Tall buildings are no novelty to Cairo. Its loftiest medieval minarets are 250 feet high, and even the apartment houses of a thousand years ago were commonly seven or, by one account, up to fourteen stories tall. Skyscrapers by the Nile now rise to three or four times that height—which is to say, to about the same height as the taller pyramids just down the road at Giza. Like those impressive forebears, they offer tremendous views—but are accessible by elevator rather than by a steep, perilous, and indeed illegal clamber over weathered stone.
Yet the classic panorama of Cairo remains the one that enchanted Orientalist painters a century ago. On smogless days the vista from the esplanade at the Citadel, Cairo's mammoth Crusader-era fortress, is stunning. It is from here that centuries of rulers surveyed the city at their feet (and occasionally, in times of trouble, from where they fired cannon shots to subdue its unruly people). But the view encompasses more than the buildings and streets of today's city. It embraces the sweep of time itself.
Far to the west, across the visible sliver of the Nile, a dense, toothy jumble of yellowed apartment blocks recedes almost to the horizon. That horizon is the Sahara, whose empty immensity stretches 3,000 miles from here to the Atlantic. But then there, on the desert escarpment ten miles away, looms a peculiar shape: a neat triangle. It is the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza, erected in 2550 B.C And off to its left, past a brood of forty-story modern colossi in the southern suburbs, you can just make out the ridges of the even more ancient Step Pyramid at Saqqara, which is said to be the oldest freestanding man-made structure in the world. In fact, the whole soft line of desert where the sun will set, between Giza and Saqqara and for miles on either side, is a sawtooth sierra of ancient tombs, among them scores of lesser pyramids. For two and a half millennia it served as the graveyard of Memphis's kings and nobles.
Of the pharaonic capital itself, nothing can be seen from this vantage but a dusty carpet of palm tops down in the valley below the Step Pyramid. The date groves enfold the few stubs and chunks of Memphis that have not subsided into the quicksilt of the valley floor. And even these scant remains threaten to vanish now, not into the ground but under the brick and reinforced concrete of expanding Cairo.
Closer at hand—only two miles from the Citadel—a long, deep range of tall buildings bounds the course of the Nile through the city. These are the chain hotels, government ministries, and offices and luxury apartments that cluster in the modern city center. When Memphis still flourished this now costly land was largely underwater, but the Nile has furrowed new channels since then, pushed and pulled by the buildup of silt. Perhaps as recently as 2,000 years ago it divided here into the two main branches of the Delta; that divide is now fifteen miles farther north. Nearer our times the river spilled over much of this terrain in the flood season, making it unsuitable for building. The stabilizing of the riverbanks at the end of the nineteenth century coincided with Cairo's emergence from medieval isolation. The subsequent boom transformed this part of town into a zone of carriage roads and elegant Italianate villas. But the city has again mutated. The roads are traffic-clogged, the villas largely replaced by apartment blocks that run the gamut of twentieth-century style, from beaux arts to high Art Deco to futurist and Stalinist and brute-faced steel and glass.
Along the Nile to the left, the scale of buildings diminishes until a curiously barren spot, a flat plain studded with graying mounds, with here and there a wisp of smoke. This scarred ground is the likely site of the battle of Seth and Horus. But these dung heaps smother other battlegrounds, as well as vestiges of a city that was yet another of Cairo's illustrious forebears. As Memphis declined, this city grew first as a Roman and later as a Byzantine garrison town. When Muslim warriors surged out of Arabia in A.D. 640, it was the fall of this fortress after seven months' siege that clinched their conquest of Egypt. The caliph's governors made this place, which they called Misr al-Fustat, the seat of their rule. They apportioned encampments for each tribe in the victorious Arab army, and within a century a great city had grown up here—a city that would soon overshadow all others in the realm of Islam.
A thousand years ago the Persian geographer Hudud al Alam described Misr al-Fustat as the wealthiest city in the world. An Arab contemporary, the Jerusalemite al-Muqaddasi, said that its citizens thronged as thick as locusts. As centuries passed, however, the rich and powerful sought more spacious quarters farther north, in the open plain stretching toward the ruins of ancient On. By the time Columbus sailed for the Indies—hoping, like his Portuguese competitors, to find a new route to the east and thus break the spice monopoly of the sultans who reigned from this very Citadel—Misr al-Fustat was nothing but a rubbish tip for the great and prosperous city of Cairo.
Turning right to follow this migration of fortunes, we come to the scene closest at hand, the fabled medieval Cairo of bazaars and domes and minarets: the stubby spiral at the ninth-century mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun, the elegant tiers of Sultan Hasan's fourteenth-century madrasa, the sharp, pencil-pointed towers of the Ottoman period, the twin bulbs atop Bab Zuwayla—the eleventh-century gate where long ago the heads of criminals were hung and a troll was said to lurk behind the massive door. Or rather, it is what is left of the medieval city. Splendid mosques and palaces survive by the dozen, evoking the long summer from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries when Cairo was the biggest and richest city west of India. But every month a high-rise sprouts to block the view, or else another quaint old house tumbles down on top of its inhabitants.
So we come to the north, where the valley opens out as if under the press of people, and the full scale of Cairo, still the largest city of Islam, of Africa, of the Mediterranean world, becomes clear. Here the metropolis sprawls a good twenty miles, swamping ancient On and its forlorn remaining obelisk, filling suburbs such as working-class Shubra and the prosperous new Heliopolis, each of which holds more people than the capital city of any nearby country. Far away, barely visible at the cutting edge of this urban juggernaut, tower blocks stride out into the sand, and factories devour the precious black soil of the Delta.
Native Cairenes tend to leave such monumental views to tourists. In a sense they have to. The all-devouring nature of today's megacity militates against reflection, against long perspectives in either time or space. The dimensions that frame life here are far narrower.
Cairo is, according to the United Nations, the most densely populated large urban area in the world. Overall, this city packs 70,000 people into each of its 200 square miles, confining its citizens more tightly than does the bristling little island of Manhattan. In central districts such as Muski and Bab al-Sha'riyya the density is 300,000 per square mile, a figure that soars in some back streets to a crushing 700,000. By and large these numbers throng not tower blocks but alleyfuls of low-rise tenements that differ little from the housing stock of, say, a thousand years ago. In such conditions, with three and sometimes five people to a tiny room, families take turns to eat and sleep. Schools operate in up to three shifts and still have to squeeze fifty, sixty, or sometimes eighty students into a class.
The pressure of people touches every aspect of life in Cairo. It drives the price of land as high as $500 a square foot, making millionaires out of speculators while stifling youthful dreams of independence. It overburdens public services and so litters thoroughfares with uncollected waste, but it also limits crime by cluttering getaway routes. Crowds draw in business, creating a rich and varied market that generates money to embellish the city with the facilities and monuments that sustain its sense of greatness. But they force compromises: to relieve traffic, concrete overpasses brush past medieval walls; to provide housing, apartment buildings supplant gardens.
Crowding squeezes Cairenes out of their homes. But where to go? There are precious few green spaces. Until a recent crash program the city had only five square inches of parkland per inhabitant, which is to say less than the area covered by the sole of one adult foot. Rather than standing like flamingos, Cairenes take to the streets. They turn sidewalks and roadways into zones of commerce and entertainment, converting them piecemeal into playgrounds and restaurants and open-air mosques. The street is where some 4,000 homeless children sleep, and where all the people of Cairo engage in combat with the city's million motor vehicles and 5,000 donkey carts.
Combined with the dust that blows ceaselessly off the desert, heavy use gives the city a cozy patina of age. It burnishes knobs and handrails to a greasy smoothness, cracks tiles into shards, and tints walls to a uniform dun color that ignites into gold in the soft, slanting light of late afternoon. Sidewalks buckle under the weight of feet. Staircases in grand beaux arts buildings sag, their marble steps eroded into slippery hollows. Advertising tattoos every surface with Arabic's elegant squiggle. Neon spangles rooftops, mingling with antennae and the upturned domes of satellite dishes.
The air itself is saturated with the things of man. Deep-frying oil and fresh mint overlay the musk of freshly slaked dust and the sweat of transpired fenugreek that is so cloying it sticks to paper money. The human urge to be noticed floods the whole sound spectrum with noise, from "Allahu Akbar" blasting off every mosque megaphone to insults hurled from the other end of the Arabic alphabet. The noonday din at one Cairo intersection is a rock-concert-equivalent ninety decibels. No wonder. The average car is fifteen years old and ill-tuned. Drivers honk with ticlike compulsion, as if to refrain from doing so would stop the world from turning. Everyday chitchat is in bellows and guffaws, punctuated by backslaps and riddled with the witty repartee for which Cairo's earthy argot is a perfect medium.
If voices are worn, so are faces. Statues in the Egyptian Museum from the Old Kingdom (2600-2180 B.C.) often appear like close cousins of the commuters milling at Cairo's central bus station, just outside the museum's heavy iron gates. But while the exquisitely sculpted pharaohs and scribes have a smooth-browed solemnity, the bus fares bear a weathered look—a look that tells of hardship endured with patience, of dreams unrealized. Cairenes age early. Indeed, many an adolescence is spent laboring in cramped workshops. (The figure is 16 percent of children aged six to fourteen, which makes perhaps 300,000 child laborers in the city.) Many adulthoods expire in the drudgery of juggling two or three jobs to get by.
Yet the preponderance of careworn expressions and the resigned unhurriedness of the crowd belie another aspect of Cairo's people. Perhaps because so many have been poor for so many generations, they are quick to seize any chance of diversion. Jokes form a kind of currency, such that a wisecrack from the most importunate beggar may bring instant reward. The jibes can be cruel, but more often are not. In fact, few cities are so relaxed, so accommodating, so disdainful of merely impersonal relations. Loneliness, that bane of city life in the West, is almost unknown.
The crowding makes for noise and stress, pollution and social tension. The carnival atmosphere can be grating if you are not in the mood. Cairenes themselves complain. Secretly, complicitously, though, they are by and large addicted to living cheek by jowl with a never-ending spectacle. Meet an exile in some far corner of the world—which typically will be one of those spotless towns, say Vancouver or Frankfurt, that attract Cairene deserters by sheer oppositeness—and the first thing you will hear is that compared to home, it is bland. "These streets are so empty," whined a chain-smoking Egyptian woman I met in sleepy, well-ordered Tunis. "And they're full of . . ."—she winced, releasing a little puff of indignation—"trees!"
This explains why the Cairene idea of a vacation is not to escape from the throng but to take it with you. On Muslim feasts day-trippers mob the double-decked steamboats that churn downstream to the park at the Nile Barrage, where the river forks into the Delta. Before the ships have even slipped their dock in the center of the city, boom boxes are cranked up. Scarves are slung around hips. The clapping starts, and for the whole hour-long journey revelers belly dance in a spontaneous combustion of fun.
The fact is this city that is so astoundingly old is also surprisingly young. In the past century its population has swollen by a factor of twenty-five. Crowding is twice what it was in 1950. It is three times the level of 1920, when the city housed barely a million people. A third of Cairenes are under the age of fifteen. Few remember the statelier ways of a mere generation ago, let alone give more than a passing shrug for ancient glories—except, that is, when it comes to inflating the aura of the pharaohs to prime the lucrative curiosity of foreign tourists.
Aside from the odd New Ager enraptured by obelisks, nobody in Cairo believes anymore that life began here. Other creation theories are current—Islamic ones for the vast majority, biblical ones for the six in a hundred Cairenes who are Christian; and even, though rarely, secular ideas such as evolution and the Big Bang. But if Cairo is no longer perceived as the actual site of Creation, it is still, to its people, very much the center of things.
In Egypt all roads lead to the capital—which is logical, since nearly half the country's cars and half its industry are here. One in four Egyptians lives in Greater Cairo, and many more aspire to. They have sound reason. Cairenes live longer and eat better than their country cousins. Income per person is 25 percent higher, the proportion of poor 30 percent lower, and only a third as many children under the age of five die of disease. In impoverished Upper Egypt the literacy rate is only half of Cairo's. There are no Egyptian daily newspapers outside Cairo, and the score of dailies printed here devote scant space on their innermost pages to all that happens elsewhere in the country. Even in sports, Cairo reigns supreme. Its Ahli and Zamalek clubs have monopolized Egypt's national soccer championship for all but two of the past fifty years.
After 5,000 years of civilization, Egypt's political system remains pyramid-shaped. Cairo sits indomitably at the pinnacle. Its Ministry of Irrigation decides which farmers get how much water for their crops. Its Ministry of Religious Affairs chooses who is to deliver sermons in which mosques, and what they are to say. Its Ministry of the Interior picks the mayors for all Egypt's 4,000 villages. The president, who resides here, appoints the governors of all twenty-six provinces and the heads of all twelve national universities, four of which, naturally, are in Cairo.
Until the last century all farmland in Egypt belonged in theory to the country's rulers. The lion's share of profit from the world's richest land was sucked into the capital. Even today, although farmland is nearly all privately owned, the state retains title to the 96 percent of Egypt that is desert. The decisions about what to do with this vast holding—whether, say, to sell it to investors or to hand it out to cronies of the ruling party—are largely made by the civil servants of Cairo's 2-million-strong bureaucracy.
The city's dominance echoes in the language itself. Misr—the word derives from the same root as the biblical Mizraim, or Egyptians—is still the common Arabic name for the city. And just as Memphis was once confused with Egypt as a whole, to this day the name for Egypt in Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, Persian, Urdu, and Hindi is also Misr.
Nor does the sway of Cairo end at Egypt's borders. To 250 million Arabic speakers and a billion Muslims, Cairo retains a mystique, a stature, a reassuring gravity that no other city can match. Sure, the imported symbols of New World monoculture flourish here: brand-burger fast-food outlets, discos, theme parks, and the rest. But unlike many Third World capitals, Cairo has the depth to generate its own fashions. It projects its own rhythms and language far and wide. The cassette-tape call to prayer wafting over a Javanese village was most likely recorded by one of the honey-tongued Koran reciters of Cairo. The music pulsing through the heat of a Moroccan kasbah came from here, too, as did the satellite-borne soap opera enthralling a Kuwaiti financier's air-conditioned harem.
When Arabs think of Cairo, they think of it as a repository of Arabness: the seat of the greatest universities, the largest libraries, the biggest-circulation newspapers, the most vibrant pop culture—and even of the busiest camel market in the Arab world. The million Arab tourists who come every year rarely bother with Cairo's antiquities. They head instead to theaters, to cinemas and literary watering holes, to swanky gambling casinos and glitzy nightclubs. They go to cafés to soak up the sound of Cairene slang and eavesdrop on the latest jokes. They flock to concert halls for the toniest in classical Oriental music and swarm street kiosks blaring the sassiest Arabic rap. They come because, worn as she is, Cairo still draws the best talent in Arab arts.
As a minor example, take belly dancing (or, as practitioners prefer to call it, Oriental dance). A quick survey of Cairo nightspots finds performers of a dozen nationalities: Lucy at the Parisiana, Katya at the Andalus, Suzy and Yasmina at the Versailles, Bushra at Casino al-Maw'ad (which translates as The Rendezvous), to name a few. Among these tinseled, gyrating houris are Russians, Americans, Lebanese, Germans, Tunisians, and even the occasional Israeli star. Of course, the native dancers claim that no one can feel the music as they can. The foreigners are too skinny, not generous enough in shoulders and hips. Their studied technique lacks the effortless control that makes or breaks a star. Nor does anyone, yet, make the money that top Egyptian performers do. Such sums rise to a reputed $10,000 a night—enough to pay the annual wages of ten traffic cops, and another reason why Cairo is the undisputed belly-dancing capital of the world.
Glitter of a different kind draws another sort of fan. All the fabulous treasure of Tutankhamun—including, among other things in solid gold, the young king's sandals and toe and finger caps, his scepter, face mask, and coffin—comprises a minor fraction of the 100,000-odd objects displayed at the Egyptian Museum. The jewelry of Queen Weret, unearthed just south of Cairo in 1994, looks sparkling new after 3,700 years underground. Her anklets—in alternating bands of coral-colored carnelian, sea-blue lapis lazuli, and sky-blue turquoise clasped with gold in the form of cowrie shells and lions—evoke the exquisite taste of the court at Memphis. But Weret's funeral trousseau, complete with a purple amethyst the size of a soap bar, must compete with dozens of other cases overflowing with jewelry from the royal tombs of Saqqara, Giza, Abydos, and Tanis. Room after room of sculpture in granite, porphyry, diorite, and marble give the lie to claims that ancient Egyptian art is formulaic or dull. A lonely-looking statue of an Assyrian king, brought by invaders of the eighth century B.C., only highlights the talent of the Egyptians. Its crude proportions project brute force, whereas the Egyptian statuary all around seeks to inspire not fear but respect for wisdom and refinement. Old Kingdom reliefs of dancing girls and pleasure excursions under the influence of wine and the narcotic lotus make one wonder whether man's subsequent 5,000 years of travail have produced any advance in the quality of life.
Even small items of everyday use show a brilliant simplicity of design. Among the oldest objects are flawless drinking vessels bored out of the hardest stones. A delicate pair of sandals woven from palm fibers echoes the sleek curves of the 4,700-year-old solar boat housed a few miles away by the Great Pyramid at Giza. A toy bird carved from wood in 600 B.C. is, uncannily, shaped like a jumbo jet, down to its aerodynamic wingtips. The funerary portrait of a wealthy Memphite matron of the second century A.D., complete with earrings, necklace, and elegant coiffure, is the very picture of a Cairene society hostess in the 1930s.
So it comes as little surprise that the lure of Cairo is almost as old as the place itself.
The poets of ancient Egypt waxed at length on the charms of their capital. In one papyrus a traveler dreams of the city as he floats downstream to meet his beloved. The river is wine, he says, and Memphis a chalice of fruits set before Ptah, the God Who Is Beautiful of Face. "The like of Memphis has never been seen," declares a text from the New Kingdom (1560-1080 B.C.). It goes on to extol the city's full granaries, its pleasure lakes dappled with blossoming lotuses, and its confident community of foreign merchants. The scribe enthuses over the amusements on offer at Memphis, such as a show of lady wrestlers or the sight of noblewomen relaxing in their gardens.
The Thousand and One Nights, that ancient kaleidoscope of stories within stories, also singles out this city for praise (perhaps understandably, because, though the work evolved out of Indian and Persian originals, much of it was composed here during Cairo's medieval heyday). In one tale, a Jewish physician treats a man in Damascus who relates the story of his life. The narrator describes how as a youth, in the great mosque of Mosul on the banks of the faraway Tigris, he listened entranced to his father and uncles talking after Friday prayers. They sat in a circle, he relates, enumerating the marvels of distant lands. Then one of his uncles said, "Travelers tell that there is nothing on the face of the earth fairer than Cairo." And his father added, "He who has not seen Cairo has not seen the world. Its dust is gold; its Nile is a wonder; its women are like the black-eyed virgins of paradise; its houses are palaces; its air is temperate; its odor surpassing that of aloewood and cheering the heart: and how could Cairo be otherwise, when she is the Mother of the World?"
After hearing this description, the storyteller says, he passed the night sleepless with longing. As soon as he came of age he traveled abroad with his merchant uncles; as soon as he could, he slipped their caravan and ran off to Cairo. And that was the beginning of his story.