As you drive into Cairo from the airport, you may wonder whether there is anything beautiful left in Cairo. The last 60 years in Egypt have seen the flowering of what can only be described as the architecture of corruption: With planning permission for anything easily bought, and the pressure of explosive population growth driving builders to put up the cheapest and biggest buildings as quickly as possible, the city has almost vanished underneath shoddily built cement high-rises that are stained with pollution and that flake and crumble starting the day after they're built. Look a little more carefully, however, and you will start to see that, amongst the jumble and collapse, there are 1,000-year-old domes and minarets that have stood since before the days of Charlemagne.
The best way to begin to make sense of the welter of styles around the city is to take a brief skim through the history of the city as it's told by a few significant buildings. By picking out the details that make them unique and tying them with buildings from other periods, you can have a richer Cairo experience.
Ancient Egypt -- Any architectural tour of Egypt should start with the great pyramid of Khufu on the Giza plateau. Pause for a moment to consider it not as simply a gigantic heap of rock, or a historical monument so photographed it has been familiar to you since childhood, but as a very large public work of art. The symmetry and proportions are a stunning combination of grandiosity and simplicity and make much that followed seem somewhat overweening by comparison.
Some of the most impressive artifacts of later Pharoanic periods are the temples. You'll notice after visiting a few that they tend to follow a standard pattern. Remember as you enter that you are being led on a symbolic journey from the mundane world of the living, a world of space and light, to the realm of the gods. Notice how spaces become more cramped, with ceilings lowering and sometimes the floor coming up as well, and the light is more restricted as you penetrate toward the core of the temple. The main entrance is through the middle of a massive wall, called a pylon. When the temple was in use, the pylon would have been topped by a row of colorful flags that snapped and waved in the breeze. Inside, you'll find yourself in a courtyard. Beyond the courtyard, a densely columned hypostyle (a Greek term that simply means "supported by pillars" -- it refers to the roof of the hall) hall that was originally roofed and only dimly lit by small, high windows. At the back of the hall there is the barque of the god, the place his or her representation was set for ceremonies. Beyond the barque is the naos, an enclosed cabinet -- the smallest and darkest place in the whole temple -- where the representation of the god was kept.
You will find these patterns played out over and over again, at places such as Luxor Temple, Karnak (though keep in mind here that it was built and enlarged by successive rulers), and Edfu.
The people who built the temples, meanwhile, weren't living in them, of course. It should come as no surprise, however, that a society as sophisticated as the Egyptians', and with as much engineering knowledge and architectural finesse, developed very comfortable domestic housing. By the Middle Kingdom, three- and even four-story urban houses were common, with amenities that would not be developed in Europe for more than 3,000 years. Ruins show that a central courtyard, or large room with a high, column-supported ceiling, was common, as well as stairwells to contain internal staircases, comfortable bedrooms, and tiled bathrooms with running water.
Islamic Architecture -- Cairo has one of the richest collections of Islamic architecture in the world, with major examples of architecture from the earliest days of the Muslim Empire. As you wander through their courtyards and admire the arches, towers, and decorations that make these magnificent structures some of the greatest religious monuments in the world, noticing a few simple aspects will help you locate yourself in a sometimes-confusing mass of historical details.
The single easiest feature to pick out when you look at a mosque are its minarets -- the towers from which the call to prayer is issued five times a day. Almost every mosque has at least one. Interestingly, the first mosque in Egypt (in Africa, for that matter), the mosque of Amr Ibn al As (named for the leader of the army that successfully defeated the Byzantine defenders of Egypt in 640), was built without minarets. They were added some 30 years after the mosque was first built and have been rebuilt several times since. The design of the minarets that you will see, however, changes quite clearly over time. They start with the simple, square Ayyubid tower with a veranda, on top of which there is a second, slightly more elaborate stage with a simple dome on top. The Mamlukes elaborated on this with two, or even three, separate stages above the first veranda. The pencil-shaped Ottoman minarets, meanwhile, represent a visually striking contrast with their predecessors. Know your minarets, then, and you'll know the period of the mosque you're looking at.
The other fairly easy and reliable clues can be had by looking at the shape of the door and window arches. Pointed arches, which you will see in many periods, came into use early, but the "keel arch" that you see in the porticos at Al Azhar was a distinctly Fatimid innovation. With Mamluke designs, however, you begin to see square windows, and windows picked out with bands of different-colored stones.
One of my favorite mosques anywhere is the Ibn Tulun mosque in Cairo. This is pretty much all that remains of a whole city that was built by the short-lived Tulunid dynasty (868-902). Its character is derivative of what was going on in Mesopotamia, the seat of the Abbasid rule and center of the Islamic world at the time, and it's often referred to as being in "Iraqi-style." There are a few things to notice as you enter. First is the ziyada. This literally means "extra" -- you'll hear it used when people order coffee; it means "extra sugar" -- but in this case it refers to the extra land that lies like a moat around the mosque. This separates the mosque, as a holy place, from the hassle and noise of the marketplace, and gives the whole building a tranquil quietness.
The next item to note is the plaster decoration -- the arches are crusted with carved stucco. These touches are directly imported from Samarra in Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq. Finally, check out the minaret. The design, with its outside staircase, is another distinctly Samarran touch, and it's unlikely that you'll see another like it in the city.
You can also get a good idea of many of these features if you visit the Mosque of Al Hakim, which is next to the Bab al Futuh. Both the gate and the mosque are Fatimid, which is to say they were built around a century later than the Mosque of Ibn Tulun; the latter was built between 876 and 879, while the former was built between 990 and 1013. Al Hakim was known as "The Mad" because of some of the edicts he issued, which included banning molakheya and shoes. His mosque fell into disuse after his death and was used as a prison and a stable, among other things, until the early 1980s, when it was subjected to an unfortunately heavy-handed restoration. Like Ibn Tulun, but few mosques after this time, it was "congregational," which means it enclosed a large central courtyard that was intended to hold the whole population of the surrounding town. Note particularly the minaret with an internal staircase.
Though the Mosque of Ibn Tulun has distinct features, it also has similarities with other mosques, such as the mihrab, the niche in the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca. Originally there was a single mihrab, above which is written the standard Muslim opening to prayer, "There is no god but God, and Mohamed is the messenger of God," but over the years, several more have been added. Note also the minbar, or wooden pulpit, reached by a set of stairs, from which the Friday sermon was delivered. The central courtyard is also a feature of some later mosques, such as Al Hakim, but they gradually disappeared over time.
Al Azhar is probably the most famous of Cairo's Fatimid mosques, though it has been added to and reworked so much that it's unfair to credit any particular dynasty now with the whole. The entrance is typically Mamluke, but the central courtyard is all Fatimid. Note particularly how the "keel arch" of the porticos contrast with the pointed Mamluke arches.
When it comes to Mamluke- and Ottoman-style architecture, Cairo provides a lovely juxtaposition in the Madrasa of Sultan Hassan and the Mosque of Mohamed Ali. The massive madrasa is located immediately below the Citadel where, almost 5 centuries later, Mohamed Ali would build his mosque.
The madrasa is a great example of Mamluke architecture. Not only does it have typical minarets, with multiple upper stages, but the sheer mass of it shows the Mamluke tendency to overawe with size. Inside, the big difference from the earlier buildings is that the congregational layout had been left far behind in favor of a cruciform plan in which the central courtyard opens into four enormous liwans, covered spaces that are enclosed on three sides. Each liwan was devoted to one of the four madrasas that existed here, and the doors on the back walls lead to student accommodations. Decorative glass lamps would have hung for illumination, and the stone paneling is also fairly typical of Mamluke buildings.
The Mosque of Mohamed Ali, meanwhile, is immediately identifiable from any angle as an Ottoman mosque, and will look familiar to anyone who has visited Istanbul. Even from below you can see its large dome and tall, thin minarets. If you do visit the Citadel, and go inside the mosque, check out the distinctly Turkish ablution area in the middle of the courtyard. Inside the huge dome of the mosque (supposedly it can take 6,500 people), you will also note the total absence of the liwan. This feature, which creates a lovely space to lounge in the cool of the evening or have your packed breakfast, was instead absorbed into Ottoman domestic architecture. You will note fine examples of this if you visit the Gayer-Anderson Museum next to the Ibn Tulun mosque, or Beit Harrawi behind Al Azhar Mosque.
Modern architecture in Egypt has been more a search for direction than the practice of an established art. Initially, there was a wistful riffling through the centuries, exemplified in the pastiche of Manial Palace or the confused eclecticism of Sakakini Palace. After World War II, however, a kind of defensive nationalism seems to have gripped the government planners. Despite the presence of promising themes such as the simple and effective forms used by Hassan Fathy in his projects around Luxor, the result in the end was either gigantic Soviet-inspired monoliths such as the Mugama that dominates Tahrir Square or a kind of neo-Pharoanic revivalism that never made it past theme-park caricature, embodied by the new Constitutional Court near Maadi.
One of the most depressing aspects of modern Egyptian buildings is that, in the search for modern forms, building practices have also abandoned millennia-old designs that combined carefully calibrated airflows and evaporative cooling to regulate the temperature. You would be forgiven for elevating your eyes on your way out of town to the pyramids at Giza, and forgiven for looking over and above the slums that now ring the city and toward the desert where the pristine forms of the pyramids hang in the dirty air as though suspended over the unfortunate sprawl that constitutes most of Cairo. Here, cheap, high-density concrete buildings have been built willy-nilly, and with their big flat sides and sunbaked roofs catching the heat of the sun, they need the air-conditioners that hang from every possible window. The burden that the air-conditioners alone place on an already overstretched electricity grid is bad enough, without considering that, thousands of years ago, these same lands held simple, sustainable housing sufficient to the needs of the workers and artisans who built monuments that combined sophisticated engineering and elegant design in a way that is about as close to timeless as anything that mankind has built.
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