This lecture offers a reading of the stages of modernity in Egypt through a medieval lens. It explores how a leading urban history book, al-Maqrizi’s Khitat (written 1415-42), came to absorb and articulate the country’s encounters with colonialism, modernization, Orientalism, historical academicism, nationalism, pan-Arabism, and authoritarian capitalism. Appropriated by the Savants of the French Occupation (1798-1801) in their monumental Description de l’Égypte, the Khitat became the go-to source for anyone studying Cairo. ‘Ali Mubarak, an engineer/minister who Haussmannized Cairo in the 1860s, used it to write his own paean to the remodeled city. K. A. C. Creswell, a British officer turned Orientalist architectural historian, relied on it to anchor his pioneering architectural history of Egypt. Egyptian nationalist historians deployed it as their authenticating native referent. Novelists and poets, like Gamal al-Ghitani and Naguib Surur, assimilated it as a voice of the undying spirit of Egypt and a parable of resistance to corruption and oppression. Eventually, the book acquired a transhistorical sheen that embodied the epistemic and political changes in Egypt from the early 19th century to the present.
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