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Cairo: The City Victorious (Anglais) Broché – 22 février 2000


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        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...

Revue de presse

"An enormously entertaining read.... Rodenbeck's lively and affectionate portrait...veers easily between past and present, personal and historical." --The Washington Post Book World

"A book to read: one that will easily fit in your carry-on bag, and should greatly enhance any vacation or business trip to Cairo, short or long." --The New York Times Book Review

"Rodenbeck unwinds Cairo's tale with witty, clear-eyed affection. He has a lightness of touch and erudition, a skill with anecdote, that recreates Egypt--for all Egypt's roads lead to Cairo--in all its contradictoriness." --The Economist



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22 internautes sur 23 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Absolutely Fascinating Account of Cairo and it's People!! 5 mai 1999
Par Samy S El Semman - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
Although an Egyptian currently attending college in the USA, I am however a Cairene, and have lived in Cairo for most of my life. I've frequently wondered about the love-hate relationship we Cairenes have with our ancient yet bustling city. The more I thought about it, the less I seemed to be able to describe how I really felt about growing up in Cairo. Then I came upon Max Rodenbeck's book, and I can't describe how happy I am to have read it.
Rodenbeck's book is a truly fascinating account of Cairo. It's accounts of Cairo's history and its people are extremely vivid, yet do not burden the reader with excessive and pedantic detail. The author however examines all sides of Cairo's historical development, but most importantly, Rodenbeck devotes great efforts to examining the lives and attitudes of Cairenes through the ages. It is in this respect that Cairo: The City Victorious is truly fascinating. No book that I know of has ever come this close to capturing the indomitable spirit of Cairenes and how they and their city have endured through the ages.
This book is remarkably even-handed in its treatment of Cairo, giving credit where it's due, but never shying away from criticism when it is needed. It is an educating, entertaining, and in short, excellent narrative. This book has made me understand my own home city better, and after reading it, I'm more proud than ever to be a Cairene. Thank you Mr. Rodenbeck for a wonderful book.
26 internautes sur 30 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Mad About Max! 28 octobre 1999
Par Bruce Loveitt - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
What a pleasure it was to read this book! Mr. Rodenbeck manages to cram a lot of fascinating information into just 267 pages. The book ranges over an enormous period of time, from the days of the pharoahs right up until the present. Obviously, in such a short book you can't go really in depth but somehow after you're done reading you feel that you really understand Cairo and the people who live there. I learned many interesting things. Did you know that a thousand years ago Cairo was full of apartment buildings that ranged from 7 stories up to possibly 14 stories high? The city was so small considering the size of the population that they had nowhere to go but up! Another fascinating fact was that when the pharoah Cheops had his pyramid built at Giza the specifications called for 2.3 million stone blocks of an average weight of 2.5 tons to be used. In order for the pyramid to be completed during the 30 years of Cheops's reign this meant that a stone block had to be into place every 2 minutes! I could go on and on. You learn something on every page: about the physical layout of the city and how it has changed over the centuries; its relationship to the Nile; the way the wealthy and the middle class and the poor live; the importance of Islam and the struggle to find a balance between religion and the secular world; about such leaders as Farouk, Nasser and Sadat; the occupation of Cairo by Napoleon and later on by the British. One of the best things about the book is that Mr. Rodenbeck does not let himself get in the way of this wonderful story. He describes the way things have been in the past and the way they are now and he doesn't preach or predict or otherwise feel the need to insert his ego into what he has written. This is really an excellent book!
10 internautes sur 11 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
The sounds, sights and smells of "the City Victorious"ÿ 7 janvier 2000
Par Un client - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
I had only read a few pages of the book when I found tears rolling down my face. Dr. Rodenbeck (i've had the pleasure of being one of his literature students)gives you CAIRO in a nutshell. Umu Kulthoum's voice, and the overwhelming sight of millions of books stacked dustily in small shops, a dime a dozen, tell u exactly why some people like -no, adore- this noisy polluted city of ours. Dr. Rodenbeck, in his knowledge of Cairo, is more Egyptian than most Egyptians I know !
8 internautes sur 9 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Rings true! 22 juillet 2005
Par jeri hurd - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
As an American ex-pat living in Cairo for the past four years--with all the resultant emotions and biases inherent in that--Rodenbeck's history has taken my somewhat jaded view of Cairo and reinvested it with a sense of awe and appreciation. Three-fourths of the way through the book, I have a long list of sites to visit--places I hadn't heard of, let alone seen--and an increased understanding of this complex city and its contrasts. Rodenbeck fills the book with wonderful bits of trivia ( it was possible in 16th century Cairo to make a living as a professional farter!) to round out his broader explanation of the sweep of Cairene history. Other reviews take him to task for his lack of thoroughness, but that was not his goal. If you're looking for a highly readable and insightful overview of Cairo from the end of the last Ice Age to the present, this is the book!
5 internautes sur 5 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Makes order of Cairo's chaos, in a readable way.. 2 mai 1999
Par Un client - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
Anyone who has been to Cairo, wandered its streets, and read about its history, will still have trouble fathoming what one sees and its relationship to the city's long and complex past. The author skillfully wades through all of these cultural and historical waters while focusing on the consistencies of the city's history and of the character of its people rather than on any dialectic between a troubled present and the glorious past.
Rodenbeck will take the reader through 5000 years of Cairo's history and while giving him the sensation of having been in all of the city's forms from Pharonic Memphis until the present. The reader is there, in every metaphorphisis of the city, in Memphis, in Fustat, in Fatimid Al-Qahirah, in the Citerdal and the European-style quarters. This book is the closest thing that one can have to a time machine, the reader will feel as if he is there in the ancient, midevil, Mamluke and colonial times, and also in the present.
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