Old Cairo landscape


After conquering Syria and the eastern Mediterranean basin, the Mongols tried to push southward toward Egypt. Just two years after sacking Baghdad, the Mongols were positioned in Gaza ready to invade Egypt. In 1260 the Mongol military commander Hulegu sent a message to Cairo demanding that the ruling Mamluks surrender. Instead the Mamluk leader, Qutuz, killed Hulegu’s envoys and hung their heads on Cairo’s city gate. In response, both Mongols and Mamluks prepared for war, meeting in the southern Galilee at the battle of ‘Ain Jalut. At this crucial battle, the Mamluks defeated the Mongols, preventing them from expanding into Egypt and Africa.

The Mamluk victory over the Mongols granted them respect throughout the Arab and European world. Since the Mongols had defeated and destroyed so many Asian cities, including major hubs like Baghdad, Cairo rose in regional and global importance. For the next several centuries Cairo became the center of the Arab world, as scholars and merchants sought refuge there from Mongol invasions elsewhere. Trade routes were redirected from the Tigris River and Persian Gulf to the Red Sea. Cairo became a trading center for goods from Africa, Asia, and Europe. Mamluk patronage of the arts and academics inspired a cultural rebirth. Intellectual and cultural centers sprung up throughout Cairo. A monumental tomb for Mamluk sultan Hasan, who ruled from 1347-1351, was constructed in the center of the city with an adjoining mosque and school.

Cairo citadel

A postcard depicting the Cairo citadel and mosque, built during the Mamluk period.

Due in large part to the Mongol invasions of southern Asia, Cairo became the leading Islamic cultural and intellectual center of the late medieval world. It would retain this importance, even through the bubonic plague of 1348, until the Ottoman invasions of the sixteenth century.

Today, Cairo no longer bears the glory it once did. Still the capital of Egypt and the largest city in the Middle East, Cairo is the location of numerous Egyptian protests. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, Cairo’s city center, Tahrir Square, has witnessed two major revolutions as protestors overthrew first dictator Hosni Mubarak and more recently the elected president Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Medieval Cairo map

A map of Cairo as it would have been shortly before the Mongol invasions into the Middle East. Image courtesy of the Travelers in the Middle East Archive.