al-Futuh, which represent the earliest extant example of this type, are probably derived from a Syrian prototype, and do not appear again in Egypt until two centuries later, when Syrian influence becomes strong. The tympanum of the Bab al-Futuh is framed by a molding of complex rounded profiles.
The new Syrian taste for stone, which appropriates classical details in non-classical schemes, as exemplified by the Aleppo minaret, resonates through the three gates of Badr al Jamali, but the arabesque on Bab al-Futuh's brackets is representative of Fatimid decorative technique.
The stretch of wall between the Bab al-Futuh and Bab al-Nasr follows the salient of al Hakim's northern minaret, since the walls were intended to enclose the mosque, which originally stood outside the city walls of Jawhar. Apart from being great representatives of Islamic military architecture, these fortifications, which were never put to the test by invaders, are particularly important for being among the very few examples of military work predating the Crusades. Numerous epigraphic evidence suggest that the Bab al-Nasr was used by Napoleon's soldiers, among them Tour Courbin and Tour Julien.
An especially curious feature of this site is the stone latrine attached to the wall near Bab al-Nasr, which looks like a balcony.