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Older than history

THERE has been a city near here since history began, though, over the centuries, the name and the exact location have changed.

The first capital of a united Egypt, Memphis, was built 5,000 years ago just across the Nile to the south of the modern city. Smaller settlements, including the great cult centre to the sun god Re, lay a little further north.

Close to ancient Memphis stand the early imperial tombs, including the greatest of them all, the pyramids of Giza. Until recent times these were the largest and tallest buildings on earth, splendidly isolated on their barren plateau. They appear ageless. There is, it seems, an ancient Egyptian text which reads: "The world fears time but time fears the pyramids".

Closer to the modern city lies the district of Old Cairo. This was once a Roman township and a centre of Egyptian (Coptic) Christianity. Here some of the world's oldest churches are still in use. One of these tops a Roman gateway, another stands over a cellar where the parents of Jesus are said to have taken shelter with their infant son while fleeing from the despot King Herod. Here too stands an old Jewish synagogue at a spot where the young Moses is said to have been rescued from the Nile by an Egyptian princess.

The Arabs conquered Egypt 10 years after the death of Prophet Mohammed. Outnumbered by the native Copts, they settled just north of the Christian town, within the area of modern Cairo, and dreamed of building a new Islamic city. Just over 1,000 years ago, a permanent settlement was begun: al-Qahira (Cairo). Over the centuries most Egyptians converted to Islam (90 per cent are Muslims today while just 10 per cent are Christian). The walled city came to be endowed with splendid mosques and fine stone buildings of which many survive: Ibn Tulun Mosque (Ninth Century), al-Azhar Mosque (founded in the 10th Century), Citadel (12th Century), Sultan Hassan Mosque (14th Century), Mohammed Ali Mosque (early 19th Century), etc. Each one has a fascinating story.

Ibn Tulun was the first to declare Egyptian independence from Baghdad. His mosque still stands, enclosing an enormous courtyard where the Muslim men would gather to pray 1,100 years ago. The massive ramparts of the Citadel overlook the whole city. They were built by the great Saldin to defend Cairo against the Crusaders. In the event the enemy never came this way. About 700 years later, Mohammed Ali, a viceroy of the Ottoman Turks, invited his rivals to a banquet inside the Citadel and assassinated 300 of them as they departed. He subsequently built the great mosque nearby which bears his name. It was he who brought Egypt into the 19th Century and founded a dynasty that lasted until the 1950s.

Medieval Cairo was built some three kilometres from the Nile to avoid its seasonal flood.

In the 19th Century, planners began developing a new quarter with boulevards and squares to link the river with the old walled city. It has a distinctly European look, like a smaller, dustier version of Paris, and though today some of its buildings are past their prime, this still forms Cairo's Downtown area with its new hotels, countless stores and fast food restaurants.

By the end of the 19th Century, the city had begun to spread across the river and to cover the adjoining islands. Since then Cairo's population has grown ever faster. Vast suburbs have mushroomed in several directions, leaving bare patches of wasteland between them.

Only a few hundred metres of sand now separate the pyramids from the suburbs. Spectacular new satellite townships are being built far out into the desert. Perhaps the most exciting and most challenging of Cairo's many ages is upon us right now.

K.D.

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