It has been said that “he who drinks from the waters of the Nile shall return,” and this certainly was true of my first sip in December 1962. On Christmas Eve of that year, on a trip around the world in my mid-twenties and just arrived in Cairo, I went up to the Citadel to watch the Son et Lumière program. I sat in the shadow of the rounded domes and slender minarets of Muhammad Ali’s dominating mosque, and when the performance began, I was the only person in the audience. “Ahlan wa sahlan! Welcome!” The voice of Omar Sharif as Salah al-Din spoke directly to me, his exclusive guest. I was riveted, transfixed, and summoned. Soon thereafter, I returned to Cairo to study its art and architecture at the American University. In 1967, I was married there during the Six Day War, and in 1969 my first child, now a professor of archaeological conservation, was born in the year of Cairo’s millennial celebration. During the following years, I returned often: as a resident, as escort for student groups in the summer, as a fellow of the American Research Center in Egypt to study modern Egyptian painters, and most importantly, to revisit the Islamic monuments of the core city and to keep abreast of the changes to them, in their various guises as Orientalist sites, as urban phenomena, and as rich legacies of the past.
During the 1970s the only short and handy reference for the architecture of the Islamic city was A Practical Guide to the Islamic Monuments of Cairo by Richard B. Parker, published in 1974. With introductory chapters on history and style, it described the important monuments along eight major walks in the old city. As a diplomat attached to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Parker had written an informal guidebook so that friends and guests whom he was not always free to take around would have a way of exploring Cairo’s magnificent but neglected heritage. The book was concise and portable, and with my increasing knowledge of the buildings and the city, Parker gave me permission to revise and expand his book. I added over a hundred monuments (many from the Ottoman period), as well as new information about those described earlier. In 1985 my version was published by the AUC Press as Islamic Monuments of Cairo: A Practical Guide and as the third edition of Parker’s original book. The fourth edition followed in 1993, the fifth in 2002 (its subtitle promoted by the AUC Press to The Practical Guide), the sixth in 2008, and now recently, in 2018, the seventh edition, published in a still light and portable format. With each revision I revisited all the areas the book described so as to keep current with the changes to the monuments and to their contexts.
My share of this book represents thus an active involvement of over fifty years with Cairo’s Islamic heartland. Much of this core—a rough rectangle of ten by five kilometers east of the central downtown area—has survived. There are streets, major and minor, lined with an architectural history that stretches from 870 to 1870, in a rich variety of religious and secular monuments, and in a development of artistic styles that reflects the succession of multiple dynasties, a heritage that no other Islamic city can match.
Furthermore, Islamic Cairo still enjoys a structure of work and of life that retains many of its pre-modern aspects. The Khan al-Khalili, the great bazaar of medieval Cairo, parallels the main ceremonial avenue of the area. Here, artisans still work in centuries-old crafts, such as inlaying wooden objects with mother of pearl or hammering silver threads onto metal trays. Here, too, in the ancient prototype of the modern mall, are sections devoted to specialties: the spice market, with its colorful mounds of henna, paprika, curry, and mint; the textile stalls with neatly stacked bolts of cloth; or tiny stalls filled with aromatic essences.
In the nineteenth century, this Cairo of monuments and people came to the awareness of Western artists, whose paintings are prized by museums and collectors, and now sell at auctions for millions of dollars. Many of their depictions of monuments and of visual, anecdotal vignettes live on.
My relationship with the area continued, and as the expatriate community grew over the years, I was able to share my beguilement with the old city with new members. I took them to the places I continued to revisit. In addition to the medieval monuments, we would stop to see the baking of baladi bread (a type of Egyptian flatbread made with wholewheat flour; baladi means ‘local’), or watch craftsmen sewing appliqué pictures or geometric hangings, or study the domestic arrangements of an extended family of the Ottoman period. For a foreigner who knew little about the Middle East, an introduction to both the architectural past and the human present worked wonders in facilitating their adjustment to this new world.
As I look back over my time in this wonderful area, the main changes I notice are in access and interest. Fifty years ago, the only way to find the Islamic monuments was to consult The Monuments of Cairo map, published in 1948 by the Ministry of Awqaf (Endowments), in two pages, each 110 by 80 centimeters, or 44 x 31 inches. In 1966, only the Arabic version was available, and in deciphering the small print we researchers became proactive in finding our way around the old city, and in making our own notes and discoveries. At the time, it was mainly foreign students who were interested in this past heritage, while contemporary Egyptian peers were happier to remain in the present. Now, there are multiple guidebooks with manifold images to entice the visitor onward and to be kept as evidence of what was seen. Now, it is also heartwarming to see how many young Egyptians, as scholars and as officials, are not only learning about their heritage, but are actively engaged in its conservation.
So Ahlan wa sahlan. Al-Qahira, the City Victorious, beckons.