INTERVIEW: Cairo — Islamic Capital of Culture

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 28 Jun 2022

The naming of Cairo as this year’s ICESCO Capital of Culture of the Islamic World is an opportunity to look again at the city’s contributions to Islamic civilisation, historian Nezar Al-Sayyad tells Dina Ezzat.

photo: AFP
photo: AFP


In the third week of June 972 CE, exactly 1,050 years ago, Al-Muizz li-Din Allah arrived in Egypt from North Africa to become the first ruler of Egypt’s Fatimid Dynasty and the first to govern the country from the city he built to outdo all those of the country’s previous rulers.

This city, Al-Qahera, or Cairo, has been named this year’s Capital of Culture of the Islamic World by the Islamic World Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (ICESCO), an agency of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) concerned with education, science, culture, and communication in the Islamic countries.

Cairo’s appointment was originally scheduled for 2020 but was put off due to the Covid-19 pandemic. To mark the occasion, the Ministry of Culture has been holding a series of events including seminars and art performances and the screening of documentaries that reflect on Cairo’s Islamic heritage.

After the Arab-Muslim takeover of Egypt in 640 CE, the new rulers of the country had built three consecutive capitals prior to Al-Qahera, namely Al-Fustat, Al-Askar, and Al-Qataa. Some historians would argue that the new Fatimid capital of Al-Qahera, originally a walled city containing two palaces and a mosque, inevitably absorbed all the previous capitals of Egypt’s Arab Muslim rulers, creating what was to become the conurbation of Cairo.

Throughout the subsequent decades of Muslim rule, however, Cairo was never the capital of the Islamic caliphate. But it was always a city enjoying a significant presence in Islamic civilisation. For Nezar Al-Sayyad, a professor of architecture and urban history at the University of California, Berkeley, in the US, this year’s naming of Cairo as the ICESCO Capital of the Culture of the Islamic World is an opportunity for hard work to make sure that the city’s place in Islamic culture is appropriately remembered.

Author, co-author, or editor of some 20 titles on the history of Cairo, Al-Sayyad said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly that Cairo’s naming this year should honour the heritage of this almost 11-century-old city and its links with Islamic civilisation. It was an opportunity to revisit many ideas about the concept of an “Islamic city”, something which he said related more to the urban norms of the time rather than to any dominant religion or the elements of Islamic civilisation.

“There is no single definition of Islamic civilisation, just as there is no single definition of any other civilisation, because inevitably a civilisation is the product of a set of ideas and norms that controls people’s lives,” Al-Sayyad said. The case of Islamic civilisation was particularly interesting because it saw the metamorphosis of Islam from a religion to a whole set of cultural norms reflected in all aspects of life, including the architecture of Egypt’s Mamluk period, considered by many historians to be the gems of Cairo’s association with Islamic civilisation.

This was so “given that the peak of urban development is often also a moment of cultural prominence,” Al-Sayyad added.

But the high points of the development of Cairo cannot exclude the work done under the khedive Ismail in the 19th century either, Al-Sayyad said, since this “took the city from being one from the Middle Ages to modern times.” In fact, it was the pursuit of modernity, he added, that had given the city its most important urban moments from its foundation under the Fatimids to the rule of the Free Officers after the 1952 Revolution. What was built under the khedive Ismail could also not be seen in terms of an “Islamic city”, he added.

Today, Al-Sayyad said, many of monuments from the periods of Cairo’s architectural flourishing are being compromised, whether those built under the rulers of the Middle Ages or under the later Mohamed Ali Dynasty from the early 19th to the mid-20th centuries.

“Cairo has been made this year’s Capital of Islamic Culture, while at the same time some of the gems of Islamic architecture in the city are being compromised or destroyed, both in the vicinity of the historic cemeteries or even in the heart of what was once the Fatimid gated city,” he said.

Over the past decade, and especially during the past three to four years, some irreparable harm had been done, he added.


The damage was not only about the destruction or the falling into disrepair of some buildings, Al-Sayyad said. There was also the building of new constructions in the historic zones.

“Why should we tolerate the construction of a parking lot in the heart of Fatimid Cairo? Why should cars be allowed into this zone to start with? When we talk about the original plan of Fatimid Cairo, we are actually talking about a single square km,” he said, adding that this could at least be saved from cars.

While it was a good idea to mark Cairo’s year as Capital of Islamic Culture through art and other performances, it would be an equally good idea to look again at the changes taking place in the historic areas of the city, either by addition or destruction.