Street smart: The banker that mapped Cairo

Nabil Shawkat , Thursday 28 Jul 2011

Have you ever spent any time reading El-Maqrizi, Ibn Iyas or Ibn Taghri Birdi, completely losing your bearing in the Cairo of the tenth or thirteenth centuries?


Two or three years ago, in frustration over the exact location of Suq al-Shamma’, Darb El-Qanadil, Birket El-Habash, Birket El-Haj and Gabal El-Rasd, I started plotting the names on a large sheet of paper, producing a rudimentary map which I kept amending over time, until it became completely illegible.

This is a situation which dozens, at least, of students of Arab history have experienced at one point or another.

Some of the familiar names have thankfully survived: Bab Zuweila for example, Haret El-Rum, Bab El-Luk, and Birket El-Ratli. These are your landmarks. Using these and the verbal accounts of medieval writers one can conceivably put together a map of pre-fifteenth century Cairo (approximate visual maps of Cairo began appearing in the fifteenth century, until then all you had to go by were written accounts).

But how much time do you think it would take you to put together map of medieval Cairo?

I know the answer to this question, because I posed it to the man who attempted, with singular success, this mission. The answer is 17 years!

Ahmad Kamal is not your average cartographer. He started out as a clerk at the National Bank of Egypt (El-Ahly), working his way up the ranks of the banking world until he became CEO of the Islamic International Bank in the late ‘80s. While advancing his career as a banker, Kamal spent the bulk of his free time studying Islamic history. His passion, pursued independently from academia, led him to extensive research of Islamic military conquests.

As of the early 1970s, he started writing books on the strategic and military aspects of Islamic conquests. The books he wrote on Islamic conquests include: El-Qadisiya, The Road to Madaen (in today’s Iraq), The Fall of Madaen and the End of the Sassanids, The Road to Damascus, and The Islamic Conquest of Egypt (all in Arabic).

None of his books became a best seller, and few readers would recall his name. I learned about his cartographic book on Cairo by sheer chance, having spotted it on the desk of a banker who happened to be a friend of his son.

Kamal’s map of El-Fustat, which covers twelve pages of the book, is a genuine masterpiece. Most of it is guesswork, as he readily admits, but it is the best guesswork available to date. When he turns to El-Askar (created circa 750) and El-Qatae’ (created circa 870), his knowledge overlaps with other modern writers and he begins drawing on the legacy of western cartographers.

Kamal goes into unprecedented detail about El-Fustat, collating information from multiple sources and plotting them patiently from Birket El-Habash in the south to Gabal Yashkur (the future Qataei) in the north. The map he produced informs you that the Hagar hotel was next to the Fayzis house and school and that Kom Bani Wael was close to the Church of Abi Qir and not far from Kom Ghorab and Suweiqat El-Baraghit (or Flea Market), and hundreds of other details that modern day historians, both amateurs and professionals, would enjoy.

He didn’t invent the wheel, but he definitely put one together from hundreds and thousands of long lost pieces.

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