Cairo, the current capital of Egypt and the largest city in the Middle East and Africa, has been a major cultural, religious and political center of the Arab, Islamic and African worlds for centuries. The year 2011 saw unprecedented civil and political upheaval in the city, as the world watched young citizens raised in poverty take over Cairo’s public streets demanding a change in the country’s 30-year political dictatorship. The city covers about 175 square miles on both sides of the Nile River. Its location, where the Nile Valley of Upper Egypt and the delta of Lower Egypt meet, has served as a major trade passageway for water and land trade for five thousand years.
The Fatimid dynasty founded Cairo proper (“Al-Qahira”) in 969 C.E. as a royal city alongside al-Fustat (“tent city”; the Muslim Arabs’ earlier settlement), which was at the time the country’s commercial and residential center. Al-Azhar, the most important Islamic institute in the world, was built as a mosque-university under the Fatimids. It was also under their rule that the centers of power in Egypt gradually shifted to Cairo from al-Fustat, which was burned in 1168 C.E. to repel a Crusader attack.
Saladin (Salah al-Din) established the rule of the Ayyubids in 1171 C.E. after his army defeated the Crusaders. Five years later, construction on the hilltop Citadel, a military fortress and residential palace, began in the southeast of Cairo. Cairo during this period became the seat of Egypt’s economic, political, and cultural life.
The Mamluks chose the city as their capital in the thirteenth century. Their dominance brought Cairo great prosperity and world renown, with its spice trade, universities, courts, schools, and flourishing artistic and intellectual landscape. A steady decline began after the bubonic plague ravished the city in 1348. The spice trade was rerouted by Vasco de Gama, eliminating Cairo as its dominant corridor, and the Mamluks were increasingly engaged in internal wars.
The Ottomans seized the weakened city in 1517, making it