• Living in Historic Cairo: Past and Present in an Islamic City
    Page last edited 12-11-2016

    Azimuth Editions in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies and University of Washington Press.

    ISBN HardBack:
    The city of Cairo was in founded in 358 AH/ 969 CE as the new royal capital of the Fatimidsinfo-icon, an Ismaili Shi’i dynasty that ruled over a flourishing empire for 262 years until its demise in 567 AH/ 1171 CE. Subsequently, Cairo maintained its status as a major metropolis under the Ayyubidsinfo-icon and the Mamluks, who established their own states over extensive parts of the Muslim world. In the course of its history up to the end of the Ottoman rule over Egypt, Cairo rivalled, and at times surpassed, in its urban and cultural development, the achievements of other Muslim cities of the region: Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba. With the dramatic changes in political fortunes and demographic shifts, these cities entered the modern era in various stages of decline. Subsequently, a host of developmental problems, notably population growth and a vicious cycle of poverty and regional conflict led to a neglect of the historic city of Cairo as attention tended to focus on the promotion of ancient Pharaonic monuments.

    A window of opportunity was provided in more recent times for a part of Cairo known locally as al-Darb al-Ahmar, through the activities of the Aga Khaninfo-icon Trust for Culture (AKTC) in collaboration with a variety of other agencies. The aim of this collaborative undertaking was not only to restore the historic monuments of al-Darb al-Ahmar, but also to improve the socio-economic fabric of the area so as to enhance the living conditions of its artisans and other inhabitants.

    In 2001, an educational film was produced, in English and Arabic, focusing on the al-Darb al-Ahmar neighbourhood. Entitled Living with the Past: Historic Cairo, it sought to present the city in both the past and the present. This book, originally conceived as a companion to the film, aims to capture the full story of the collaborative project in al-Darb al-Ahmar within the broader context of the history of the city of Cairo. It is an effort to cut across the conventional linear understanding of the historical process and examines Cairo from its earliest beginnings until the present, in terms of the connection between its physical layout, its historic buildings and its economic, social, cultural and religious life. It reflects on the vital links between past and the present.
    Part one opens with an historical overview of the development of the city, written by Ayman Fu'ad Sayyidinfo-icon; Nasser Rabbat follows with an introduction to processes of reconstruction in the specific neighbourhood of al-Darb al-Ahmar. A discussion of Nasir-i Khusraw's travelogue describing 11th century Cairo sets the stage for essays with more specific subject matter examining different facets of life in the setting - economic institutions (Kassem A. Kassem, Pascale Ghazaleh and Kristen Stilt), education (Heinz Halm), marriage and the family (Amira Sonbol), faith and practice (Roy Mottahedeh, Norman A. Stillman and Febe Armanios), art and architecture (Caroline Williams and Fahmida Suleman), and music (Jonathan Shannon). Part one closes with Randa Abou-bakr's observations on how the old city reverberates through the modern literary works of Naguib Mahfouz and Gamal al-Ghitani, and Elizabeth Bishop's discussion of the work of ‘Ali Mubarak Pasha, one of the famous reformers of 19th century Egypt.
    Part two looks at the present, but always in relation to the past. Two of the team of the Aga Khan Cultural Services (Egypt), Karim Ibrahim and Seif El-Rashidi, record their own traveller's observations ‘on visiting al-Darb al-Ahmar for the first time in the 20th century’. Kamran Asdar ‘Ali and Martina Rieker present the background for the understanding of the ‘Ali Mubarak Pasha blueprint and the subsequent changes in modern plans for improving Cairo. Ragui Assaad points out the connections between the historic guilds and the expectations and practices of Egypt’s contemporary labour market. Then follows a group of essays about specific monument preservation in Historic Cairo:

    Robert K. Vincent Jr., Nairy Hampikian and Agnieszka Dobrowolska, describe institutional efforts. Salah Zaky Said discusses the cooperative renovation of old houses and Hisham and ‘Ali Mahmoud outline the successful local community undertaking to restore the Qijmas Mosque.

    Descriptions of the restoration of the social and economic fabric of al-Darb al-Ahmar by the Aga Khan Development Network, which the observers view as a possible role model for other depressed urban areas, fill the next section, written by Stefano Bianca of the AKTC, Mohamed El-Mikawi, General Manager of the Cairo Project Administration, and Mohamed Abdul Hafiz, whose work focuses specifically on the social and economic aspects.

    Two quite different essays conclude the volume. Dina Shehayeb and Ahmed Sedky offer a new way of looking at these now depressed, but formerly glorious, neighbourhoods as repositories of cultural and social values and national heritage, and Maysoon Pachachi, who directed the documentary film Living with the Past, describes the challenges of representing al-Darb al-Ahmar on film.

    It is hoped that the ambitious undertaking that this volume represents will lead to further interdisciplinary research into society and life in the setting of structural formations in historically important areas of the world’s great cities.

    Related pages on the IIS website:

  • 9


    Farhad Daftary and Azim Nanji



    Elizabeth Fernea




    1. The historical development of Cairo 20-923/642-1517: an overview

    Ayman Fu'ad Sayyidinfo-icon


    2. The urban character of al-Darb al-Ahmar

    Nasser Rabbat


    3. A traveller's account: Nasir-i Khusraw in 5th/11th-century Cairo

    Alice C. Hunsberger


    4. The economy of Historic Cairo: a case study of the markets of Mamluk Cairo

    Kassem Abdou Kassem


    5. The question of guilds

    Pascale Ghazaleh


    6. Regulating medieval Cairo

    Kristen Stilt


    7. Women and family life in the darb

    Amira Sonbol


    8. Learning and science in Historic Cairo

    Heinz Halm


    9. Coptic Christians: faith and practice in Egyptian contexts

    Febe Armanios


    10. The Jewish presence in medieval Cairo

    Norman A. Stillman


    11. Faith and practice: Muslims in Historic Cairo

    Roy Mottahedeh


    12. The architectural heritage of al-Darb al-Ahmar

    Caroline Williams


    13. From shards to bards: pottery-making in Historic Cairo

    Fahmida Suleman


    14. Music in Historic Cairo: a sonic excavation

    Jonathan H. Shannon


    15. The representation of medieval Cairo in modern Arabic literature

    Randa Abou-bakr


    16. Transition, colonialism, modernisation; living with ‘Ali Mubarak Pasha: state and civil society in Egypt

    Elizabeth Bishop



    17. Contemporary observations of al-Darb al-Ahmar

    Karlin Ibrahim and Seif El-Rashidi


    18. Remaking Cairo, revisioning al-Darb al-Ahmar

    Kamran Asdar ‘Ali and Martina Rieker


    19. The contemporary labour market in Egypt: formal and informal institutions in the construction sector

    Ragui Assaad


    20. Restoration processes for historic monuments: an introduction

    Robert K. Vincent Jr.


    21, Urban conservation: the inevitable task during single monument conservation in practice in Historic Cairo

    Nairy Hampikian


    22. The Sam Ibn Nuh Mosque: a community support project, Cairo 2000-2001

    Agnieszka Dobrowolska (with material supplied by Barbara Drieskens)


    23. Cooperative renovation of old houses in al-Darb al-Ahmar: a case study

    Salah Zaky Said


    24. Restoring the Qjjmas Mosque: a community undertaking by the residents of al-Darb al-Ahmar

    Interviews with Hisham and 'Ali Mahmoud


    25. The Projects of the Aga Khaninfo-icon Trust for Culture in al-Darb al-Ahmar area of Historic Cairo

    Stefano Bianca, Francesco Siravo, Cameron Rashti and Frank Matero


    26. Background: starting up the Aga Khan Project

    Mohamed El-Mikawi


    27. Combatting urban poverty in al-Darb al-Ahmar: interventions and strategies for poverty reduction in Historic Cairo

    Mohamed Abdel Hafiz Kotb


    28. Heritage protection against what? A model to explain adverse change in historic districts

    Dina K. Shehayeb and Ahmed Sedky


    29. Representing al-Darb al-Ahmar on film

    Maysoon Pachachi







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