The best place to understand the importance of the River Nile to Cairo and Egypt is from the Windows on the World on the 36th floor of the Ramses Hilton. Every time I visit Cairo, I make a point of quaffing lager there surrounded by swifts and swallows twittering at sunset. To the west, highlighted by the setting sun, are the plateau and the Pyramids. The Moqattam Hills are to the east. North and south, the great river storms out of Africa, traveling in a great curve past the Hilton to the green smudge of the delta up north.

Between the Pyramids and the Moqattam Hills rests the large, wide valley over which modern Cairo sprawls. This valley was once more than eight hundred feet below the sea and some thirty to forty miles across. The enormous river gradually dried up thousands of years ago and became heavily forested and rich in game—elephants, hippopotamus, antelope, and all manner of deer and birds. The river, then as now, teemed with fish. Beautiful sunshine for most of the year coupled with the endless flow of water made life easy for hunters.1 This is why Egypt has one of the oldest civilizations in the world, comparable to that of China along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers or Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates.

Over the centuries the silt brought down through Africa by the mighty river has gradually been deposited on the eastern and western banks of what is now modern Cairo. As the river narrowed, the ports have moved steadily north.

The first Europeans here were Greeks, who built a city at Heliopolis, about four miles south of the Ramses Hilton on the east bank of the Nile. The Romans built Babylon, north of Heliopolis; the Arabs built Al-Fustat/Misr (Cairo) still farther north, and in the late Middle Ages the port moved north of where the Hilton stands now—first to Maks and then to Bulaq, which is now opposite Cairo’s main railway station. As the ports migrated, so did the entrance to the Red Sea–Nile canal from the river. By the 1420s, the entrance was below what is now the Hilton. Looking to the northeast from the Windows on the World, one can still see its outline. When it was filled in 1899, the walls on either side were left, allowing it to retain water. Today the tramway passes right over this forgotten canal—a green pencil line stretching from the Hilton to the railway station.2 One can travel beside the canal today from Cairo to Zagazig, as Marcella and I did in 2006; it remains about one hundred feet wide the entire way.

To see how the river has gradually narrowed, you can take a felucca up the Nile, sailing with a gentle breeze against the current, which in autumn is about half a knot. The old Roman fortress of Babylon is still visible, with a very old Coptic church on top of it. A little group of Coptic churches and a synagogue surround the remains of the Roman city. Here the Egyptian authorities, have erected a sign stating: this was the entrance to the red sea nile canal.

A mass of information exists about the evolution of the canal from the time of the Pharaoh Necho II (610–595 B.C.). Herodotus tells us (Histories) that four steles were erected by Darius (522–486 B.C.) to commemorate the canal’s construction. Berkeley professor Carol A. Redmount in “The Wadi Tumilat and the Canal of the Pharaohs” writes that the steles were placed on elevations so they could be seen by boats on the canal. The westernmost stele was discovered at Tell el-Maskhuta; the others were found along the canal, ending about six kilometers north of Suez. One face of each stele features hieroglyphs, the other cuneiform (in Persian, Elemite, and Babylonian characters).3

Professor Redmount tells us that Herodotus, who visited Egypt in the mid-fifth century B.C., was the first classical author to mention explicitly the canal connecting the Nile to the Red Sea. He said the canal was started by Necho II and completed by Darius. Aristotle, writing in the fourth century B.C., cites Sesostris as the canal’s creator. Ptolomy II, Philadelphus (reigned 285–246 B.C.), records the cutting of the canal through the Wadi Tumilat. He is followed by Diodorus Siculus, who, on a visit to Egypt in 59 B.C., confirmed that the waterway was begun by Necho, continued by Darius, and finally completed by Ptolemy II, who provided a lock to compensate for the rise and fall of the Nile. According to Strabo (64 B.C.–A.D. 24), the canal was 46 meters wide and of sufficient depth to accommodate large ships. In his Natural History, Pliny states that the canal was 100 feet wide and 40 feet deep for a distance of 371/2 Roman miles up to the Bitter Springs. The Alexandrian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus, or Ptolemy, called the canal “the River of Trajan” and indicated that it started from the main Nile stream upriver from Babylon—that is, from Heliopolis. Lucien, an Egyptian official under the Antonine emperors, in about A.D. 170 described a traveler who sailed the canal from Alexandria to Clysma on the Gulf of Suez:

Then came the Arabs.

[The] Caliph Muiz had invested a fortune of his own to conquer Egypt, so he obviously wanted to get back his investment as quickly as possible, and as always the Red Sea Canal was to be implement of his wealth. The customs port of Al Maks, which means “customs tax,” lay in the bend of the river which came almost up to the walls of Kahira on the west side near the canal, and this Mu’iz immediately took over and expanded into a proper dockyard, keeping its tax collecting character but also laying the foundations there for a new port of his own, which immediately took away much of the business that usually went to Fustat-Misr.

Here Mu’iz built six hundred ships and about 77 years later, when Nasir Ibn Khusrau came to Cairo [in the 11th century], seven of his ships were still lying on the river bank. “I, the author of this narrative, Ibn Khusrau says: ‘I have seen them’”. They measured thirty erich by sixty arech (275 feet long by 110 feet abeam). These ships were no doubt a brilliant investment because they could move large quantities of cargo at one time, rather like the modern monstrous oil tankers. Nothing that could make money escaped Mu’iz, and he reorganised the whole tax system into a central collecting body which did away with the local collectors, who used to take a considerable rake-off of their own. In one day he collected over 475,000 US dollars (modern equivalent) in taxes from Fustat-Misr alone.4

In A History of Egypt in the Middle Ages, Stanley Lane Poole tells us, One hundred and twenty thousand labourers were kept at work winter and summer in maintaining and improving dams and canals. The old canal traditionally called the Amnis Trajanus connecting Babylon (Cairo) with the Red Sea was cleaned and reopened in less than a year and corn was sent to Medina by ship instead of by caravan as in the previous year.5

In short, a wealth of evidence from Greek, Roman, and Arab writers states that the canal enabled ships to carry goods from the Nile to the Red Sea and vice versa. Grain was transported from the wheat fields of the Sudan to Rome, Mecca, Arabia, and India. Chinese porcelain and silk could be brought to Rome, Venetian glass to India.

In 642, Amir ibn Al-As dredged out the old canal, which was filling with silt brought down by the Nile. A century later there was a rebellion in Mecca and Medina, and in 767 the Abbasid Abu Ja’far al-Mansur blocked the canal to stop corn supplies from reaching Mecca. Shortly afterward, in 780, during the caliphate of Al Mahdi the canal was reopened. Then in 870 Ahmad ibn Tulun dredged the canal once again, and a further expansion took place in 955.

The next huge improvement to the canal was caxrried out by Sultan al-Malik an-Nasir in 1337, who assigned no fewer than 100,000 men to the job. He also built the Nilometer on the south of Roda island, which can be seen to this day. It measured the height of the river and thus served as a flood warning.

This final canal widening and dredging is summarized by historian James Aldridge in Cairo: Biography of a City, based on descriptions by the fifteenth-century Egyptian historian al-Madkrizi:

The land which emerged round Elephant Island was marshy and soft and Makrizi, who tells us all this, says the Mamluks used to practise archery there. But in the middle of the fourteenth century Al Nazir joined the Red Sea canal to the new bank of the river through this new swampy land, thus draining it. This new exit for the old canal was called Khalig Al Nasir, and it remained the exit of the Red Sea canal until this century, although it was later diverted again and called the Ismailiya Canal. It met the river where the Egyptian Pharaonic Museum is now, near the Nile Hilton. This final version of Nazir’s canal was only filled in at the end of the nineteenth century to make what is now Rameses II Street, and anyone with a moment to spare on top of the Nile Hilton can look down on this street and trace the line of the old canal right up to the station square which was once the port of Al Maks.6

As we have noted, one of the Chinese names for Cairo was Misr, a name derived from the pharaonic name for the river port in Babylon. As time passed, Al-Fustat and Misr became interchangeable names for the port and the city of Cairo, “no doubt because all trade with Egypt was directed eventually to the river port of Misr or it came from Misr,” Aldrich explains. “So it seems logical that sooner or later it was all known as Fustat-Misr (which is what al-Makrizi often calls it) and then simply as Misr. Today, Egyptians still call both their country and Cairo simply Misr.”

On November 26, 2004, the Oriental Ceramic Society of France held a conference in Paris on trade between China and the Mediterranean prior to the sixteenth century. The conference produced a wealth of fascinating detail about the export of Chinese ceramics to Egypt, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean.7

Excavation sites in the southern suburbs of Cairo have produced Chinese ceramics dating from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries. In “Chinese Porcelain from Fustat,” archaeologist R. L. Hobson describes the significance of the porcelain and ceramics finds:

…Turning over the piles of fragments stored at Fustat and in the Arab Museum in Cairo…we realise most clearly the extent and antiquity of the trade between Egypt and the Far East. There are, for instance, pieces of buff stoneware with cream glaze mottled with green and brownish yellow, which came from China in the Tang dynasty; there are several varieties of celadon porcelain which tell of Sung traders. And there are blue and white porcelains ranging from the Yuan to the end of the Ming period….

The typical Lung ch’uan and ch’u-chou celadons of the Sung, Yuan and Ming periods abound, bowls and dishes with carved designs or with reliefs of fishes or rosettes, things too well known to call for detailed notice….

It was only natural that the volume of trade with China should increase in the Ming dynasty…. This is evidenced in Egypt by the large quantity of blue and white porcelain, of which fragments abound not only at Fustat, but all around Cairo.

…Among the earliest specimens is the bottom of a bowl with the reign-mark of Yung Lo (1403–1424)”—viz Zhu Di.8

This extraordinary trade in porcelain and ceramics was lubricated by the Karim. The Karim had their own warehouses ( fonduqs) stretching from Cairo to India and beyond. They built their own ships and sometimes leased them to others. They also operated as bankers, which proved to be their undoing.

In 1398 the Karim made a massive loan to the Mamluk sultan, to finance an army to halt Tamburlaine’s march toward Cairo. When the loans were called, the sultan came up short. Al-Ashraf Barsbay nationalized the Nile–Red Sea canal to replenish his coffers, setting the prices at which goods brought through Egypt could be bought and sold. With a single stroke, the security for the Karim’s loans—trade through the canal—unraveled. The Karim were ruined within decades. When China withdrew from the world stage in the 1430s, after Zheng He’s final voyage, Chinese goods came no more.

Cairo: The Quintessential Timeless Islamic City

Cairo stands today just as it did in 1433. The fortified city has withstood invaders for five centuries. During the Mongol wars, Saladin’s fortifications provided a refuge for all of Islam, making Cairo a haven not only for the caliph but for philosophers, artists, craftsmen, and teachers as well as hundreds of thousands of ordinary people fleeing Genghis Khan and his successors. Enormous wealth flowed into the city and was deployed on a sumptuous array of mosques, madrassahs, mausoleums, and hospitals. This is the domed medieval Cairo that Zheng He would have found.9

At first sight, Islamic towns and cities appear chaotic to Western eyes, with their elaborate, twisting streets leading higgledy-piggledy in all directions. They had, however, a master plan. At “the centre of the Islamic city stands the Friday Mosque; to it and from it everything flows as if it were a heart.”10 Next to the mosque stands the madrassah, where Islamic law and theology are taught, the forerunner of the Western university. Around mosque and madrassah sprawls the bazaar with its khans and caravanserais where merchants rest, feed their camels, and store their goods in safety.

Trade and religion go hand in hand under Islam, which affords merchants great prestige (Muhammad was one). The status of the merchant was evidenced by the distance of his shop from the Friday mosque: perfume, spice, and incense shops were nearest, followed by gold merchants and silversmiths. Cobblers were farthest away. Mosque and market were both within easy reach of the caravanserais.

The central square played host to all manner of entertainment, resounding with the cries of snake charmers, bears, dancers, and storytellers. Radiating outward beyond the bazaar was a jumbled assortment of residential districts divided by race and religion. Surrounding them was a defensive wall (in Cairo it was Saladin’s) to keep out Mongols and robbers.

At the center of medieval Cairo was the city’s Friday mosque, Al-Azhar, founded in 970, as soon as the enclosure walls of Al-Qahira were completed. It is perhaps the most prestigious mosque in the world and is connected to the world’s oldest university. For more than a thousand years Al-Azhar University has provided Muslim students from around the world with free board and a theological education focused on the Koran and Islamic law, logic, grammar, rhetoric, astronomy, and science.

For centuries, the mosque on Fridays has been packed. As it overflows, men lay their mats outside on the pavement. They pray in uniform lines, rich and poor side by side, old men and young, golden cloaks next to dirty kashmaks. All men are equal in Islam; no boxes are reserved for the gentry. Inside, Al-Azhar resembles London’s Southwark Cathedral, though it is not quite as tall and rather more austere. Gowned students, seated between gray marble columns, are taught by a wizened imam perched in a high chair. (The gowns of Oxford and Cambridge were copied from those worn by Islamic students, just as our university “chair” is derived from the imam’s perch.)

The Al-Azhar competes with the mosques of Sayyid Hasan, al-Ghoury, and Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay—all within a stone’s throw. The Egyptian president worships at the Mosque of Al-Azhar. Their muezzins call the faithful to prayer five times a day. Traditionally, muezzins are chosen from the blind, who cannot see down into the houses where unveiled women are dressing.

In the square, Cairo’s festivals, the moulids, are held and the Sufi brotherhood prays with banners and drums; music blasts all night long. Vast crowds come up from the delta for the holiday of Eid, congregating at the cafés around the square, each one favored by a particular delta village.

One can readily understand why Cairo would have been a magnet for all peoples of Islam, including Zheng He and his fellow Muslims returning from Mecca. In broad terms, foreigners lived in Cairo, white native Egyptians, the fellahin, lived on the delta and in the Nile Valley. With the holiest mosque in the world situated next to the largest market in the world, the city had everything. Here they could study the Koran, sell their goods, and enjoy the city’s storied evening delights.

Today, as in the Middle Ages, Cairo is a city of good-natured people living in close quarters, bustling and jostling from one corner to the next. To motorists and pedestrians making headway through the crowds, a few hundred yards can seem like a mile. Cairo’s population is polyglot, full of the offspring of Sudanese, Armenian, Jewish, Georgian, Persian, North African, and Indian merchants. Indeed, Egyptians intermarried with the descendants of conquerors and merchants to such an extent that today it is difficult to find a “pure” Egyptian.

Zheng He’s sailors would have seen, alongside Al-Azhar Mosque, two imposing complexes: the madrassah and the Wikala of al-Ghouri, named after one of the later Mamluk sultans. Wikala is the Egyptian name for a caravanserai. Both caravanserai and madrassah complemented the mosque and were frequently funded by a charity, or wakf, set up by the sultan or a wealthy merchant.

Cairo’s madrassah, typical of an early Islamic university, is a large, rectangular building with an open courtyard at its center, surrounded by broad cloisters. In the cloisters, small groups of students debate with teachers; great importance is placed on mental agility. While Europe stumbled through the Dark Ages, Cairo safeguarded the world’s largest library. Here, the great books of the ancients, including Aristotle and Plato, were stored before at last being summoned to aid the Enlightenment.

In the caravanserai of al-Ghoury, merchants from China laden with gold, silk, and ceramics could rest in simple, clean surroundings, a stone’s throw from the cool mosque. In Zheng He’s time, there were eleven caravanserais in Cairo, twenty-three markets for international trade, fifty smaller markets (souks) for local trade, and eleven race courses.

Al-Madkrizi gave a vivid account of life in the caravanserais in the 1420s. Every sort of spice was for sale, along with all manner of silks and more mundane goods—fruits, nuts, and jams galore. Merchants carried with them their chests of gold and silver, all their worldly wealth. Theft was common. The punishment (still enforced in Saudi Arabia) was severing of the right hand.

In the late Middle Ages, Cairo was the world’s leading emporium for three of the most important commodities of international trade—gold, spice, and perfume. Cairo had become bullion capital of the world as a result of Islam’s expansion. Arab caliphs, needing ever more gold to lubricate trade, initially adopted Byzantine coins, overstamping them with the caliph’s head. After Arab armies overran North Africa, they captured the gold trade from Mali and Guinea, which had by far the largest gold seams.

Arabs’ domination of the gold trade led to the gold dinar becoming the currency of Mediterranean trade. The rulers of Castile, Aragon, and León copied Almoravid dinars, which they called morbetinos.

Cairo’s spice bazaar, the Khan el-Khalili, faces the Al-Azhar Mosque. It was built by a wealthy Mamluk of that name in 1382 and still teems with business six hundred years later. The most prestigious part of the bazaar, nearest the mosque, is where the fabled incense is found. Brought from the wadis of southern Arabia, these concentrated essences are sold by the ounce, diluted with alcohol one part to nine for perfume, one to twenty for eau de toilette, one to thirty for eau de cologne. Cairo’s shops still maintain the medieval tradition of selling perfumes in large bottles alongside herbs and spices, and Egypt remains a source for many of the essences used by French couture houses.

In the Middle Ages perfume and spice were equally valuable. The spice trade with the East, transacted through Cairo, was the cornerstone of Venetian wealth.

Europeans devoured spices, the better to make palatable their salted meat and dried fish. In addition to enlivening food, spices were extensively used by apothecaries. Purges were accomplished by cassia or rhubarb; theriac, made of an assortment of herbs and spices, was a panacea for ills ranging from constipation to fever and even the plague. Ginger jams were said to encourage the flow of urine. Cinnamon assisted menstruation and was valuable for windy colic; nutmeg relieved coughs and asthma. As Iris Origo points out in The Merchant of Predo, there was hardly an Eastern spice, however rare or expensive, that did not reach the cooking pots or medicine chests of Italian bankers and merchants.

Walking outward from the spice market today, one encounters the brass and copperware shops, stacked with Arab coffeepots, water jugs, tabletops, coal scuttles, and trays. Tiny pieces of mother-of-pearl, bone, and ebony are inlaid in intricate mosaic patterns on wooden boxes. Although amber prayer beads are used to count the mercies of Allah, much as Catholics use rosaries, amber appears less valuable in the marketplace than copper.

Farther out, there are leather and clothing stalls. Egyptian men, like their medieval predecessors, wear galabayas, collarless tunics resembling large, floppy nightshirts. (Caftans are the more colorful version, embroidered at the front and on the hems.) Women seek dowry dresses made by desert Bedouin. The market encompasses a world. Remarkably, almost everything sold here today was available to Zheng He’s sailors and Chinese merchants as they passed through Cairo in 1433. It is an easy passage downstream from Cairo with the current. Just north of Cairo the Nile divides, the Western Rosetta Channel leading to Alexandria, linked to the Nile by a canal. In Alexandria the Mamluk authorities insisted all passing ships deposited maps they had used for their journey. These were copied and the originals returned. That done, the Chinese drifted into the Mediterranean.

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