Cairo - "From the Pages of Glorious Fatimid History"
The history of Cairo dates back to about B.C. 5000 when King Mina united Upper and Lower Egypt and chose Memphis as the capital of the New Kingdom. Memphis survived several dynasties and invaders and finally was rebuilt in 969 A.D., by Jawhar al-Siqily, of the army commanders of the Fatimid Caliph al-Muiz Ladin Allah, and given the modern name of Cairo.
This city, standing to the north-east of the ancient cities of al-Qatai and al-Fustat, was named Cairo and became the capital of the Fatimid Caliphate which ruled an area extending from the coast of North Africa to Lake Chad in the heart of the continent and to the northernmost boundaries of Syria.
The foundation of the city was not simply the consequence of a change of government. It had a profound influence on the beliefs, culture, civilization and politics of Africa. It even affected parts of Asia, Central Africa and Europe.
The Fatimids' belief in religious tolerance facilitated the merger of various cultures. These included those of the African Maghreb, which had been influenced by European civilization through Sicily, Spain and Southern Italy; Sudan and Central Africa; Damascus and Baghdad, which had been the seats of the Caliphate before the Fatimid conquests; and, finally, the ancient civilization of Egypt itself. Hence, in a short space of time, Cairo became the capital of a great Mediterranean state.
The foundation of Cairo at the crossroads of East and West had a marked effect on the economic and cultural prosperity of the new state. An important factor was the power of the Fatimids' navy and the seaports they established on the Mediterranean coast which stimulated trade between East and West.
The founding of Cairo nearly coincided with the establishment of a great cultural institution; the Mosque of al-Azhar, on April 3, 970. At the outset, the Mosque was intended to be an institution for the teaching of the Fatimids' religious ideas. In 988 the Caliph al-Aziz gave orders that tuition should be provided for 35 students for whom accommodation was also made available at his own expense.
Successive Caliphs, ministers and wealthy private citizens contributed funds with the result that the mosque became an Islamic university - the oldest in the world - which grew and attracted students from all over the world. The University of Paris founded some 100 years later, holds a comparable position in Europe.
Cairo became a Mecca for scholars from far and wide and al-Azhar mosque - thanks to religious and intellectual tolerance - has been a centre of Islamic culture ever since that era.
"Ulema " and religious dignitaries who had won fame throughout the Islamic world converged on al-Azhar to lecture in theology. Arabic linguistics, logic, literature, mathematics, law and various other fields of learning.
The Fatimid Caliphs spared no effort in the spreading of knowledge and encouragement of scholars. With this aim in view, they set up the "Palace Library" where they made available some 200,000 books collected from all parts of the globe. These dealt with all types of knowledge including Arabic language and religion, astronomy, chemistry, history, and biography. There was also a collection of manuscripts and 2,400 copies of the Koran.
Besides this great library, "Dar al - Hikma " (The House of Wisdom) was founded to contribute to the advancement of scientific research - particularly in astronomy, mathematics and medicine. One of the most eminent Arab astronomers, Aly Ben Younes, conducted research at Dar al -Hikma for 17 years. Another famous scholar, Ibn al-Haithan - whose researches in engineering, mathematics and physics later inspired Roger Bacon, Kepler and Leonardo in the field of optics - was one of the prominent scientists of Dar al - Hikma.
The exquisite Fatimid architecture made Cairo a beautiful city. Mosques and palaces were decorated with pillars of alabaster and granite, masterpieces of Islamic sculpture and engraving, inlaid panels and alabaster chandeliers plated with enamel of various colors. The textiles and embroidery of Cairo also won world fame and attracted European merchants.
In the twelfth century Cairo became a meeting place of world civilizations. It also became a centre for science and culture in the Islamic world. New buildings, original in design and splendid in their quality of crafts - manship, sprang up like mushrooms.
(An Extract from the Article "Modern Cairo's First Thousand Years: A Brief Survey" which appears in the January 1969 issue of "Voice of U.A.R.").