This exhibition recounts a veritable urban saga: the history of the city of Cairo.
Nicknamed Umm al-dunya in Arabic – ‘Mother of the World’, no less – Cairo greatly influenced the Islamic world throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. Even today its rich architectural heritage provides a tangible image of that power, as do the masterpieces held in its museums: glazed ceramics, precious textiles, inlaid metalwork, and enamelled glassware in shimmering colours.
Cairo – a multi-layered world unto itself – is above all many-sided, being an agglomeration of several urban clusters enclosed within a wall built by Saladin in the twelfth century. Its rise had begun in the seventh century when Egypt’s new masters, the Arabs, decided to found a city, Fustat, near a fortress on the banks of the Nile. In 969 the Fatimid caliphs, seeking to rival their counterparts in Baghdad and Cordoba, erected a vast palatial complex dubbed al-Qahira, ‘the victorious’, from which the whole city ultimately took its name.
Cairo reached its heyday under the Mameluke sultans (1250–1517) when it became the centre of an empire. The sultans endowed the city with
palaces, mosques, madrasas, and burial complexes. Although Cairo became a peripheral, rather than central, capital once it was incorporated into the Ottoman empire, its aura remained intact. Cairo was where nineteenth-century Europe truly discovered, with amazement, the Islamic arts. Thanks to an exceptional loan of some twenty works from the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, the exhibition will offer a glimpse of the grandeur of this city as a leading artistic, economic and cultural centre.