Cairo of the Mind

June 21, 2007

Within each of his sections al-Maqrizi follows a standard progression. For the Fatimids (a Shi'ite dynasty that ruled Cairo from 969-1170 AD) he gives an overview, traces the history of the dynasty, describes the area of Cairo before there was any construction, and then turns to developing an outline of the walls and buildings of Cairo. This latter chapter works one by one through the elements that comprised the city, and the remainder of the chapters in this section expand upon each of the individual elements, providing more background and description. The end result of this textual and verbal effort is an imagined Cairo. The description almost invites the reader to sit down and work out the placement of all the palaces, mosques, residences, and stables. The recent edition of the Arabic text by Ayman Fu'ad Sayyid comes with some illustrations (above and below) that exemplify the urge to imagine that comes upon the reader of al-Maqrizi.

The diagram above is a fascinating superimposition of the Fatimid palaces upon the later medieval map of Cairo. There is today nothing that remains of those two great palaces that marked the center of Fatimid Cairo, but this zone (known as "Bayn al-Qasrayn" or "between the palaces") became a high-prestige zone of construction. It is choked with impressive structures. The visitor, however, can certainly imagine this old city.. haunting the later urban landscape.

My argument is that this imaginative experience is encouraged by al-Maqrizi. He was writing at a time when the historical novel or time-traveling fictions of a later period were inconceivable.. yet his goals were similar. Note some of the following excerpts from his chapter:

The length of Cairo at that time was less than its length today... The area between the Qaws Gate and the large Zuwayla Gate was not part of the city which Jawhar founded, rather it was an addition which occurred later.


The interior of the walls of Cairo contained two palaces and a mosque. One palace was known as the large Eastern Palace, which was the place of residence for the caliph, abode of his harem, and the site of his sitting for the entrance of the army... As for the large Eastern Palace it was entered from the Golden Door—its place now is the site for the mihrab of the madrasa of Zahir...


There was between the Shawk Palace and the Daylam Gate a great courtyard, known as the "courtyard of the Shawk Palace". It began from the courtyard of the armory and ended where the shrine of Husayn is today.

I could go on and on like this. You will notice that in each case a historical structure is settled within the group of early structures that made up Cairo. But then inevitably there is an attempt to establish with exactness where this structure should be located within al-Maqrizi's own version of Cairo. This can be as exacting as to describe the "Golden Door" to the main palace as being in the place where the mihrab [notch that shows direction for prayer] is located in a later structure.

The broader question for me is how al-Maqrizi organized this imagined version of a Cairo that no longer exists. There were no illustrations in his Khitat. But his exact placement of elements in Fatimid Cairo would seem to demand some kind of representational rough draft. I know of no evidence for that kind of procedure, but I have trouble thinking of any other way he could accomplish this feat of the imagination.


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