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The thrice-burned city

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Fustat was founded in 642 AD by the victorious Arab general Amr Ibn al-As, near the fortress of Babylon which had just fallen to his troops. According to tradition, its location was chosen by a dove, which laid an egg in Amr’s tent before he was to march on Alexandria. Amr declared this as a sign from God, and the tent was left untouched as they went off to battle. When they returned victorious, Amr told his troops to pitch their tents around his, giving his new capital its name, Masr al-Fustat, “City of the Tents”. From an array of tribal encampments around a mosque, it grew into a wealthy city populated by Copts and Jews and settlers from Yemen and Arabia, communicating in Arabic and Coptic, and trading as far away as India.

In 750 AD, the final Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, made his last stand here, and then had Fustat burned behind him as he fled the victorious Abbasids, who proceeded to usurp the caliphate from him. The Abbasids ordered a new city to be built further north, but Fustat was never depopulated, and never stopped growing: in the early eleventh century, the Persian poet and traveller Nasir Khusraw saw fourteen-storey buildings with roof gardens here, irrigated by ox-powered waterwheels, which drew from a piped water system unmatched anywhere else until the eighteenth century.

This huge conurbation peaked demographically long after the Fatimids had founded Al-Qahira, when its population topped two hundred thousand. Even the sacking and burning of Fustat ordered by the “mad caliph” Al-Hakim in 1020 left such vast remains that in 1168 the Fatimid vizier Shawar decided to evacuate and burn it yet again, rather than let the invading Crusaders occupy the defenceless old city and use it as a base outside Al-Qahira’s walls. Set ablaze with ten thousand torches and twenty thousand barrels of naphtha, “flames and smoke engulfed the city and rose to the sky in a terrifying scene”, wrote the historian Al-Maqrizi. Fustat burned for 54 days, and was not occupied again. Under the Mamlukes, its ruins became a rubbish dump, entirely ignored except for the Mosque of Amr – the sole surviving monument to its bygone glory.

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