Fustat, Egypt by Serena Alwani

Al-Fustat (“the town of the tent”) was established between 640-3, and is frequently discussed in scholarship as the foundational city for modern Cairo. It is significant as the first Islamic city of Egypt and strategic base for the Islamic conquests of North Africa and the Byzantine Empire. Initially founded as a garrison town, it fast became a bustling urban center and was the capital of Egypt for almost 200 years. The nature of settlement of Al-Fustat and its organization reflect both political realities of the mid-7th century, as well as facets of Muslim rule.

The fall of Byzantine Alexandria, led by commander ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, marked the establishment of Muslim control over Egypt, a vast land valued highly for its strategic location and wealth. Establishment of Egypt’s capital at the new site of Al-Fustat was ultimately decided upon due to anxieties on the part of the Caliph Omar that commander ‘Amr might be tempted to establish his own country, alongside strategic considerations. Namely, Al-Fustat’s location on the east of the Nile meant that it and its periodic flooding would not pose problems for communication and deployment of troops from the Arabian peninsula. Arab sources cite the choice of location in mythic and providential terms. A dove is said to have laid an egg in the tent of ‘Amr just prior to his march against Alexandria. The famous Mosque of ‘Amr was purportedly built on the site of his tent, forming the center of the settlement, with a governor’s palace attached. Notably, the first structures were formed of rough brick, and there was little differentiation between the governor’s house and those of other soldiers, demonstrating a lack of emphasis on marking social hierarchy in this way. Surrounding the central structures were houses forming the “Quarter of the People of the Banner/Flag” (“khittat Ahl al-Raya”), those of the next highest commanding strata. In this way the initial layout of Al-Fustat reflected the tribal and political organization of the soldiers, useful for both control and the quelling of feuds.

While political considerations were central to its foundation, the city’s function evolved as additional phases in the conquest were concluded. The city became known for its wealth, high-rise buildings and production in textiles, oils and wares, among other industries. The 10th century geographer Al-Muqaddasi called Al-Fustat “the glory of Islam and the commercial center of the universe”. Native resistance to Muslim conquerors was purportedly minimal, understood to be the simple exchange of one foreign conqueror for another, and much of the city’s development is attributed to local expertise. Economic success at Al-Fustat is marked by wares from as far away as China and Spain at the site. As in other conquered locations, and despite segregation between ruling and ruled populations, there was marked tolerance for existing settlers. This is notable in this case by the establishment of the Ben Ezra synagogue in the 9th century, surviving to this day and famous as the site of discovery of the Geniza documents.


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