Now the eighth descendant of King Osymandias ... founded Memphis, the most illustrious city in Egypt. For he sought out the most fitting site in the land, the place where the Nile divides into the Delta; wherefore it came to pass that the city, situated, as it were, at the gateway to Egypt, was master of all the commerce passing upstream to the country above.
--Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, first century B.C.
Abu Abdallah Muhammad Ibn Battuta set out from Tangier on the second day of the month of Rajab in the seven-hundred-and-twenty-fifth year of the Hejira. He was twenty-two years old and overpowered, he would later recall, by a burning need to enter the illustrious sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina. He traveled on foot mostly, taking a full year and a half to cover the 4,000 miles between his hometown by the Strait of Gibraltar and the Muslim holy places of Arabia. Yet when his pilgrimage was complete, Ibn Battuta's thirst for adventure still raged. He was not to go home, in fact, for thirty years--not before seeing firsthand the Arab cities of Jerusalem, Damascus, and Baghdad, and the Christian emperor's capital at Constantinople; not before coasting African reefs to slave-trading Zanzibar; not before sliding by sledge across the frozen realm of the khan of the Golden Horde to the splendid cities of Bokhara and Samarkand; before scaling the Hindu Kush and descending to the humid plains of the Indus and Ganges; not before serving as chief Malikite cadi of Delhi and as ambassador from its fierce and capricious sultan to the court of China, which he reached by way of Ceylon, monsoon-drenched Sumatra, and the bustling port of Canton. Ibn Battuta would not rest in sleepy little Tangier again until he had seen all of the known world (aside, of course, from the crude and violent lands of the Western Christians). Wishing to reach the very edges of civilization, he would not be satisfied until he had toured the delightful but doomed towns of Muslim Andalusia in the north and the gold-rich city of Timbuktu across the Sahara to the south.
Ibn Banuta followed a simple rule in all his 75,000 miles of wandering: he vowed never to travel the same road twice. Yet there was one town he stopped at no fewer than five times. It was a matter of course that he should, since this was not only the largest and richest city of the age and the capital of the mightiest kingdom, it was also the crossroads of the busiest routes of trade and pilgrimage from east to west and north to south.
Cairo was, quite simply, the navel of the world. It dazzled Ibn Battuta like no other city. To his secretary Ibn Juzayy he was to dictate this encomium:
Mistress of broad provinces and fruitful lands, boundless in profusion of buildings, peerless in beauty and splendor, she shelters all you will of the learned and the ignorant, the grave and the gay, the prudent and the foolish, the noble and the base.... Like the waves of the sea she surges with her throngs of folk, yet for all the capacity of her station and her power to sustain can scarce hold their number. Her youth is ever new despite the length of days. Her reigning star never shifts from the mansion of fortune.
When Ibn Battuta first arrived, in A.D. 1326, Cairo was indeed at a peak in its fortunes. For three centuries it had been the greatest of Muslim cities. But this town was already ancient long before the coming of Islam. Successive cities had grown, flourished, decayed, and been reborn on this site beginning no less than 4,000 years before. The town was so old that its inhabitants even at the start of that barely conceivable antiquity believed that this was where Creation itself had taken place.
The spot where they said life began looks like an odd choice today. It lies out in the ragged northeast suburbs of the great city, not far from the end of a Metro line. Industrial plants jostle here with ranks of dwellings slapped together in raw red brick and slung with washing. Heedless of momentous happenings in ages past, shoppers haggle by the butchers' stalls and pyraraids of melons that enliven the main street until it peters out abruptly in a fenced-off acreage of flat, brown dust. The emptiness, in this city where land is coveted like gold, is eerie.
The barren land is the site of a long-gone town called On. Gone, that is, except for a lone monolith, a single shaft of solid pink granite that soars defiantly out of the rubble. This is a 4,000-year-old obelisk, the last of an avenue of obelisks that once led to the great temple of On. Its stone siblings succumbed to different fates: they toppled and were broken up for stone, or got hauled off whole as trophies, dubbed Cleopatra's Needles, and were shipped away down the Nile and across the sea to grace stripling cities by the murky rivers Hudson and Thames.
Farther back, at the beginning of time itself, nothing existed of Cairo or On or of anything else. There was not even a Nile, the ancient Egyptians believed. The entire universe was a colorless, proportionless ooze. Then, for no reason in particular, out of this element something solid formed. It swelled into a mound in what was to become the courtyard of the great temple of On. The mound was later called the Benben and was stylized as a pyramid.
Out of this Benben rose the sun, taking the form of Atum, the creator god. He was a glowing orb atop the pyramid, or a flaming phoenix, perhaps, or maybe even a man-shaped god--the fluidity of ancient myth makes his image difficult to grasp. Whatever his form, Atum stood here lighting the emptiness. Then, say the sacred texts that the priests of On inscribed in pyramid-tombs across the river to the west, Atum aroused himself "so that he should create orgasm." He engendered twins. From his nose snorted Shu, the fiery god of air. From his mouth flew Tefnut, the vaporous goddess of moisture who still gives her name to the Arabic word for spitting. Shu and Tefnut begat Geb and Nut--earth and sky--who begat the rest of the nine chief gods of On: Osiris, Isis, her sister Nephthys, and the outsider Seth, who burst unexpectedly from Nut's womb. Witnessing the result of his exertions, Atum burst into tears. His tears became mankind and populated the world.
This is what the priests of On said happened here. But the priests of Memphis, a rival city whose ruins lie across the Nile, twenty miles off at the opposite edge of modern Cairo, disputed their version of events. It was not Atum of On, they asserted, but Ptah of Memphis who created the world; not Atum the sun, but Ptah the "beautiful of face" who conceived of all, then uttered it into being with his Word, and fashioned man in his image.
But On and Memphis had certainly not yet advanced enough to quarrel when another seminal event occurred in their vicinity.
The scheming god Seth was the villain of ancient Egyptian myth. A fork-tailed canine with a long, drooping snout, he stalked the rim of the valley, bellowing and howling and stirring up sandstorms. Seth was the master of the Red Lands--the desert--but he was a lonely god. In his solitude he envied his brother Osiris, happy ruler of the Black Lands watered by the Nile. Seth conceived a plot. He held a banquet. After wining and dining his brother, he jokingly invited him to lie down inside a beautiful box. No sooner had Osiris climbed in than Seth slammed the lid closed and heaved the box into the great river. The goddess Isis, grieving, searched high and low for the body of her beloved brother. Finding his corpse on the shores of what is now Lebanon, she impregnated herself with his seed. Isis gave birth to falcon-headed Horus. The child grew up, nurturing dreams of vengeance, amid the reeds of the Nile Delta. When he came of age, Horus set out to find his father's killer.
But Seth was lusty as well as cunning. His winsome young nephew pleased him. When he came upon the falcon-headed youth at a place between On and Memphis that the Egyptians later called Kher'aha, the Site of the Battle, Seth assaulted Horus. The two gods rolled in the dust of the Nile bank, transformed into hippopotamuses. They fought for three days and nights, and maybe even years. Seth plucked out Horus's eagle eye, but Horus tore off his uncle's testicles. In the end Thoth, the baboonlike (but sometimes ibis-headed) god of wisdom and writing, intervened. He retrieved the eye of Horus. He held a trial at On, or perhaps Memphis, and the fighting gods were reconciled.
Like all good myths, this most ancient one prisms into numberless versions. Sometimes the fight of the gods is glossed as a complicitous carousal. More often Horus represents the triumph of outraged justice, which is why the falcon or eagle or phoenix became a sign of victory while the forked tail of Seth evolved into a mark of Satan. Modern scholars wrangle as much as the ancients over the details, but concur that the story of the battle of the gods symbolized religious and political fusion. It may illustrate the struggle between the early kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt and their subsequent unification. Then again, Seth and Horus may represent the conflict between the settled people of the Nile Valley and nomads from Asia, the arrival of whom some antiquarians say was responsible for catalyzing advanced civilization here 5,000 years ago.
The point is that Kher'aha, the mythic site of the battle between Seth and Horus, was where the great metropolis of Cairo sprawls today. At the confluence of continents, at the narrow neck of the Nile Valley just before it spreads into the flat water-maze of the Delta, this has always been a place where elements mingle and cultures collide. Invaders have come and gone: the Asiatic Hyksos, Libyans, Ethiopians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, French, British, and recent hordes of tourists. The cities here have risen and fallen, but always this spot has been the crucible of Egypt's fate.
Leaving aside myth, science asserts that permanent settlement started at Cairo near the end of the last Ice Age. It was then, around 10,000 years ago, that global warming scorched the grasslands which once bordered the Nile Valley, sending their rich wildlife of elephants, lions, and giraffes scurrying into the African hinterland. It diminished the river, taming its 10-million-year-old habit of scouring a deeper and deeper gorge in its hard bed of Eocene limestone. Instead, the Nile now flooded once a year, in late summer, rising by twenty feet to fill the narrow valley from desert to desert. Receding in the autumn, it deposited silts eroded from the distant volcanic mountains of Ethiopia. The silt thickened by a millimeter a year, forming a loamy and rich soil that is today some thirty feet deep.
Together these changes brought about the end of hunter-gatherer cultures that had flourished in what is now the Sahara. By necessity these Paleolithic wanderers--many of whose 150,000-year-old flint blades have been found near On---settled in the valley for good. With time they learned to husband animals and raise crops. They discovered how to fashion pottery and bricks for building walls. As the Egyptians' technical skills improved and so allowed wealth to accumulate, larger towns grew up elsewhere in Egypt. Still, in the region of what would become Cairo there seem to have been only a scattering of villages.
Seventy years ago archaeologists excavated a Neolithic site near Maadi, a leafy Cairo suburb half an hour by Metro from the remains of On. On the edge of the desert, behind what is now a satellite tracking station, they uncovered the traces of a densely settled village surrounded by sturdy walls. Aside from fine pottery they found delicate vessels bored out of basalt, woven textiles, and slate cosmetic-mixing palettes that were skillfully carved in relief with designs of plants and animals. Here, in about 4000 B.C., the dead were buried with a few favorite possessions. Their bodies were laid down on their right sides facing the rising sun, just as they are in Cairo to this day.
Of these Maadi-scale villages, On appears to have been the most important. Mythology and recorded history suggest that it may have been the locus of a solar cult and a center of astronomical observation from the earliest times, but the archaeological details of its beginnings are obscure. This has not stopped some scholars from positing a specific date. The date they give is July 19, 4241 B.C. At 4:58 a.m. to be precise--which is to say at the moment when Sirius, that brightest but shyest of stars in the northern heavens, peeked over the dawn horizon at the latitude of On.
What allows such a precise guess is the fact that the astronomers of On appear to have solved one of nature's puzzles far in advance of anyone else. They noticed that while the "natural" calendar that follows the cycles of the moon makes a year of only 354 days, the solar year is longer. The sun scale was more in tune with the needs of seasonal agriculture (not to mention sun worship), but it was tricky finding a fixed point from which to calculate its year. Stargazers remarked that in the late spring Sirius hid for two and a half moons, then leaped into view in midsummer, just when the river began to overflow its banks. From one rising of Sirius to the next was exactly 365 days, a span that seemed to match the solar cycle. The Egyptians divided this solar year into twelve months of thirty days each, with five extra days for an annual festival.
Having launched their elegant calendar, however, the Egyptians soon found they were losing one day every four years. The trouble was that Earth dawdles maddeningly. It took not the neat 365 days that the astronomers of On expected, but 365 1/4 for it to revolve around the sun. (Much later, when the Romans decided to adopt the Egyptian calendar, Julius Caesar hired an Alexandrian named Sosigenes to solve this problem. He came up with the idea of leap years. This was clever, but then he bungled the Egyptians' symmetry by juggling the lengths of months into our current irregular terms.) The loss of these quarter days meant that the Egyptian calendar slipped slowly out of sync. Its New Year fell on the exact same day as the rising of Sirius only in four years out of every 1,461 Egyptian years.
From a work called De Die Matali, by the Roman writer Censorinus, nineteenth-century scholars knew that one of these exact coincidences took place in about A.D. 142. Calculating back in time, they surmised that Sirius's rising and the Egyptian New Year had coincided in about 1320, 2780, and 4241 B.C. Since the Pyramid Texts, inscribed when these structures were built in the twenty-fifth century B.C., showed an already thorough familiarity with the 365-day calendar, the only conclusion to draw was that its use must have begun at the earlier date. The civilization of On, wrote the great American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted a century ago, thus furnishes us with the earliest fixed date in the history of the world.
Egyptology being an inexact science, many of its scholars question this chronology. Their chief quibble is that the calculation of a calendar would have required the use of writing, a skill that does not seem to have developed until a thousand years later.
In the fourth millennium B.C. the various city-states north and south of On coalesced into two kingdoms. The long, thin realm of Upper Egypt stretched the length of the valley southward to the farthest navigable reaches of the Nile at Aswan. To the north, the marshy plain of the Delta became the kingdom of Lower Egypt, with On at its southern border. In this murky age the two halves of the country fought a seesaw war. Time and again their armies stomped across the site of modern Cairo--in the footsteps, so to speak, of Seth and Horus. The struggle concluded at last, in about 3100 B.C., with the conquest of the Delta by the king of Upper Egypt.
Unification seeded the genius of Egyptian civilization. Royal patronage poured into the arts of peace, not war. More elaborate systems of government required more sophisticated record-keeping, and so spurred the invention of writing. History itself began. Among the first things history recorded was the establishment of a royal capital. In a move of great foresight, Menes, the semi-legendary unifying king and founder of the First Dynasty, chose to build his city at the frontier between the two lands. Rather than picking On, which was on the right bank of the Nile and so exposed to attack from the east, he chose a virgin site twenty miles southwest on the left bank, just upstream from the forking of the Delta. To protect this new city from the Nile's flood waters Menes had it ringed with canals and levees. Battlements surrounded the city, too, giving it its first name, the White Wall--a name that also evoked the royal color of Upper Egypt.
This city was to endure until the age of Islam, which is to say for three and a half millennia or thirty-four of the forty-six varied dynasties that have ruled Egypt down to the present. For most of that time it was the commercial and administrative capital, the home of royal palaces and tombs, of coronations and jubilees, of the highest courts of law and of the finest artisans. The White Wall contained the royal treasury and the standard weights and measures of Egypt. It was here that the chief Nilometer for recording the river's rise and fall stood, and where the major garrison and fleet were maintained. With a population that may have surpassed 100,000 during peaks of prosperity, the city's size was unrivaled in the ancient world, at least until the short-lived efflorescence of Mesopotamian Babylon in the seventh century B.C.
Six dynasties after Menes, the ancient Egyptian capital adopted its most enduring name, Men-nefer--meaning Lasting and Beautiful. Much later the Greeks corrupted this to Memphis.
In the thousand-year span of those first six dynasties--the period of Memphis's greatest ascendance--Egyptian civilization blossomed. This era witnessed the elaboration of state administration and court ritual, the establishment of fixed legal practice and religious doctrine. It saw the refinement of skills such as shipbuilding, metalworking, and the use of stone for sculpture and building. The conventions of Egyptian art, its proportions and perspective, were set to last until the coming of Christianity. They reached their earliest, and many would say finest expression in the great pyramids and other tombs and temples of Memphis. So dominant was the capital that the country as a whole became known to the outside world from the name of Memphis's centerpiece, the massive, fifty-acre temple complex of its patron god Ptah. Hut-ka-Ptah, the House of the Ka (or essence) of Ptah, was rendered by the Babylonians as Hikuptah. The Greek ear heard this as Aigiptos, and so, by way of Latin, we have Egypt.
While Memphis ruled, its older twin, On, retained prestige in religion. Its Temple of the Sun was even more richly endowed than that of Ptah. Its priests were renowned for their skills in science and magic. Their version of belief became the dominant doctrine in Egypt, providing the philosophical underpinnings for the pharaohs' divine kingship as well as for conceptions of the afterlife. This is why, when the Hebrews wanted to show how well the biblical Joseph had fared in Egypt, they said he had married none other than the daughter of the high priest of On, Potiphar. The Greeks, who called On Heliopolis in honor of its sun worship, said that Solon, Pythagoras, Plato, and Eudoxus had all studied there. It was they who first credited the priests of Heliopolis with devising the earliest solar calendar.
Ancient conceptions of time were sophisticated indeed. The idea of eternity so preoccupied the Egyptians that their language expressed subtly distinct forms: while d------t (the lack of vowels in hieroglyphics renders pronunciation speculative) described absolute changelessness, the term n----h----h signified cyclical recurrence. River, sky, and desert were eternal, but so in their way were the works of man. Memphis and Heliopolis both shifted their positions by a few miles this way and that, following human fashions as well as the restless snaking of the Nile's banks. Both ultimately faded. Time flattened the Benben mound of On into fields; its agents dismantled the House of the Ka of Ptah and dispersed its priests. But by the measure of n----h----h the city or cities here have unquestionably been eternal.
The route from Memphis to Heliopolis, slashing upward from southwest to northeast, remains the major traffic axis of twentieth-century Cairo. Now, of course, it is diesel barges that ply the Nile, not papyrus skiffs and long-nosed gondolas of Phoenician cedar. Six-lane highways flank the river. No fewer than ten major bridges cross its 500-yard width at Cairo. Near ancient Heliopolis jets swoop into the busiest airport in the Middle East. On the pyramid-studded desert plateaus of Giza and Saqqara overlooking the site of Memphis, tour buses disgorge thousands of visitors a day. In between the two ancient cities, all across the plain of Kher'aha and beyond, surges a sea of humanity 12 million strong. Having endured 5,000 recorded years under 500 rulers, Cairo remains the greatest metropolis in its quadrant of the globe.
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 free-standing 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 palmtops 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 we reach 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 which 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. This is 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 partaken 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 from 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 wise-crack 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 which 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 farmer gets how much water for his 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 which 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 roots 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, or Hindi is also Misr.
Nor does the sway of Cairo end at Egypt's borders. To 250 million Arabic-speakers and 1 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 cafes 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. (Continues...)