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Fustat (also Fostat, Al Fustat, Misr al-Fustat and Fustat-Misr, and in Arabic الفسطاط), was the first capital of Egyptmarker under Arab rule. It was built by the Arab general 'Amr ibn al-'As immediately after the Arab conquest of Egyptmarker in AD 641, and featured the Mosque of Amrmarker, the first mosque ever built in Egypt. This mosque was also the first mosque built in Africa, since the Islamic expansion onto the continent commenced with Egypt.

The city reached its peak in the 12th century, with a population of approximately 200,000.Williams, p. 37 It was the center of administrative power in Egypt, until it was ordered burned in 1168 by its own vizier, Shawar, to keep its wealth out of the hands of the invading Crusaders. The remains of the city were eventually absorbed by nearby Cairomarker, which had been built to the north of Fustat in 969 when the Algerian Fatimids conquered the region and created a new city as a royal enclosure for the Caliph. The area then fell into disrepair for hundreds of years and was used as a garbage dump.

Today, Fustat is part of Old Cairomarker, with few buildings remaining from its days as capital, though there have been many archaeological digs which have taken advantage of the wealth of buried material in the area. Many ancient items recovered from the site are on display in Cairo's Museum of Islamic Artmarker.

Egyptian capital

Fustat remained off and on as the capital of Egyptmarker for approximately 500 years. After the city's founding in 641, its authority was uninterrupted until 750, when the Abbasid dynasty staged a revolt against the Umayyads. This conflict was focused not in Egypt, but elsewhere in the Arab world, as when the Abbasids gained power, they moved various capitals to more controllable areas. They had established the center of their caliphate in Baghdadmarker, moving the capital from its previous location of Damascusmarker. Similar moves were made throughout the new dynasty. In Egypt, they moved the capital from Fustat, slightly north to the Abbasid city of al-Askar, which remained the capital from 750–868. When a different dynasty took control in 868, the Egyptian capital moved briefly to another nearby northern city, Al-Qatta'imarker. This lasted only until 905, when Al-Qatta'i was destroyed. The capital then returned to Fustat, where it remained until the city was ordered burned by its own vizier, Shawar, in 1168, after which the center of government moved to Cairo.

Origin of name

The city's name comes from the Arabic word fusṭāṭ (فسطاط) which means a large tent or pavilion. According to tradition, the location of Fustat was chosen by a bird: A dove laid an egg in the tent of 'Amr ibn al-'As, the Muslim conqueror of Egypt, just before he was to march on Alexandria. His camp at that time was just north of the Roman fortress of Babylonmarker. Amr declared this as a sign from God, and the tent was left untouched as he and his troops went off to battle. When they returned victorious, Amr told his soldiers to pitch their tents around his, giving his new capital city its name, Miṣr al-Fusṭāṭ, or Fusṭāṭ Miṣr, popularly translated as "City of the tents", though this is not an exact translation. The word Miṣr was an ancient Semitic root designating Egypt, but in Arabic also has the meaning of a large city or metropolis (or, as a verb, "to civilize"), so the name Miṣr al-Fusṭāṭ could mean "Metropolis of the Tent". Fusṭāṭ Miṣr would mean "The Pavilion of Egypt". Egyptians to this day call Cairo "Miṣr", or, colloquially, Maṣr, even though this is properly the name of the whole country of Egypt. The country's first Islamic mosque, the Mosque of Amrmarker, was later built on the same site of the commander's tent, in 642.

Early history

For thousands of years, the capital of Egypt moved through multiple locations up and down the Nile, such as Thebes and Memphismarker, depending on which dynasty was in power. After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt around 331 BC, the capital became the city named for him, Alexandriamarker, on the Mediterraneanmarker coast. This situation remained stable for nearly a thousand years, until the army of the Arabian Caliph Umar captured the region in the 7th century, shortly after the death of Muhammad. When Alexandria fell in September 641, a new capital was needed. So Amr ibn al-As, the commander of the conquering army, founded a new capital on the eastern bank of the river.
Alexandria, at the far northwest of the Nile river delta.
Fustat (not shown on this map) was on the eastern side of the Nile, just south of what is now the modern city of Cairo, at the southern base of the river delta

The early population of the city was composed almost entirely of soldiers and their families, and the layout of the city was similar to that of a garrison: Amr intended for Fustat to serve as a base from which to conquer North Africa, as well as to launch further campaigns against Byzantium. It remained the primary base for Arab expansion in Africa until Qayrawanmarker was founded in Tunisiamarker in 670.

Fustat grew into a series of tribal areas, khittas, around the central mosque and administrative buildings. The majority of the settlers came from Yemenmarker, with the next largest grouping from western Arabia, along with some Jews and Roman mercenaries. Arabic was generally the primary spoken dialect in Egypt, and was the language of written communication, though Coptic was still spoken in Fustat in the 8th century.

Fustat was the center of power in Egypt under the Umayyad dynasty, which had started with the rule of Muawiyah I, and headed the Islamic caliphate from 660 to 750. However, Egypt itself was considered only a province of larger powers, and was ruled by governors who were appointed from other Muslim centers such as Damascusmarker, Medinamarker, and Baghdadmarker. The city was still a major one though, and in the 9th century, it had a population of approximately 120,000. But when General Gawhar of the Tunisianmarker-based Fatimids captured the region, this launched a new era when Egypt was the center of its own power. Gawhar founded a new city just north of Fustat on August 8, 969, naming it Al Qahira (Cairomarker), and in 971, the Fatimid Caliph al-Mo'ezz moved his court from al-Mansuriya in Tunisia to the new city that Gawhar founded. But Cairo was not intended as a center of government at the time -- it stayed primarily as the royal enclosure for the Caliph and his court and army, while Fustat remained the capital in terms of economic and administrative power. The city thrived and grew, and in 987, the geographer Ibn Hawkal wrote that al-Fustat was approximately one third the size of Baghdadmarker. By 1168, it had a population of 200,000.

The city was known for its prosperity, with shaded streets, gardens, and markets. It housed many high-rise residential buildings, some seven stories tall that could reportedly accommodate hundreds of people. Al-Muqaddasi in the 10th century described them as resembling minarets, while Nasir Khusraw in the early 11th century described some of them rising up to 14 stories, with roof gardens on the top storey complete with ox-drawn water wheels for irrigating them.

The Persianmarker traveler, Nasir-i-Khusron, wrote of the exotic and beautiful wares in the Fustat markets: iridescent pottery, crystal, and many fruits and flowers available, even during the winter months. From 975 to 1075, Fustat was a major production centre for Islamic art and ceramics, and one of the wealthiest cities in the world. One report stated that it paid taxes that were equivalent to US$150,000 per day, to the administration of Caliph Mo'ezz. Modern archaeological digs have turned up artifacts from as far away as Spain, China, and Vietnammarker. Excavations have also revealed intricate house and street plans; a basic unit consisted of rooms built around a central courtyard, with an arcade of arches on one side of the courtyard being the principal means of access.

Fustat had many high-rise buildings, which Al-Muqaddasi in the 10th century described as resembling minarets. Nasir Khusraw in the early 11th century described some of them rising up to 14 stories, with roof gardens on the top storey complete with ox-drawn water wheels for irrigating them.

Destruction and decline

Indian textile fragment, circa 1545 - 1645, found in Fustat.
Old, discarded textile fragments are commonly found in the area, preserved in the dry climate of Egypt.

In the mid-1100s, the caliph of Egypt was the teenager Athid, but his position was primarily ceremonial. The true power in Egypt was that of the vizier, Shawar. He had been involved in extensive political intrigue for years, working to repel the advances of both the Christian Crusaders, and the forces of the Syrian caliph Nur al-Din. Shawar managed this by constantly shifting alliances between the two, playing them against each other, and in effect keeping them in a stalemate where neither army could successfully attack Egypt without being blocked by the other.

However, in 1168, the Christian King Amalric I of Jerusalem, who had been trying for years to launch a successful attack on Egypt in order to expand the Crusader territories, had finally achieved a certain amount of success. He and his army entered Egypt, sacked the city of Bilbeismarker, slaughtered nearly all of its inhabitants, and then continued on towards Fustat. Amalric and his troops camped just south of the city, and then sent a message to the young Egyptian caliph Athid, only 18 years old, to surrender the city or suffer the same fate as Bilbeis.

Seeing that Amalric's attack was imminent, Shawar ordered Fustat city burned, to keep it out of Amalric's hands. According to the Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi (1346–1442):

After the destruction of Fustat, the Syrian forces arrived and successfully repelled Amalric's forces. Then with the Christians gone, the Syrians were able to conquer Egypt themselves. The untrustworthy Shawar was put to death, and the reign of the Fatimids was effectively over. The Syrian general Shirkuh was placed in power, but died due to ill health just a few months later, after which his nephew Saladin became vizier of Egypt on March 2, 1169, launching the Ayyubid dynasty.

With Fustat no more than a dying suburb, the center of government moved permanently to nearby Cairo. Saladin later attempted to unite Cairo and Fustat into one city by enclosing them in massive walls, although this proved to be largely unsuccessful.

While the Mamluks were in power from the 1200s to the 1500s, the area of Fustat was used as a rubbish dump, though it still maintained a population of thousands, with the primary crafts being those of pottery and trash-collecting. The layers of garbage accumulated over hundreds of years, and gradually the population decreased, leaving what had once been a thriving city as an effective wasteland.

Modern Fustat

Today, little remains of the grandeur of the old city. The three capitals, Fustat, Al-Askar and Al-Qatta'imarker were absorbed into the growing city of Cairo. Some of the old buildings remain visible in the region known as "Old Cairomarker", but much of the rest has fallen into disrepair, overgrown with weeds or used as garbage dumps.

The oldest-remaining building from the area is probably the Mosque of Ibn Tulunmarker, from the 9th century, which was built while the capital was in Al-Qatta'i. The first Mosque ever built in Egypt (and by extension, the first mosque built in Africa), the Mosque of Amrmarker, is still in use, but has been extensively rebuilt over the centuries, and nothing remains of the original structure.

It is believed that further archaeological digs could yield substantial rewards, considering that the remains of the original city are still preserved under hundreds of years of rubbish. Some archaeological excavations have taken place, the paths of streets are still visible, and some buildings have been partially-reconstructed to waist-height. But the site is difficult and dangerous to access because of the nearby slums. However, some artifacts that have been recovered so far can be seen in Cairo's Museum of Islamic Artmarker.


  1. Yeomans, p. 15
  2. Eyewitness, p. 124
  3. David (2000) p. 59
  4. Since it lacks the article on the word Miṣr it would not be "The Pavilion of the Metropolis".
  5. "Notes on the Jews in Fustāt from Cambridge Genizah Documents" by Ernest Worman, Jewish Quarterly Review, Oct. 1905, pp. 1-39.
  6. Petersen (1999) p. 44
  7. Lapidus, p. 41
  8. Petersen (1999) p. 91
  9. Lapidus, p. 52. "In general, Arabic became the language of written communication in administration, literature, and religion. Arabic also became the primary spoken dialect in the western parts of the Middle East -- Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Iraq -- where languages close to Arabic, such as Aramaic, were already spoken. The spread of Arabic was faster than the diffusion of Islam, but this is not to say that the process was rapid or complete. For example, Coptic was still spoken in Fustat in the 8th century."
  10. Mason (1995) pp.5–7
  11. Maalouf, pp. 159–161


  • Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious (Princeton University Press, 1971), ISBN 0691030855
  • Ghosh, Amitav, In an Antique Land (Vintage Books, 1994). ISBN 0-679-72783-3
  • Lapidus, Ira M. (1988). A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0 521 22552 5.
  • Maalouf, Amin (1984). The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. Al Saqi Books. ISBN 0-8052-0898-4.

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