Sunday, June 05, 2005

Midan Husayn, Cairo, Egypt

Liberation Square - aka Midan Tahrir - may be the geographic and political heart of modern Cairo, but its historic and spiritual heart lies further east, at Midan Husayn. There, past streets that are throughout the day as crowded as a major university during class change and more so during rush periods, streets lined with shops beneath countless high-rise apartment buildings, you find one major thoroughfare, al-Azhar Street, rising briefly above the fray via an unsightly express overpass before passing through what it today known as "Islamic Cairo." There, just a bit to the north on al-Muski Street you find the Midan Husayn, what passes for an open space in Cairo, surrounded on one side by cafes and restaurants and on north and south by the two great mosques al-Azhar and Sayyidna al-Husayn.

The story of Cairo begins here at al-Azhar, perhaps with a white marble monument found in small chamber off to the side of a madrasa. This is the tomb of one named Jawhar, sometimes said to be a Jawhar who donated to the mosque during the 15th century, but perhaps instead that of Jawhar as-Saqilli, who founded both Cairo and al-Azhar over a thousand years ago. At that time the Fatimid dynasty of western North Africa was growing in strength, and their foremost goal was to conquer the rich lands of Egypt. For years, however, they were blocked by the power of Egypt's ruler Kafur, a Nubian eunuch who was also the patron and later satirical victim of al-Mutannabi, greatest of the medieval Arabic poets. In the late 960's, however, Kafur died, and the Fatimids, deciding their moment had come, turned to this Jawhar, a Slavic general who had already proven his worth by conquering Morocco and sending the Fatimid ruler a giant water-filled jars with living fish from the Atlantic as a sign of his success.

Jawhar conquered Egypt in 969, and that same year founded as a new capital al-Qahira, "The Victorious," beginning construction of al-Azhar the next year. Jawhar became popular in Egypt, but when the Fatimids themselves moved there several years later, he fell from favor and spent his final years in religious studies and charity work. Meanwhile, the Fatimids made his city their own. Now is not the time to count the long years of Fatimid rule, known as caliphs to their mostly Sunni subjects but who to their fellow Shi'ites were imams, descendants of Imam Ali and the Prophet's daughter Fatima and God's living guides for the world in the light of his revelation. Eventually they claimed to have the head of Husayn, the son of Ali and Fatima martyred at Karbala, which they placed in the other great mosque across the street from al-Azhar, though the building there today is more modern, with three gray spired out front and an array of multicolored strung lights covering the outside.

As happens, however, the Fatimid dynasty fell into decay, and real power passed from the hands of the caliphs to their viziers, until the whole structure became rife with squabbling among different factions and internal coups and counter-coups made and deposed both viziers and caliphs who were little more than puppets, until in the 1160's there came to the throne al-Adid, a rather plump teenager who comes down to us as both somewhat rebellious against his handlers and still surrounded by the trappings of Fatimid ceremony, receiving visitors behind a curtain which could then be raised, giving way to a slow ritual in which he ceremonial gloves might be removed and his face veil pulled aside.

At one point, as Egyptian political factions squabbled while the Crusader threat loomed over all, this al-Adid conspired for aid with Nur ad-Din, the Sunni ruler of northern Syria and Iraq, who dispatched to Egypt an army which when its commander died would fall under the leadership of Salah ad-Din Yusuf b. Ayyub, the Kurd known to the west as Saladin. Saladin took control of Egypt and became al-Adid's new vizier, though not for long, as the youth fell ill and died shortly before his 21st birthday. At this, Saladin declared the Fatimid dynasty at an end, for his program was the promotion of Sunni Islam, both against internal problems such as factionalism and what was seen as the Shi'ite heresy and external ones, as represented by the Crusader states he would almost completely destroy.

By the middle of the 13th century, Saladin's Ayyubid descendants would give way as sultans to their Mamluk soldiery, and it is during this period that Cairo achieved its greatest medieval prominence. With the fall of the Fatimids al-Azhar, originally the centerpiece of Shi'ite learning, was converted into a Sunni institution, and countless more madrasas were founded by the Ayyubids and Mamluks. When the Mongols destroyed Baghdad in 1258, the Abbasid caliphs were also brought to Cairo to provide legimacy for the Mamluks, while Cairo itself swelled to absorb what had been other, neighboring cities which pre-dated the Fatimids.

Walking the streets of Islamic Cairo today one finds bustling suqs such as the famous Khan al-Khalili, perhaps built over the old Fatimid garbage dump, and quiet dirt lanes where the omnipresent traffic noise becomes as faint as it ever does while an occasional sheep or chicken stands in a doorway. At the same time, the historian in me gets an odd, wistful feeling passing the monuments of a past age such as the mausoleums, mosques, and madrasas bearing the names of the sultans who built them. Qalawun. Barquq. An-Nasir Muhammad. Qaytbey. I remember them all, each the ruler for a time in this city which in their day already had apartment buildings a dozen stories high and public hospitals where the poor were given first priority.

But, alas, the Mamluk era, too, would meet its end, for as time passed rulers came to value their own honor and glory more than the well-being of their country, public works became simply a chance to maintain their own family's wealth and the concerns of staying in power absorbed all their energy. As even greater problems, Europeans found their way into the Indian Ocean, breaking the Mamluk monopoly on trade with India and China, while Egypt came to be decimated by plague, for the Black Death which struck Europe in the mid-14th century also came here, where it would recur again and again. As the wealth of the land failed, the Bedouin began incessantly raiding the rural areas, and the sultans were powerless to stop them, preferring to try and hold the hearts of the capital by ever more gruesome spectacles such as creative executions in the front of the city's main southerm gate, Bab Zuwayla.

If Ibn Khaldun was right that dynasties have a life cycle, then the end of the Mamluk era was symbolic, for it was a man in his 70's, Muhammad al-Ghawri, who in 1516 as sultan rode out to meet the advancing Ottoman Empire under the rule of Selim the Grim. The Ottomans won, for the Mamluks had never adopted modern armaments, taking the attitude that gunpowder was for the weak. In 1517, Tunanbey, the last Mamluk ruler, was himself hung from Bab Zuwayla, and the city once called "the mother of the world" became just one more provincial capital in the Ottoman Empire, a dark planet reflecting the light of the sun of Istanbul.

The reader will have to forgive me the historical excursus above, for after all, this is what I do for a living, and here I am at the center of it. But it should not be thought that Islamic Cairo today is just a set of historic monuments. Far from it, there are just as many shops and the like here as anywhere else. And al-Azhar itself has only gained in stature throughout the centuries, so that today it is far and away the most important center of learning in Sunni Islam, claiming to be the world's oldest university with thousands of students studying their religion, mostly from the Arab world, but with a noticeable element of south and southeast Asians and presumably some Africans and others from around the world, as well.

In walking around the mosque today, you cannot help but notice that it is alive. Although little instruction actually takes place today beneath its five minarets around the pillars in its prayer halls, there was still posted what looked suspiciously like a course schedule, with times noted for fiqh, hadith, philosophy, and other fields of interest to the Islamic religion. Students, mostly young but many middle-aged, as well, are studying alone or in groups all over the place, some industriously, others bored and fiddling with their cell phones. I saw one guy half asleep over a German textbook, which calls to mind my advisor's oft-repeated story about when he was here many years ago and, stumbling across a group studying philosophy, and when he assumed it would be some classical Islamic philosopher, they said it was the German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger. Al-Azhar's curriculum is not modern in the Western sense, but it is not medieval either.

This might seem a lot of time to spend talking about a single place, but in the world today there are few more important, for it is the students of al-Azhar who will spread out into the world as "Azharis," spreading the learning of this place throughout the Islamic world just as they have been doing for the past thousand years. And they, too, while I haven't seen them as a group active in current Cairene politics, will in the long run have just as much say in Egyptian and Arab attitudes as the Kefaya protestors who last Wednesday took part in the "Day of Black," wearing black and gathering downtown to protest the government violence on the day of the referendum. Meanwhile, I must cut this short, for soon others will be arriving here in Egypt, and I have work I want to do before meeting them.


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