Tucked away amid the modern urban area of Cairo lies one of the world's oldest Islamic cities, with its famous mosques, madrasas, hammams and fountains. Founded in the 10th century, it became the new centre of the Islamic world, reaching its golden age in the 14th century.
The historic centre of Cairo bears impressive material witness to the international importance, on the political, strategic, intellectual and commercial levels, of the city during the medieval period. There are few cities in the world as rich as Cairo in old buildings: the historic centre on the eastern bank of the Nile includes no less than 600 classified monuments dating from the 7th to 20th centuries, distributed over various parts of the well-preserved urban fabric, which represent forms of human settlement that go back to the Middle Ages.
In the 7th century, following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, Arab armies marched with great speed to conquer neighboring lands. In 640 the army of the Caliph Omar reached the Nile, occupied Babylon, and founded across from it his own capital al-Fustat, surrounded by an enclosure wall. There the caliph built the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina: enclosing a simple courtyard surrounded by brick walls, it perfectly embodies the essence of Islam, severe and almost military in character.
During the domination of the Abbasids, al-Fustat gradually declined in importance and was replaced by the northern suburb of al-Askar, the military camp that gradually gathered more and more buildings, such as the palace of the governor, houses, shops and a mosque.
In 870 the new Governor Ahmed Ibn-Tulun made Egypt independent of the Abbasid Caliphate and founded in the north-eastern area a splendid new capital, al Qatai. This city was destroyed at the beginning of the 10th century, when the Abbasids regained control of the country. They spared the Great Mosque of Ibn-Tulun with its large courtyard surrounded by porticoes intended for teaching, punctuated by elegantly decorated round arches, probably the work of Iraqi artists, is still one of the most admirable monuments in Cairo.
The great period of city splendour began at the end of the 10th century, when Egypt was conquered by the powerful Shiite Muslim dynasty of the Fatimids, who decided to build a new capital. In AD 969 the city of al-Qahira was founded, and at the heart of the capital stood the residence of the Imam, the administrative buildings, and the two great Fatimid palaces ,of which nothing survives today.
The present-day quarter of al-Azhar preserves other monuments from the Fatimid era, such as the three large gates and the huge square towers of the city's enclosure walls and five mosques. Among these the Mosque of al-Hakim is the last example of a military mosque: it is a compact and severe building, with a broad open courtyard that, with the adjacent walls, makes up a medieval architectural compound of remarkable power. The Mosque of al-Azhar was built between 970 and 972 under the Caliph Muizz, to serve as a sanctuary and as a meeting place; it also housed a university which became an important centre for Islamic studies. The present-day appearance, with its Persian-arch porticoes, its decorated gates, the immense prayer hall, the variously shaped minarets, adorned with lacy carved stone, is the product of a series of embellishment projects.
After the brief intrusion of Seljuk Turks and the attacks of the Crusaders, Egypt fell in 1172 into the hands of Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. The period of Cairo's greatest splendor coincided with the advent of the dynasty of the Mamelukes, who replaced the Ayyubids and remained in power until 1257. The first Mameluke mosque was built in 1266 by Sultan Baibars, crowned by an immense dome. The mandrasa-mosque that Sultan Hasan VII ordered to be built dates from 1356-63. This impressive building, whose cross-shape plan develops around a central courtyard, with the elegant pavilion of the fountain for ritual ablutions, was built with the use of material taken largely from the pyramids. The stern and massive appearance of the construction is balanced by the thrusting vertical power of the dome and the sole minaret of the original four to have survived. In addition to religious structures the Sultans built splendid mausoleum in the City of the Dead, the huge cemetery to the east of the city proper.