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...