Cairo, a bustling metropolis that is home to more than 7 million people, has been the talk of Toronto — at least in the halls of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and the Ismaili Centre.
Through a series of lectures, leading scholars of Islamic history, literature, arts, and architecture have been journeying into the thousand-year-old city, describing how its buildings and urban makeup have been reshaped over the centuries, and sharing the historic impressions recorded by medieval visitors in their writings.
The six-lecture series is part of a programme partnership between the Shia Ismaili Muslim community and the Royal Ontario Museum, and is being held in conjunction with the exhibition Cairo Under Wraps: Early Islamic Textiles, which showcases the museum’s renowned collection of Islamic textiles from the 7th-14th centuries, including a number of important Fatimid examples.
“My goal was to tell the complex story of Cairo,” says Professor Nasser Rabbat, who delivered the first talk, titled Cairo: a Brief history of an Islamic Metropolis, at the ROM on 14 July. He explored the city’s architecture and urban growth from the 10th century to the present-day, accompanying his talk with images to deftly highlight the diverse Islamic styles of architecture that developed in the city under a succession of dynasties that include the Tulunids, Fatimids, Mamluks and Ottomans.
“I had no idea Islam was so dynamic and fluid, and thus how this changed and shaped architecture in Cairo,” remarked one attendee, who had come to the lecture to learn more about Islamic architecture after seeing the legacy of the Umayyads during a trip to Spain.
The Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Nasser Rabbat is a world-renowned scholar of Islamic architecture, art, cultures, and urban history, and has written and edited several books on Cairo. He peppered his talk with observations and anecdotes from his very personal life-long engagement with the city.
Professor Rabbat “was inspirational in linking our present to our past,” said Malik Talib, President of the Ismaili Council for Canada. In discussing contemporary Cairo, the professor drew attention to the favourable impact of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s Al-Azhar Park on life in the city. But he also noted critical challenges that regeneration projects face in such a complex urban environment. At the conclusion of the lecture, guests were treated to a special Cairene themed iftar, to break the Ramadan fast in the museum’s main lobby.
“My favourite place in Cairo is the Mosque of Ibn Tulun,” revealed Professor Rabbat in response to a question from an audience member. “I used to go there at the end of the day,” he recalled. “I would climb the minaret and watch the sunset.”
Completed in the 9th century, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun is considered to be the oldest mosque in Egypt that retains its original detail and structure. It has stood sentinel over the vast changes that Cairo has seen from one dynasty to the next. Professor Rabbat’s favourite spot has doubtless been shared by many, who, in the course of history, have made the evening climb up the distinctive spiral stair of its minaret to take in the Cairene sunset.
It certainly made an impression on Nasir Khusraw. In his Safar-nama (Book of Travels), the 11th century Persian poet and Ismaili dai remarked that “with the exception of the walls of Amid and Mayyafariqin, I never saw the likes of this mosque.” He then proceeded to recount the story of how the Imam-Caliph al-Hakim purchased the mosque and its minaret from the descendents of Ibn Tulun, rescuing it from destruction.
Nasir Khusraw adored Cairo, says Alice Hunsberger, author of Nasir Khusraw, The Ruby of Badakhshan. She delivered the third lecture of the series at the Ismaili Centre on 25 October, in which she examined the emergence of Cairo at the centre of the medieval world’s travel itinerary. In addition to Nasir Khusraw, Dr Hunsberger commented on the travels and writings of Ibn Hawqal (10th century) and Ibn Battuta (14th century), often sharing amusing anecdotes of their experiences.
Dr Hunsberger’s talk marked the first public lecture to be held at the Ismaili Centre, Toronto, and was attended by more than 250 people, including senior staff and curators from the Royal Ontario Museum. The day prior to the lecture, Dr Hunsberger held an intimate scholarly conversation about Nasir Khusraw with more than 40 educators at the Ismaili Centre, in which she shared how she had come to study his work.
On 19 November, the Ismaili Centre will host the final lecture in the Cairo series. Delia Cortese of Middlesex University (UK) will embark on a search for the women of medieval Cairo during the Fatimid period from 969 to 1171. She will unpack anecdotes, literary conventions, historical accounts and forged stories to shed light on women’s participation — whether real or perceived — in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the time and place they lived in.
For more information on the Cairo Under Wraps exhibition, the Cairo Lecture Series and to purchase tickets, please visit the Royal Ontario Museum website.