one-man photo show at the Brunei Gallery, London, April-June 2008
Cairo, Ageless City. Cairo was founded in the First Century of the Hijra (7th Century AD) by the victorious Arab general ‘Amr ibn al-‘As. He had just finished conquering the former Byzantine province of Egypt (Baghdad was built two centuries later); Cairo (al-Qahira) means “the Conquering”, while the Arabic word for Egypt, Misr, means “military camp”. ‘Amr built his mosque at Fustat, just south of today’s megalopolis; better situated, the riverside site to the north soon took its place, though Fustat is full of atmosphere and ghosts even today. The Arab world was ruled for a century from Damascus, then for three more from Baghdad, before the Mongols, Seljuks and other non-Arabs moved in. In Egypt, this fragmentation led to a succession of locally-based dynasties: the Fatimids, then the Ayyubids, then the Mamlukes, then the Ottomans, each gracing the city with mosques, madrasas (theological seminaries), hermitages, tombs, fountains and other civic buildings in a style characteristic of the time. And Cairo grew and grew, absorbing immigrants and indigenous people from the countryside. They mixed and multiplied and made the city into what it was already when the Thousand and One Nights were written down—and what it is today, the greatest of all Arab cities, one of the greatest in the world.
Egypt in 1975: a year and a half after the Ramadan/Yom Kippur/October War (depending on your point of view), the situation in Egypt and the Arab World generally could best be described as pregnant: tense but stagnant, with a whole nexus of events with far-reaching regional and global importance about to happen, but not yet discernible. King Faysal of Saudi Arabia was about to be assassinated, and the Lebanese Civil War about to begin. The US was about to end its involvement in Viet Nam, while the oil supply and price crisis of 1974 that had increased prices several-fold was in the process of starting a recession in the US and other OECD countries.
In Egypt, still dependent on Soviet weapons and support, Sadat would turn towards the US, asking his National Assembly to abrogate the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union; relations with the USSR were cooling, though not yet replaced by an active US presence or financial aid. But none of these impending events had happened; Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem and the process which led to a peace treaty with Israel and the recovery of Sinai were not yet imaginable. Soviet aid was mostly military, with the Nasserite socialist system stifling growth. The economy was growing, but more slowly than the population: in 1975, there were 37 million Egyptians, half the population today; 6 million lived in Cairo, again half the current number.
The Exhibition: In February 1975 I spent two weeks at the Egyptian Library in Cairo, doing research for a thesis on mediaeval Arabic poetry. After the library closed at 2 PM each day, I would wander the streets of Old Cairo, from the ancient settlement at Fustat to the crowded popular neighbourhoods between al-Azhar, Bab Zuwaila and Bab al-Futuh, with their mostly Mamluke monuments providing an Arabian-Nights background for the gritty daily struggle of the poorer Cairenes. I was especially drawn to the area around the Mosque of al-Hakim bi-Amr Illah, built around the year 1000 AD by an eccentric (or inspired, depending on your point of view) Fatimid ruler who was allegedly assassinated by his own family.
My photos show the daily life of ordinary people against the backdrop of decaying monuments of the past; not unique to Cairo, certainly, but one is struck by the sheer numbers of both people and monuments crammed into a relatively small area, and the dignity and humanity of the Cairenes despite it all. The volume and scale of construction in Cairo since the economic changes of the late 1970’s and 1980’s give these photos a documentary value in addition to their aesthetic qualities; there are far more horse- or donkey-carts than the occasional automobile venturing into these neighbourhoods, with their narrow, crowded and often unpaved streets.
The old neighbourhoods are dominated by the Islamic monuments of what the West calls the Middle Ages: mosques of course, as well as seminaries (madrasas) and the more homely sabils or sabil-kuttabs (water-fountain and Koranic school), hammams or bath-houses, and mausoleums. The earliest monuments, from the time of the Muslim conquest of the Byzantine province of Egypt, are a bit further afield (the Mosque of ‘Amr at Fustat), but in the space of three miles and a walk of two hours, the visitor can see examples of all the rest. The styles range from Fatimid (al-Hakim bi-amr Illah), early and late Mamluke (madrasa of Sultans Ghauri, Qalawun and many others), to the Ottoman buildings (mosques of Sinan and Muhammad ‘Ali, Sabil-Kuttab of Muhammad ‘Ali), mixing earlier Cairene styles with those of Europe (freely interpreted by the Ottomans) and Constantinople.
Fashion. The 1970’s were visible, in a more frivolous way: bell-bottoms were in, for men and women not wearing traditional dress. Men, then as now, prefer the comfortable gellabiya. For women, the “Islamic” head-scarf was still rare except on older women or those visibly from the country; the black cloak (‘abaya) less so, but worn with the face uncovered and the ladies with neither do not seem self-conscious in the least.
The Photos: I shot one roll of colour slides and one of black-and-white photographs, which themselves have a bit of a story: the slides and negatives were left behind in Beirut as the Civil War began there later in the year, in a house that was to be virtually destroyed in an artillery barrage. I was able to retrieve them in 2005, the slides severely deteriorated but the negatives only slightly the worse for wear.
The photos have been reprinted on archival paper in an edition limited to four each, and are available for sale. If you are interested to know more, please post a request for details on the site, or email Ted at gortonted[at]gmail.com.