Thursday, 14 June 2012

Medieval Fustat: Solitude in the City

First published by Heritage Key: http://heritage-key.com/blogs/garry-shaw/medieval-fustat-solitude-city

A cat wanders by, leading to myself, the guard, my two friends, and the cat being the only occupants of the ruined city of Fustat on this particular day; it was originally home to roughly 200,000 people. This is an unexpected experience for Cairo – solitude in the city.

The Mediaeval Capital
Fustat, the mediaeval capital of Egypt founded in 642 AD by General Amr Ibn el-As, was burnt to the ground (according to Arab tradition) roughly five hundred years later by order of the Vizier Shawar. Frankish crusaders were on their way, and he decided that it was better to have a razed city with a displaced population than a city under occupation. This must rank as one of the most unusual reactions to impending invasion ever concocted (but one that was also used by the Russians during the Napoleonic wars); I can imagine the messages passed down to the general population, “We are facing the prospect of invasion and pillaging by the crusaders –  our defiant response is to burn our city to the ground and run; that’ll show’em. Everybody out by Monday. Yours Sincerely, the Authorities.”

This might be a little unfair on Shawar; the Frankish crusader army, under Amalric I of Jerusalem, had already taken Bilbays, north of Cairo, on 5th November 1168 and horrifically massacred the population. After the massacre, Almaric taunted Shawar by stating that Bilbays was his cheese and Cairo his butter. Thus, Shawar, rightly fearing the assault of a dairy obsessed madman and not wanting a cheese-related metaphor from being applied to himself or Fustat for posterity, abandoned the city in order to save the population and stop it from being used as a base to attack Cairo. Given what happened at Bilbays there isn’t any reason to suspect that the local people opposed his plan.

Tradition and Reality
The story of the absolute destruction of Fustat is, however, only a tradition; in reality the fire was likely limited in scope, restricted to churches attacked during anti-Christian riots, and so not directly connected to Amalric’s invasion. There is little archaeological evidence that large scale burning occurred, and the city continued to exist after 1168, with rebuilding work recorded as carried out after the fire. The area was even included within the protection of Saladin’s city wall. Still though, over time, Cairo (founded in 969 AD) slowly overtook and eventually swallowed Fustat, leaving the earlier capital as a source of building material and fertiliser, before it finally became Cairo’s main rubbish dump – the city’s remains gradually becoming lost under centuries of garbage.

Fustat Today
In recent years the surrounding area has seen some development, thanks to the draw of the monuments of nearby Coptic Cairo, which is visited by large numbers of tourists each day. The remains of Fustat, however, lie forgotten in plain sight. The main problem is a lack of promotion; I stumbled across the massive archaeological site by accident when visiting the Islamic Pottery Centre at the end of it entrance road. Knowing that ancient Fustat had been in this area, and seeing the large archaeological site in the distance, I came closer, but expected to be hurried away by over protective guards (or asked for baksheesh-tips in order to enter). Instead I was welcomed in and asked to buy an entrance ticket (10 LE).

The Archaeological Remains
At first glance the remains of Fustat are more like an abandoned opencast mine than a mediaeval capital city – an impression created at its edges where the grey sloping ground enters the great depression of the excavated area. Palm trees, weeds, cacti, and tall grass are evenly dispersed across the site, and the remains of small fired clay and mud-brick buildings are scattered around. The bricks are held together with thick mortar made from recycled limestone – probably re-used from ancient pharaonic buildings. One house still has its window - three thick slats sitting on top of its mud-brick wall. Columns, lying toppled on their sides, speak of better times; some are made from Aswan red granite, and probably started their lives as elements of pharaonic period temples from the Memphite area, before being adapted for Roman temples and then Christian churches until finally being reworked in mediaeval times. Intricate columns capitals also lie about on the surface.

A large amount of pottery is scattered across the site, as well as being piled high close to the guard’s house. Some are decorated with images of birds, while green glazed pieces can also be seen. There are even clay pipes among the ruins. The next most striking feature at Fustat – and probably the most dangerous if you aren’t watching where you’re going – is the sheer number of wells dotted around the site (almost all without any indication to their presence until you’re standing above the hole). Apparently, nearly every house in the city had a well or cistern system, and the houses themselves are described as being multiple stories high, like a mediaeval New York city.

This is difficult to envision today when faced with the ruinous moonscape before you. There are no information signs (there’s no one to read them anyway), which, despite leaving you a little confused, does lead to a sense of discovery whenever you come across something different. In one part of the site, after having become accustomed to fallen columns and mud-bricks, I came across a series of red granite mill-stones, all left together, and later an oil-press.

Solitude in the City
Cairo is not a quiet city. Even in my apartment I can still hear the incessant honking of the cars below. It’s not a place your Aunt Margaret and Uncle Steve would go for a quiet weekend break to sit by the river and watch the boats go by; not unless they normally have voices in their heads incessantly screaming ‘TAXI,’ ‘FELUCCA (boat rides),’ or ‘Welcome in Egypt,’ and enjoy hordes of people knocking them about on an uneven sidewalk. No. Cairo is famous for being a city with a pulse, where ancient meets modern, and everything is chaotic. This is its charm. It’s hard to believe that Fustat was once the same – a mediaeval metropolis of bustling streets, screaming vendors, rich and poor all living in close quarters. Today this space is an escape from all of that, a quiet bubble where it is possible to reflect on how the world has changed, and how it has stayed the same. Still, at the very limits of the site new apartments buildings rise up, a constant reminder that the modern world, with all its noise, isn’t far away.