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When the Arab conqueror, Amr, first swept through Egypt from 639 to 641, he intended to make Alexandria the capital. But, the caliph in Medina, Umar, knew that during the summer months of inundation Alexandria was often cut off from the rest of the country by the flooding. He therefore ordered Amr to establish the capital instead on the east side of the Nile at at the site of an old town named "Babylon" where it would have uninterrupted access to supply lines connecting it with the Arabian Peninsula.

Amr called this place al-Fustat, "the tent", because, so the tale went, on returning to his tent there from Alexandria he found a dove nesting among its goat-hair hangings. Amr declared the site sacred and gave orders that the tent not be disturbed. After  the dove had raised her brood and was gone, Amr built his mosque on this site (now located in present "Old Cairo"), and around it grew up Misr al-Fustat, "the Settlement of the Tent." The word misr is not only a present-day colloquial name for Cairo but the official Arabic name for Egypt itself as well. (origins of term "Egypt" )

The humility Muslims strive for and regard as a primary religious duty is marked by their call to place themselves in submission (islama ) to God (see Overview of Islam). This goal deeply impressed the Coptic and pagan Egyptians when a delegation of them went to call on Amr at his camp. After their visit, they wrote to their Byzantine governor, "'We found a people who love death better than life, and set humility above pride; who have no desire or enjoyment in this world, who sit in the dust and eat upon their knees, but frequently and thoroughly wash, and humble themselves in prayer; a people in whom the stronger can scarce be distinguished from the weaker, or the master from the slave.'" (See Desmond Stewart, Great Cairo: Mother of the World (Cairo, 1968), 40)

Fustat grew quickly. By the end of the seventh century buildings seven to fourteen stories high were crowded together in a settlement that stretched five kilometers along the east bank of the Nile. A team of excavators from the American University in Cairo led by Professor George Scanlon found the remains of goods from Spain to China. Fustat in the Middle Ages was known as one of the most prestigious and important cities in the world. It struck travelers with awe, even those who had seen Baghdad. European cities copied its sewage and water systems. At its height, 500,000 people lived there.

In 1168, menaced by the Crusaders ruling Jerusalem, the wizeer (vizier) Shawar set the city on fire to prevent its occupation. The flames raged for fifty-four days. The population fled to the newer compound, al-Qahira, to the north, and Fustat was gone. The eleventh century historian Makrisi reported that the locals called this tragedy "Fustat's judgment day."

 

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Last Revised: July 8, 2007