Postcards from Historic Cairo

Historic Cairo (also known as Islamic Cairo) is at the heart of Egypt’s crowded capital. Founded around 969 AD, Historic Cairo is a tour de force of Islamic art where the visitor comes face to face with hundreds of mosques, madrasas, bazaars, khanqahs, sabil-kuttabs and other monuments in the Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman styles; a chaotic splendor that never fails to amaze, an overdose of Islamic art and architecture at its best.

A feast for the senses in every sense of the word, the city’s soundscape is dominated by the synchronized call for prayer and the honking of horns by impatient motorcyclists and drivers. The fragrance of every spice under the sun fills the air at many bazaars; while the dazzling colors of the tentmakers’ products at al-Khiyamiyya and the antiques at Khan al-Khalili offer a pleasant break from the grayish-brownish shades that dominate the old city.

I can go on forever, but the photos would do a better job. Enjoy!

An ‘Orientalist Tour’ of Historic Cairo

Bustling bazaars, Mamluk mosques and Ottoman houses abound in the artworks of Orientalist painters like John Frederick Lewis, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Ludwig Deutsche, to the end of the long list. During my Orientalist Art Course last week, I thought of doing some ‘cultural excavation’ in Islamic Cairo, tracing the footsteps of these Orientalist artists in an attempt to identify some of the settings that they had chosen for their paintings.

While some sites are immediately recognizable (like al-Ghuriyya and Bab Zuweila), others are not necessarily so. Many places look very different than what they once did, others have vanished all together, and yet, others are impossible to identify with precision because they are rather ‘generic’ (could be anywhere). In addition to recognizing the sites, the tour was a useful exercise to understand how the city has metamorphosed ever since.

Because images speak louder than words, below are some images of famous paintings along with photos that I took at Islamic Cairo, showing the sites featuring in the paintings.

Orientalist Art: The Marketplace of Sinbad the Sailor

From the Romanticism of Eugène Delacroix to the academic style of Jean-Léon Géröme, and from the photographic quality of Ludwig Desutsch to the almost impressionist style of Alphonse-Etienne (Nasreddine) Dinet, yesterday’s Orientalist Art Course took us to imagined communities where the Orient features as a carefully constructed geography.

It is not a style, not a school of art, not an artistic ideology. Orientalist Art was a current, a cultural phenomenon that swept across France and other parts of Europe throughout the 19th century in the wake of the European colonialism. Some argue that imperialism is the main motive behind Orientalism; some claim it was spontaneous and innocent…one thing holds true: it has, for over a century -and till our present day in some cases, shaped the way in which Europe has traditionally perceived the Orient.

Through the paintbrushes of Ingres, Fortuny, John Frederick Lewis and other Orientalists, the European audience could navigate a fantastic world of tiled walls, carpeted halls, Turkish hammams and exotic souqs to meet characters that seem to belong to a tale of One Thousand and One Nights: snake-charmers, harems and odalisques, muezzins and dervishes, warriors and slaves, merchants and street vendors selling everything under the sun.

The sensual feast is made complete through a soundscape dominated by the noise of the bazaars and the synchronized calls for prayer; light shines playfully on tanned skin, and one can almost smell the zesty oranges and the fragrant spices of the East. It is beautiful, definitely inspiring, yet anything but a spontaneous representation of these communities. One look at Jean-Léon Géröme’s Snake Charmer is enough to reveal the preplanned juxtaposition of exotic elements from different Eastern Cultures: Turkish, Egyptian and Indian, all in one and the same impossible setting.

Then came Dinet who learned Arabic and converted to Islam –becoming Nasreddine Dinet, fully integrating himself into the Berber communities of Algeria: an example on a more profound and honest reflection of the primitive lifestyle in the face of the sickening advance of French colonialism. Dinet was trying to capture the last glimpses of a ‘paradise lost’.

The last in focus was Ludwig Deutsch, whose attention to detail surpassed the skill of all his contemporaries, lending his artworks an almost ‘documentary’ value as he invites us to contemplate well-known Cairene neighbourhoods and alleys like al-Sanadqiyya and Atfet al-Hammam.

Finally, many thanks to all those that joined my course; see you all next year!

Istanbul Express: Three Marvels, Ten Postcards

What to do in Istanbul in five hours?
Answer: Five hours? What were you thinking?!

Luckily, on my way to Cairo, I had a long transit in Istanbul, one of my favorite Middle Eastern cities. Having visited Istanbul some 10 years ago, and knowing I had a few hours, I rushed to Sultanehmet to take in three wonders that are –fortunately, only a walking distant apart, namely Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Sunken Cistern.

While many people celebrate Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia) as a monumental structure where Christian and Islamic arts fuse together in harmony, I actually see nothing harmonious about it in spirit. Structurally, the complex reflects a clichéd clash of civilizations where minarets were added, minbars and mihrabs superimposed and Byzantine mosaics encroached from all sides by the Ottoman conquerors. From outside, it looks fortified and forbidding. Nevertheless, the building never fails to impress because once inside, you get a mesmerizing glimpse of the monumentality and grandeur of a civilization that is gone but never forgotten: that of the Byzantines. Few complexes are as impressive and awe-inspiring as this Church of the Holy Wisdom, begun in the VI century by Emperor Justinian. The best views are those you get when you climb to the gallery; only then can you fully appreciate the scale of Aya Sofia and enjoy its magnificent mosaics, specially the Deësis Mosaic.

Off to the seventeenth-century Blue Mosque with its soaring minarets and cluster of domes and half-domes, one can only wonder as how the Great Byzantine Palace and Hippodrome that had once stood here must have looked like. Once inside, all these mental images give way to the imposing tour-de-force of Ottoman mosaic manifest in the 20,000 blue Iznik tiles covering the walls of the mosque. The domes seem to float effortlessly, their floral designs and calligraphy bands

Then came the Sunken Cistern, exactly the way I remembered it: haunting and eerie. I went down the staircase to the underground cistern, a forest of over 300 marble columns supporting cross-vaulted domes. The columns, arranged in rows, are beautifully lit to magnify the awe-inspiring impression that it leaves on the visitor. Built by Emperor Justinian in the VI century, it used to bring water from the woods some 19 Km away.

A visit to Istanbul, no matter how short, is never complete with indulging in the culinary pleasures of the city: imam bayildi and doner kebab on the run, followed by baklava and washed down with apple tea…the ‘sweet’ end to a short tour in Dersaadet (i.e. The Gate of Felicity, an old name of Istanbul).

The Mediterranean of the Nostoi and Lotus-Eaters

‎“For the ancient Greeks, the fall of Troy did not simply result in the collapse of the heroic ‎World of Mycenae and Pylos. It was also remembered as the moment when Greeks set out ‎to wander the Mediterranean and beyond; it was a time when sailors grappled with the ‎dangers of the open seas – animate dangers, in the form of the singing Sirens, the witch ‎Circe, the one-eyed Cyclops. The storm-tossed seas recorded in Homer’s Odyssey and in ‎other tales of heroes returning from Troy (a group of men known as the Nostoi, or ‎‎‘returners’) remained places of great uncertainty, whose physical limits were only vaguely ‎described.‎

‎(…) The aim of wanderers, whether Odysseus in the west, or Menelaos of Sparta in Libya and ‎Egypt, was, ultimately, to return home. The world beyond was full of lures, islands of lotus-‎eaters and the cave of Calypso.” – David Abulafia, The Great Sea

The history of the Mediterranean was shaped –and remains to be shaped- by travel and migration. ‎The cycle has turned though, because more than any other time, the aim of wanderers is no ‎longer to ‘return home’, but rather to leave it behind.‎ During he first 9 months of 2014, 75% of migrant mortality in the whole world occured in the Mediterranean. These people were neither wanderers nor returners. They did not have to survive the Sirens or fear the Cyclops; they had escaped a far worse enemy: human injustice; a miserable human condition.

There are no more nostoi in our Sea…only lotus-eaters.

Menelaos & Patroklis