Circle and District

[Image: Napoleon in Egypt].

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into the occupation, it "was deemed so daunting that at first the engineers hoped the order [to map Cairo] would be rescinded" – but, of course, "it was not."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.

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9 Comments:

Blogger Karel said...

Think of the informal governance developed in these micro-societies of Cairo.

March 12, 2009 8:07 PM  
Anonymous jean c. said...

Once in class, one of my professors showed a slide comparing two street plans of the same city. One was rectilinear, clearly showing the classic "decumanus and cardo" of a Roman-army layout; one had the intricate alleyways, disconnections, and dead-ending streets of the typical Arab city.

She asked us (a group of mostly-white architecture students, east-coast USA) which plan we thought had come first in the evolution of the city. We almost uniformly answered: the intricate plan came first, then the rectilinear one. Order grows out of chaos, right?

Nope. The Romans had originally built the city, laying it out in their typical fashion... and then after they'd lost control, the Islamic population had, over time, rebuilt the city to meet their specifications, creating the kinds of streets and neighborhoods that would harbor the kinds of lives they wanted to live. You could still see some of the Roman streets remaining in the later Islamic cityplan, but they had mostly been chopped into shorter segments, or disappeared completely...

The inhabitants had created their own form of order out of what, for them, was a non-functional layout -- transformed the enforced disorder of the Romans into useful, home-grown order for themselves.

I guess my question, after reading Geoff's post, is this: why do we in the 'West' have such a limited notion of what order is? We like the world to be visible, obvious, simple, fixed, controllable, and transparent. We have such a hard time with invisibility, complexity, change, transience, metamorphosis, things that we perceive to be out of our control or of our understanding...

[at the moment, I don't remember which city the slides were of. If anybody wants to know what/where it was, get in touch, I will look it up from my old notes...]

March 12, 2009 9:13 PM  
Anonymous Jad said...

Jean,
I think the city you are talking about is my city Damascus, Syria,
I know exactly what you mean.
When we studied urban design and city planning history the same question came to me after seeing the maps and I did ask the same question:
Why did the Arab change the order into the chaos we are seeing in the plan of Damascus?
To answer this question I had to do some studies on Far east cities Kyoto and compare them to those example I learned, the Roman (which is actually came from the greek city planning first)and the Arab and I was surprised to learn that Peking was the base of Kyoto and they both were build on a grid until the Japanese came to their own 'chaotic' version which is a whole different order than Damascus or Kyoto and at the end I came to a conclusion that culture, religion and politics are the main engine for everything we see in our cities. Our cities are a reflect of us, they are in a way similar to individual room and the way we want to decorate them and envision it and after a while our kids either continue living in the same style or renovate them at their own style that reflect their times and fit their needs.

March 12, 2009 10:50 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

This reminds me of a shorts story by Patrick Waddington called The Street That Got Mislaid . It's a quick read.

March 13, 2009 12:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Green Bottle Street! I love it. Thanks for posting that link, Henry. Viva, BLDGBLOG!

March 13, 2009 3:35 AM  
Blogger Writer said...

Jean C.: I love the invisible! Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books! Or Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or Babylon in Neil Gaiman's Ramadan.

March 16, 2009 10:30 AM  
Anonymous jean c. said...

Jad -- yes! (what is especially absurd is that my brother has been living off and on in Damascus for the past three or so years, and I had never actually looked at a map of it... pretty embarrassing. unfortunately, he cannot read this site because Blogger is blocked there... though I have copied and emailed him posts and comments from bldgblog in the past!)

I completely agree that cities have a parallel to individual rooms and spaces inside houses... and that it's super important to be able to determine how those spaces are set up, both in your bedroom and living room, and out on the street.

If we don't have that control, if it's taken over by an army or political force of some kind, if it's owned by someone else (a landlord or investor), or if we have abdicated control and given it up to bureaucrats or representatives (as happens here in the US a lot, on the municipal/city level), we do not have possession of a crucial aspect of our self-identity and self-determination...

March 16, 2009 12:01 PM  
Anonymous JB said...

Jean,
I’m glad to know that your brother went to Damascus, I hope he had/is having good, safe and fun time there and that he enjoy what that Damascus can offer of it’s history charm and it’s people kindness and hospitality. (BTW, there is a software everybody is using there to open any blocked site, you should tell your brother about)

I love this site and the owner, I believe they are doing great job to many of us; actually BLDGBLOG inspired me to start my own blog which I just did couple days ago and it still in terrible shape and style (Shape-less and Style-less) (Smile).
I called it M9D9N (Moudon) Cities in Arabic language. (9 in Arabic similar to "OU" sounds in English and it looks fun.I think).
I'm creating the blog to concentrate on Cities, Urban Planning and Architectural issues, in English, French, Arabic, Japanese even Chinese if I get any, we can write a short summary before the article or essay in English though. In the blog I want to write about our experience as architects and urbanists from an expat point of view, living in different cultures, different tradition, different street scape, different building materials and different building techniques, writing about our vision and how to deal with those issues either in literary or scientific style.
Anybody can be part of that by sending me any article or essay or even a picture that he/she wants to talk about in his experience in any developing or developed country he lived in away from his mother land.
Please let me know if you are interested.
I want to start a 'core' of something good and meaningful to us as individuals and to others who don't know very well about how to deal with problem in Urban Design and Planning and building the right Architecture.
What do you think?

March 16, 2009 5:59 PM  
Blogger Nicolas said...

for me the manhattan equivalent does exist. it's not about horizontal access, but rather vertical access. try going into an apartment building or a business skyscraper, say the new sir norman foster building. you can't go just anywhere in manhattan, unless you have the right connections (work there, have friends there, going on an architectural tour)... or you enter surreptiously.

the lack of transparency with aig seems to be pretty inconvenient for the current administration.

March 17, 2009 12:46 PM  

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