From Cairo to the NAC: Egypt Builds a New Capital City
From Cairo to the NAC: Egypt Builds a New Capital City
On July 11, 2018 Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi laid the first stone of what was to become Egypt’s new capital.
The city is so new it still does not have a name. Currently called the New Administrative Capital or NAC, the area covers 170,000 feddans (or 714 square kilometres, roughly the size of Singapore) and will house Egypt’s government and financial district. Thirty-four government districts, including the presidential palace, are expected to move to the new capital by June 2019.
Other countries have done this before. Brazil, for example, moved its capital in 1960 from the coastal city of Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia, a city planned from scratch and built at the top of Brazil’s highlands. Abuja, a planned city built in the 1980s, replaced Lagos as Nigeria’s capital in 1991.
Ending Cairo’s thousand-year reign as capital
Developed in response to Cairo’s congestion and swelling population, the NAC is expected to have 350,000 housing units and thousands more of public facilities (schools, hospitals, entertainment centres) to accommodate 6.5 million people. The megalopolis is envisioned to be Egypt’s first “smart city”, blending high technology with a planned green space to rival New York’s Central Park.
Egypt’s move to a shiny, new capital will end Cairo’s thousand-year reign as the country’s centre. Cairo (Arabic Al-Qāhirah, “The Victorious”) has been the capital of Egypt since the year 969. Now one of the largest cities in Africa, Cairo is home to around 18 million people, a population projected to swell to 40 million by 2050.
As surprising as the move was, this is not Egypt’s first time to change capitals. Read on as we trace the roots of this amazing city.
Cairo: Modern and Ancient
Founded on the east bank of the life-giving Nile, Cairo straddles the ancient and modern worlds. At the edges of the bustling urban centre stand the Pyramids of Giza, the obelisk marking the site of the Lower Egypt capital of Heliopolis, and numerous architectural monuments from ages past.
Historic Cairo, composed of five separate areas of the old city in the heart of the modern metropolis, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. It is one of the oldest Islamic cities in the world, reaching its zenith in the 14th Century. Historic Cairo now has hundreds of registered historic monuments spanning a period of 1,300 years, including mosques, madrasas, hammams, fountains, and fortifications.
The original site of Egypt’s ancient capital was actually 24 kilometres (15 miles) southwest of modern-day Cairo, in the ancient city of Memphis. Now largely in ruins, Memphis used to be a bustling city founded, according to tradition, around 2925 BC by Menes, the legendary king who first united the two prehistoric kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt.
The name “Memphis” is a Greek version of the Egyptian Men-nefer, which is the name of a pyramid built in honor of the 6th Dynasty King Pepi I. Another term for Memphis, Hut-ka-Ptah (“mansion of the ka of Ptah”; ka means soul and Ptah is the local god of Memphis), translates to Aigyptos in Greek, a name later applied to the country (“Egypt”) as a whole.
Memphis was destroyed during a siege of invading Assyrians around 680 BC. Assyria collapsed sixty-eight years later, in 612 BC, leaving Egypt independent–but only briefly.
In 525 BC, the Persians took Memphis, putting Egypt under Persian rule for more than a hundred years. When Alexander the Great marched into Egypt with his army composed of Macedonians and Greeks in 332 BC, the Egyptians were on the verge of overthrowing the Persians and welcomed Alexander as a liberator. He took Egypt without a fight and used Memphis as his headquarters. A sizeable Greek population began to call Memphis home.
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Alexandria and the Ptolemaic Dynasty
After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, Egypt came under the reign of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ruled the country for three centuries. They didn’t use Memphis as their base, however. Instead, they ruled from the capital city of Alexandria, the port city founded and designed (and named) by the Macedonian conqueror.
Ptolemy I Soter (“Saviour”), the first ruler of the dynasty, was Alexander’s childhood friend and general. He brought Alexander’s body back to Alexandria to be entombed, and emerged victorious in the succession war that followed Alexander’s untimely death. Ptolemy proclaimed himself pharaoh of Egypt and ruled from the city where his friend was buried. Ptolemy I is now remembered as the creator of the Library of Alexandria, the largest library of the ancient world.
According to historians, the Ptolemaic pharaohs, sequestered in this Greek city in the midst of the African country they rule, remained Greek in language and traditions. Cleopatra VII Philopator (“Father-Loving”, a common royal epithet among the Hellenistic monarchs), the last Ptolemy to rule Egypt, was the only member of the dynasty to venture out of Alexandria and who took the time to learn and speak the native tongue of her constituents.
Rise of the Romans
The Ptolemaic Dynasty have had early relations with the Romans before the Romans took absolute control of Egypt. To illustrate, Ptolemy VI was aided by Rome during the siege of the Seleucid king Atiochus IV.
It wasn’t until Ptolemy XI Alexander II’s reign when Rome’s control over Egyptian political affairs became more overt. In 88 BC, Ptolemy XI gave both Egypt and Cyprus to Rome, and he was put on the throne by the Roman general Cornelius Sulla. Rome at this time was starting to grow in power, absorbing the Greek states in its path. The Ptolemies allied with the Romans and paid tribute in the form of grain and other resources in order to retain their power in Egypt.
The Ptolemies and the Romans became even more intertwined during the reign of Cleopatra. Cleopatra VII rose to the Egyptian throne in 51 BC, co-reigning with her younger brother Ptolemy XIII, until he and his advisers stripped her of the title of pharaoh and forced her into exile. Cleopatra allied with Julius Caesar to defeat her brother and regain the throne, which she succeeded in doing with the help of his forces. She and Caesar became lovers as well, and she bore him a son, Caesarion.
After Caesar’s assassination in Rome in 44 BC, Rome split between supporters of Caesar’s co-consul Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) and Caesar’s adopted son and heir, Octavian (Gaius Octavius Thurinus). Cleopatra allied herself with Mark Antony, who also became her lover and husband. Their combined forces clashed with Octavian’s troops in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Octavian emerged victorious, allowing him to consolidate his power, and Cleopatra and Mark Antony retreated back to Alexandria to recuperate and plan their next move.
Octavian marched into Alexandria and claimed Egypt as a Roman province in 30 BC. Mark Antony’s troops began defecting to Octavian’s camp as the young military leader solidified his claim to the Roman throne. Sensing his imminent defeat, Mark Antony attempted suicide by falling on his sword. He survived long enough to be taken to Cleopatra to her mausoleum where she had sequestered herself, but died soon after.
Knowing she would be captured and publicly humiliated by Octavian, Cleopatra chose to commit suicide. Some historians claim she did this by allowing herself to be bitten by an asp (Egyptian cobra).
Cleopatra and Caesar’s 17-year-old son, Caesarion, nominally succeeded his mother to the throne as Ptolemy XV Caesar, but he was executed by Octavian after 11 days. With him died the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Octavian became Emperor Augustus (“revered”), and Egypt fell under the rule of the Roman Empire.
The Romans built a city-fortress they called Babylon on the east bank of the Nile River, the site of present-day Cairo. Babylon became the headquarters of Augustus’ garrison of three legions.
Egypt remained under Roman control for six centuries, and its history became irrevocably entwined with the faith of the Roman Empire. Christianity arrived in Egypt and spread by the second century. When the Roman Empire declined and the Byzantine Empire took its place, Emperor Constantine I governed Egypt from Constantinople.
Early in the 7th Century, Muslim forces ventured out of the Arabian peninsula and began a series of conquests that brought down the Sassanid Empire of Persia and took away precious territories from the Byzantines. ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ of the Rashidun Caliphate and his troops entered Egypt in 639 and took the Byzantine garrison cities of Pelusium and Belbeis.
In 640, they moved to the larger city of Babylon, where the Byzantines were better prepared to repel invading forces. While Pelusium fell after two months and Belbeis fell after a month, the Muslim forces had to surround Babylon for seven months and endure heavy fighting and negotiations that went nowhere. At the end of another failed negotiation, ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ finally decided to scale the wall of the city-fortress in a night assault in order to forcibly take the city.
Babylon fell in December 640. Alexandria was captured in 641, and the whole of Egypt fell under the rule of the Caliphate in 646.
Al-Fustat and Al-Qāhirah
‘Amr wanted to retain Alexandria as the capital of Muslim Egypt, but the Caliph Umar suggested to establish a new capital further inland to protect it from the flooding of the Nile and from Byzantine naval attacks. ‘Amr chose the area north of Babylon where he and his men had pitched their tents, hence the name Misr Al-Fustat, roughly “city of the tents”. ‘Amr built a mosque named after himself, the first mosque to be built in all of Africa. (Cairo will eventually earn the nickname “the city of a thousand minarets” due to the large number of mosques built inside the city under Arab rule.)
Al-Fustat grew in prosperity and remained the capital of Muslim Egypt for 500 years until the Fatimids invaded the country. The Fatimid Caliphate, originating from what is now Algeria, claimed they were descendants of Fatimah, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and controlled an empire in North Africa and the Middle East from the 9th to the early 12th Century.
Led by the general Jawhar, they invaded Egypt in 969 and established a walled city named Al-Qāhirah (“The Victorious”) or Cairo in 973 to serve as the enclave of the Fatimid Caliph. For 200 years after Cairo’s founding as the imperial capital, Egypt’s administrative centre remained in Al-Fustat. However, when the Crusaders began a series of invasions into Egypt, Al-Fustat was set on fire in 1168 to prevent its capture.
Cairo as Capital
Cairo eventually expanded to include Al-Fustat’s ruins and other settlements, transforming it into the vibrant metropolis we know today. It remained Egypt’s capital through centuries of foreign rule and the years of the country’s independence beginning in 1922.
With Egypt’s feverish development of the new NAC, Cairo once again sits at history’s juncture. The Cairenes—and the world—can only wait for what the future holds.
Odyssey Traveller organises small-group educational tours to Cairo for the active senior traveller, allowing participants to learn more about Egypt’s ancient history. Step back in time with a tour of Old Cairo and take a relaxing cruise down the Nile River. Sign up now and join us.
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