The Definitive Guide to Living in the Capital , Cairo , Egypt

The Kaleidoscopic Capital: Cairo in 12 Books
written by
Nada Medhat

In Arabic, Al-Qahira means both the triumphant and the oppressor. And no better aptronym could fit Cairo more. In Egypt’s own tongue, it’s ‘Ism Ala Ma Yusama’, as its modern frame and victorious name are over fourteen centuries old. The capital’s core goes back to another ten centuries.

Though the millennia haven’t been too kind to our city, Cairo remained withstanding, emerging victorious time after another like a phoenix out of the flames. Equally enchanting and detestable, sternly maternal and humorously paternal, wounding and curing, nearly paradoxical in all its traits, our capital is an ancient city that consistently resists time, as it changes in elusive rapidity.

Cairo is an enigma, with its dusty clutterings and chaotic body that is still familiar enough like a grandmother’s house. Aptly called the Mother of the World, the capital treats us as its children, blissfully refusing to let us go. Other times, it feels as wise as mute prophets. All of this is to say that Cairo is a city that refuses to be defined, slipping out of all frames.

However, many have spent thousands of pages trying to do so, with some reaching a moment of elusive spotlight. In this article, we’ll guide you to the 12 best books about Cairo, so make sure to keep your eyes peeled.

Cairo by André Raymond

It’s an impossible task to write a single book that transverses easily and equally within all facets of Cairo. Rather than focusing on the character of the city or its ideas and people, this French academic’s study focuses on the endless political changes that Cairo has gone through in its long, long history.

The changes are measured mainly from an architectural point of view as the book treads carefully in archaeology, urban planning, and economic structure. Raymond’s thesis lies in the capital’s economic and political transformation from a fortress to one of the most central and important cities in the MENA region. Cairo is a thorough, invaluable academic biography that promises to deepen one’s understanding of the city and its place in the world.

Cairo: The City Victorious by Max Rodenbeck

Although both carry the city’s name in their titles, Rodenbeck’s book differs in its approach, lacking the formal detachment of the previous entry. True to his journalist self, Rodenbeck wrote this documentation with tremendous insight and accuracy, drawing on Cairo’s history and social transformation. He translates heavy research into flowing prose, which rebels against the main rule of journalism as every word is coloured with intense affection, personal accounts, and memories.

Originally a Middle East correspondent to the American newspaper ‘The Economist’, Rodenbeck has lived in Cairo on and off for twenty years, sometimes leaving in mournful anger over its rapid, unlikable changes. He usually returned, celebrating Cairo’s constant reinvention of itself. This is what distinguishes the book from many others—the personal, paradoxical feelings towards the city, mirroring what most Cairenes feel.

The mix of a vigorous study and personal knowledge of the city’s inhabitants, all its corners and nooks, make this book a vivid depiction not just of Cairo’s history, but Cairo as its stands now, with all its flaws that are treated with sympathy and love, though not without impatience.

Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control by David Sims

An economist and an urban planner, David Sims has the perfect eye to disentangle the infamous chaos of Cairo. Rather than focusing on the building and development of the city by its leaders across the ages, Sims prefers looking at Cairo as it was built by its 18 million inhabitants. Not merely through the symbolic, sentimental saying of “a city is its people”. No, David Sims means it in a literal way.

The apparent chaos of Cairo, Sims claims, is only the conflicting systems the people have created to navigate a city disregarded by different governments across the years. Sims criticises superficial views of Cairo as any other poor third-world city with its poster image of slums and poverty. Instead, he argues that Cairo’s chaos works, by its own logic. This is a claim most Cairenes who truly know the city wouldn’t disagree with, even if the underlying sentiment isn’t thoroughly understood.

This is what David Sims offers in Understanding Cairo, a detailed, educated study of exactly how and why Cairo’s chaos makes it a peculiar success story in regards to urban planning.

Cairo: Histories of a City by Nezar Alsayyad

A city like Cairo is naturally the perfect attraction for architects and urban planners. Egyptian, Nezar Al-Sayyad, is of the latter group, with his book, Cairo: Histories of a City, being an enormous book that attempts to capture the whole history of the capital in a vast scope full of grandiosity.

Although this is a mission that many have attempted, Al-Sayyad brings a new perspective to it. The most interesting thing about the book is the unique structure it adopts. Each chapter focuses on one “landmark” of Cairo, such as Coptic Cairo or the Gezira Palace, and through this method, tells a part of this city’s story.

Babylon of Egypt: The Archaeology of Old Cairo and the Origins of the City by Peter Sheehan

Rarely does a marvellous creation arise out of disaster, right? But here, that happens. In the early 2000s, the age-old problem of rising groundwater threatened Old Cairo once again. With the ancient and mediaeval structures under threat, a drilling programme in and around the Babylonian fort was agreed upon in an effort to lower the groundwater.

This programme came with funded archaeological monitoring to protect the area, with archaeologist Peter Sheehan being a part of this rescue group. His work and newest discoveries during this period opened an archaeological portal to Old Cairo and its Babylon structure and its Roman and pre-Roman characters. Going down the rabbit hole, he reached the very origin of what is now the beloved Cairo. In Babylon of Egypt, he presents it all.

Creating Medieval Cairo: Empire, Religion, and Architectural Preservation in Nineteenth-Century Egypt by Paula Sanders

Differing from the archaeological account of the previous entry, this book also differs from other historical and social accounts. Paula Sanders limits her scope to 19th century Cairo, as its preservation and conservation occur through conflicting colonial and local forces.

She gives a nuanced account of how mediaeval Cairo was created to be a part of different empires, focusing specifically on the remaining colonial legacies regarding architectural preservation. Examined thoroughly to unearth new questions, Cairo’s multi and transnational heritage presents a new way to see this particular moment of its history. 

Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide by Caroline Williams

Smaller in scope and shorter in length than most books on this list, Islamic Monuments in Cairo is clear and straight to the point. As Cairo features some of the most spectacular and important Islamic monuments in the world, it has become the go-to city to witness the development and the brilliance of Islamic architecture.

In this book, Caroline Williams creates a concise and full guide that isn’t just valuable to tourists—it’s also relevant to Cairenes who want to rediscover the splendour around them.

The Striking Cabbies of Cairo and Other Stories: Crafts and Guilds in Egypt, 1863-1914 by John Chalcraft

One of the most original and unique books on this list, The Striking Cabbies of Cairo focuses entirely on service workers and their large (if ignored) place in the Cairene market and Egyptian economy as a whole. This is the first book that charts out the systematic adaptation and preservation of craft and service workers under the significant changes of the 19th and 20th centuries, especially the ones brought in through westernisation and the Industrial Revolution, following World War I.

As he offers a new perspective and point of focus to Egypt’s social history, John Chalcraft shows us precisely how important that history is and how it’s no less significant than Egypt’s architectural or political history.

The Literary Atlas of Cairo: One Hundred Years on the Streets of the City by Samia Mehrez

Lovers of both the city and its literature will appreciate this book. Unlike any of the previous entries on this list, Samia Mehrez’s book draws an atlas—not of Cairo’s architecture, workers, political figures, or economic transformations, but of Cairo as it’s been depicted through the gazes of literary figures through multiple points of view: Those of Egyptians and foreigners; Muslims, Christians, and Jews; and men and women.

It also shows us the capital through Naguib Mahfouz’s precise gaze and flowing pen, as well as through Taha Hussein’s heightened senses of the city around him. Samira Mehrez creates a fascinating mosaic of Cairo’s literary identity that you can’t miss out on.

The Literary Life of Cairo: One Hundred Years in the Heart of the City by Samia Mehrez

Published a year after The Literary Atlas of Cairo, this accompanying volume sheds the spotlight on the Cairene life that serves as an economic, political, and social backdrop to the literary productions, as the title suggests.

This book reconstructs the complex networks of social life in Cairo, focusing on its significant figures, political and otherwise, and their effects on important works of literature. Both of Mehrez’s volumes construct a complex, wide-scoped literary geography of Cairo.

Urban Space in Contemporary Egyptian Literature: Portraits of Cairo by Mara Naaman

The third literary-oriented view of Cairo on this list, Urban Space in Contemporary Egyptian Literature, is broader in scope than the previous author’s volumes but is still masterfully coherent and cohesive. Written as part of a larger series concerning literature in the Islamic world, Literatures and Cultures of the Islamic World, this book is one of the many that revolve around Egyptian literature, focusing on Cairo.

It’s only natural as if there’s one city that demands this special treatment, it’s our beloved capital! Naaman puts Downtown Cairo at the centre and draws everything from and to it. She draws from several Egyptian novelists, urban studies scholarships, Arab literary criticism, and cultural theory, as she re-examines Cairo and its urban spaces to explain Egyptian literature and the Egyptian psyche.

Remaking The Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo by Farha Ghannam

It’s only fitting that the last book on this list is also the most relevant to Cairo’s current state and our understanding of its changes. This detailed anthropological study goes back in time to Sadat’s plans of modernising Cairo in an attempt to make it an attractive capital for investors and tourists. One of the major changes included relocating Cairo’s poor to urban housing on the outskirts of the city.

Drawing on theories of globalisation and studies of Cairo’s inhabitants, Gahannam writes an illuminating analysis of urban engineering in Cairo and the changes affecting how those inhabitants, mostly from the working class, adjusted to and treated globalisation. A revealing study of Cairo, this book shows us how the city came to fit this ‘modern’ frame through its internal workings.