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Cairo: Histories of a City Hardcover – June 1, 2011

4.5 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


In the voluminous literature on Cairo, when one would have though everything had already been said (and oft repeated), here comes a new, quirky, original book that takes flight over the full, if fragmented, range of the region's histories. I can think of no other biography of the city that touches on the entire time range between pharaonic and modern times and straddles both sides of the changing course of the Nile and the desert outreaches. AlSayyad is sensitive to themes of Egyptian cultural continuity and the country's ongoing contradictions between openness and tolerance, on the one hand, and fierce religious sectarian and ideological shifts on the other. (Janet Abu-Lughod, Department of Sociology, New School University)

Nezar AlSayyad's invigorating and innovative new account of Cairo adroitly interweaves stories of the city's people and places with those of the city's storytellers. Cairo encompasses the entire life of the great metropolis, and AlSayyad meticulously sets right myths and misconceptions about the City Victorious and its monuments. This will be the standard account for years to come." (Dell Upton, Department of Art History, University of California, Los Angeles)

This is a book as grand as the city it describes. In telling the story of Cairo, Nezar AlSayyad places in the foreground its great architectural monuments and the historical figures who shaped its growth. These are drawn against a rich background portraying the broader political history of Egypt. Cairo: Histories of a City captures both the built detail and the historical landscape of a remarkable metropolis. (Timothy Mitchell, Department of Middle East and Asia Languages and Cultures, Columbia University)

Nezar AlSayyad establishes new intellectual horizons which allow him to narrate urban history with its complex social and political dimensions through the architecture of the city. In this tour de force, AlSayyad opens our eyes and minds to Cairo's place and time in the larger history of humanity. (Gamal al-Ghitany,author of Zayni Barakat, and Khitat al-Ghitani)

[An] exceptionally absorbing and astute, cultural and architectural history of one of the world's most captivating cities...AlSayyad structures his book smartly by place rather than strictly by period: each of the 12 chapters brings the reader to a new section of Cairo in an inviting, informed journey through its development. He introduces readers to the history and architecture of, among others, Coptic Cairo; the noted mosques of al-Azhar and a-Anwar; the Gezira Palace; and medieval Cairo. The final chapters, on the eras of Nasser and Mubarak, are especially gripping; AlSayyad warns that the city has been given to a "new elite" and the preservation of old Cairo for tourists is turning it into a Disney-like theme park. An important second thread of the book sees Cairo as inspiration for artists such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and writers Naguib Mahfouz and Alaa Al Aswany. The author's writing is elegantly clear and evocative, drawing the reader into the "messy and difficult" but "vibrant and innovative" city, leaving one wanting to know what he has to say about the politically transformed city's future. (Publishers Weekly 2011-03-21)

A timely and often surprising series of vignettes serving to trace the physical and cultural evolution of the city from the pharaonic period to the present. Each of the dozen vignettes covers a specific historical period, and AlSayyad includes many fascinating details about historical figures and their impact on the city as it grew from a tiny settlement to a great metropolis. Much of the narrative is driven by the observations and activities of contemporary residents or visitors to the city. Ibn-Khaldun, the renowned Arab traveler and historian, is utilized to provide views of medieval Cairo in the 14th century under the rule of Mamluks. This is an enjoyable tribute to a great, vital city that remains, sadly, unfamiliar to most Westerners. (Jay Freeman Booklist 2011-04-15)

AlSayyad presents a deeply knowledgeable yet highly personal account of the city's history in its various reincarnations--from Memphis, the first capital of united upper and lower Egypt, founded by the Pharaoh Menes around 3100 B.C., to the present...The book is profusely illustrated with maps and photographs, most of them taken by AlSayyad himself. They add enormously to the value of the text, bringing the descriptions of buildings and streets alive with color. Just as the text narrates the history of Cairo from a personal point of view, the photos indicate the standpoint of the photographer as much as they illustrate the text. Some are standard shots of buildings familiar to anyone who has visited and walked around Cairo. The best include the people of the city and their relationship to its historic monuments...[This is] a book of magisterial scope. Those who plan to visit Cairo should read this book first. Those who have visited often or lived there for years will find new appreciations for aspects of the city they know, as well as features they never previously encountered. (Joel Beinin San Francisco Chronicle 2011-07-24)

AlSayyad's book, a colorful sweep of over 3,000 years of urban and architectural history, is as much a short genealogy of Cairo's many commentators and portraitists as it is of its buildings. He narrates a broad history of urban development from the Pharaonic capital of Memphis, "the first Cairo," on the Nile's west bank, to the Ptolemaic, Roman-Byzantine and Arab-Islamic cities that developed on top of and adjacent to each other on the river's east bank. Each chapter begins at an iconic Cairo landmark and tells a history of the building's era, bringing in both neighboring architecture and contemporary voices. (Frederick Deknatel The National 2011-09-16)

This ambitious, timely volume attempts the colossal feat of tracing the history of Cairo, from its ancient to modern incarnations, through a case-study approach to its urban landscape...This work provides a lucid overview of Cairo's architectural and political history, and some food for thought. (E. A. Waraksa Choice 2011-10-01)

About the Author

Nezar AlSayyad is Professor of Architecture, Planning and Urban History, and Chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; Apparent First Edition edition (May 2, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674047869
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674047860
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,159,868 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Susan Southworth on August 28, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Does anyone know the evolution of Egypt's eternal city better than Nezar AlSayyad? He has written books about Cairo before, "The Streets of Islamic Cairo" in the first flush of infatuation in 1981 and "Cities and Caliphs" in 1991 as his blind love ended. Now, we get AlSayyad's fond but clear-eyed expertise on his city when it is most needed to understand the revolution in process. The histories quickly move through Memphis, ancient Egypt and the Coptic Enclave to expand on the city of the Fatimids, Mamluks, Ottomans.

The final third of the book is devoted to the period from the 19th century to the dawn of the 21st century. The author skeptically or regretfully portrays the museumification of historic quarters that replace "craft-workers and small shops" with cafes and tourist-oriented facilities. Illegally constructed neighborhoods for migrants and poor residents became autonomous through government neglect, and were forced to develop their own social institutions and networks. "In the late 1980's and early 1990's, Islamist organizations began to establish roots there and the government's laissez-faire approach changed to one of hostility and repression, culminating in confrontations between residents and the state." At the opposite end of the economic scale, lavish shopping malls and gated luxury neighborhoods of leisure, consumption and residences such as Dreamland were developed.

The book is extensively illustrated with the author's clear maps and beautiful color photographs, augmented with historic illustrations including Jean-Leon Gerome's gorgeous painting "La Priere au Caire." The narrative is highly readable, making it the ideal resource for scholars and Arab Spring commentators but also for armchair travelers and readers discovering the fascination of Egyptian novelists.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is on the Rorotoko list. Professor AlSayyad's interview on "Cairo" ran as the Rorotoko Cover Feature on August 31, 2011 (and can be read in the Rorotoko archive).
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It's a surprise birthday present for me that I don't know about, but I bet I'll enjoy it. :-)
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
AlSayyad facilitates understanding of Cairo's long history by focusing discussion of historical epochs on corresponding districts, edifices, and architecture. Treatment of the eventful medieval and early modern periods is especially rewarding. The whirlwind evolution of Cairo since I spent a year there during '83-'84 (when there were merely some 10 million inhabitants) has produced a place that, I'm sure, I would scarcely recognize. Sic transit. And quid nunc....
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