I started reading Nina Burleigh’s recent book Mirage on the flight over to New York this afternoon. Burleigh’s book is a review of Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, during which “more than 150 French engineers, artists, doctors, and scientists – even a poet and a musicologist – traveled to the Nile Valley under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte and his invading army.”
Burleigh’s descriptions of 18th century Cairo stand out. She writes that the city was “a labyrinthine metropolis that frustrated and confused the invaders.” It was “a city of doors, mostly closed.”
Massive gates opened into the city, and the winding streets themselves often ended abruptly at smaller doors that defined neighborhood and community boundaries… Whole neighborhoods might be walled off, accessible only by a single door in a narrow street.
She writes that “The city frustrated Europeans. To their eyes, there was no logic to its street plan, and less order. Claustrophobic alleys ended at walls, or dwindled into walkways and disappeared.”
When an imperial cartographic project is kicked off a few months into the occupation, it “was deemed so daunting that at first the engineers hoped the order [to map Cairo] would be rescinded” – but, of course, “it was not.”
Edme-François Jomard, the cartographer in charge of the project, wrote: “The city is almost entirely composed of very short streets and twisting alleys, with innumerable dead-ends. Each of these sections is closed by a gate, which the inhabitants open when they wish; as a result the interior of Cairo is very difficult to know.” Jomard, Burleigh writes, would spend his time “knocking on gates that hid whole neighborhoods.”
How interesting to think of the Manhattanized equivalent of this – where, for instance, a small door at 1st and 13th Street might seal off an entire subdistrict of the island, a kind of undiscovered private archipelago of walled neighborhoods that maze outward in small streets barely wide enough to walk through.
You knock two or three times – and then crawl through a small circular door in the middle of a brick wall that could just as easily have been the entrance to a building. And then you’re gone, hiking through a part of the city you’d never even heard of before.
Of course, the Napoleonic approach to Cairo was, in the end, a military one; Burleigh adds that “These doors inconvenienced the French, and eventually Napoleon committed one of his most offensive acts – in the eyes of the Arabs – when he ordered them removed.” And so those old neighborhoods, previously sealed apart as if by airlocks, were made open for soldiers to pass through, the city remade for its military occupiers.