Capturing Cairo, the eternal city

Capturing Cairo, the eternal city
Book Club: Cairo is a city that both courts and consumes its inhabitants. Published by French luxury publisher Assouline under the curation of Mai Eldib, 'Cairo Eternal' captures Cairo's charms with a pronounced grace that befits the eternal city.
5 min read
17 May, 2023
Mai Eldib's curation captures the majesty of Cairo, a city where tradition meets modernity [Assouline]

What is a city except for our selective mapping of it? Cities may be described in general terms — loud, busy, crowded — but there is no essence to any city that crosses time and space, person to person.

Not only are cities in constant flux, being made and remade, but cities exist partly in our imagination, and it is the amalgamation of imagination and reality — born out of our unique experiences of the landscape — that creates “the city” in our portraits.

Needless to say, this leads to widely divergent portrayals of the same city in literature, film, and photography. 

"Just as Cairo conquered the old, it will probably conquer the new. Cairo’s story is far from over"

A city like Cairo is exceptionally placed to produce discrete imaginations and realities. That was my main takeaway while reading and surveying the extraordinary photographs in Assouline’s new publication Cairo Eternal, part of the famed publishing house’s travel series.

Cultural strategist and visual art specialist, and Cairene, Mai Eldib brings the Egyptian capital to glorious life through stunning images of boulevards and alleyways, mansions and apartments, cafes and markets, and, of course, the Nile and the Pyramids.

Through her lens, Eldib illustrates that what Cairo means to its people probably varies a lot more than even what a city like New York means to different New Yorkers. 

© Joseph Leombruno
© Joseph Leombruno

For starters, Cairo is a deeply layered city, with one civilisation building on top of another and creating a mix of architectural styles. Cairo is massive from one end to the other and home to a population roughly three times larger than New York. And Cairo is sadly deeply unequal between a small affluent or middle class and an impoverished mass. Such disparities create enormously different lives in the same city. 

Regarding the layers of history, the city was founded by the Fatimid dynasty in the late 10th century and has witnessed numerous rulers. The Ayyubid dynasty founded by Saladin followed the Fatimids in the late 12th century, then on to the Mamluks (13th-16th century) and subsequently the Ottomans (with a brief interlude by Napolean) and, finally, the British took over in the late 19th century.

For the first time since Ancient Egypt, native Egyptians would rule again after the 1952 Free Officers coup dethroned the Muhammed Ali dynasty (1802-1952) and ushered in a new era of massive public development in the city. 

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Cairo in Arabic — al-Qāhirah — means The Conqurer, and it is believed that the Fatimids so named their new capital because the planet Mars (the conquered star in Arabic) was rising above the new settlement. The tale might be apocryphal but it demonstrates how romanticism has always been interwoven in Cairo’s appeal. 

By way of a quick detour, it is worth noting that while Eldib and most observers place Cairo’s founding to the Fatimids, others argue that the original Islamic settlement of Fustat constitutes the origin point.

© Karim El Hayawan
© Karim El Hayawan

Romanticism imbues Eldib’s text and photography whereby the author focuses on key landmarks to showcase how space transcends time in the eternal city. Take the legendary Mena House Hotel in Giza.

In the nineteenth century, it served as a royal residency for Khedive Ismail (the grandson of Muhammed Ali). The lodge became a hotel in 1886 and has been the site of numerous historic events from a WWII meeting between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek to a peace conference between Sadat and Begin in 1977 and a concert two years later headlined by Frank Sinatra. Ismail also built the erstwhile palace in Zamalek that now serves as a hotel and casino.

 "It’s a cliche but Cairo defies wholesale characterisation"

These two landmarks illustrate that in Cairo nothing stays static and the future often is built on top of or converts the uses of the past. It was Ismail who dreamt of creating a Paris on the Nile and the neighbourhood formerly called Ismailia (now Downtown Cairo) is an embodiment of the French style of architecture.

His vision stands in stark contrast to the mass development under Nasser, whose goals were less aesthetically-minded and more concerned with creating public housing for the working class. Focusing on one neighbourhood or landmark in Cairo is perhaps the best way to understand it, bit by bit, rather than trying to understand the city as one whole place.

© Gary Hovland
© Gary Hovland

Flipping over and over through the photographs, I felt overwhelmed by the attempt to describe what is ineffable. It’s a cliche but Cairo defies wholesale characterisation. Eldib ably writes about her version of Cairo but her photographs capture a canvas that reflects a city of overlapping universes. It is hard to fathom that all these people live in the same city — Cairo is more than one place. 

And what will become of Cairo? The city expanded tremendously in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and only the flat desert stands in the way of more expansion. “[Cairo] surges as the waves of the sea with her throngs of folk and can scarcely contain them,” the 14th-century Arab explorer Ibn Battuta wrote.

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The Egyptian government has spent a reported $52 billion on a new administrative capital west of the city; meaning for the first time in more than a thousand years, Cairo will no longer be home to the Egyptian state. An Egyptian state headquartered elsewhere might further neglect Cairo and divert resources to its new rebound.

Conversely, a new capital might be a blessing slightly freeing Cairo from the overbearing presence of an authoritarian government and its coercive apparatus.

It is, however, a safe bet that Cairo will recover its supremacy: Fustat is today a neighbourhood of Cairo, and just as Cairo conquered the old, it will probably conquer the new. Cairo’s story is far from over. 

Cairo Eternal is available at Maison Assouline in Piccadilly.

Maison Assouline – the luxury publisher’s global flagship store in Piccadilly – has an onsite bar, Swans Bar, which has crafted up a cocktail menu (including non-alcohol drinks) inspired by its famed travel series. Here, visitors can expect a chic library ambience – filled with the publisher’s books – tempered by a romantic dose of vintage nostalgia, provided through carefully curated jazz music, a glimmering back bar and bartenders in classic white blazers.

Khelil Bouarrouj is a Washington, DC-based writer and civil rights advocate. His work can be found in the Washington Blade, Palestine Square, and other publications