On Cairo: Histories of a City


Histories of a City: the many hands that shaped today’s Cairo

Frederick Deknatel, The National, September 16, 2011

One of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s most famous Orientalist paintings, Prayer on the Rooftops of Cairo, is backwards. The men in the scene are facing north in prayer, not south-east towards Mecca. Under the shadow of two Mamluk minarets with the mosque of Mohammed Ali in the distance, perched atop the Citadel, the Cairenes on the canvas pray just after sunset, with a sliver of the moon in the sky. It’s an idyllic, invented scene that Gérôme, one of the most accomplished Orientalists of his day, painted in his studio in France, embellishing it to suit his viewers’ desire for the exotic. Its inaccuracy was beside the point. This painting, like so many that Gérôme made in the late 19th century, captivated its European audience.

Nezar AlSayyad includes a large detail of this painting spread over two pages in Cairo: Histories of a City. AlSayyad’s book, a colourful 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 neighbouring architecture and contemporary voices. Gérôme’s work is among those accumulated impressions of the city, from ancient scribes and medieval chroniclers to colonial-era artists and modern historians. But in reversing the direction of the men in prayer, Gérôme’s painting suggests the role of imagination and misunderstanding not only in explaining and portraying Cairo, but in planning and developing it too.

Read the rest at The National.

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