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February 24, 2015

Egypt's faiths examined

The Oriental Institute Museum’s newest special exhibit, A Cosmopolitan City: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Old Cairo, puts a fresh spin on the typical museum-goer’s conception of Egyptian history. You’ll find no mummies and pyramids here. Instead, this small, dense showcase invites visitors to discover a period of Egyptian history marked by the peaceful cultural interplay of diverse ethnic groups within a bustling urban environment in the former capital city of Old Cairo.

A mere 1,500 years ago, just south of where downtown Cairo now stands, Arab conquerors founded a city by the name of al Fustat. This unique location in the midst of Islamic trade routes offered an attractive home for Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. Walking through the exhibit, visitors behold colorful tapestries, patterned ceramics, elegant manuscripts, and intricate metalwork from each of these major religions. A beautifully illuminated Arabic gospel lies side-by-side with a fragment of the Qur’an and a biblical fragment written in Judeo-Arabic. The deliberately parallel display of these three fundamental religious texts, all at home in Fustat, is powerful, stunning, and seemingly natural.

Although each religious community of Fustat occupied a particular neighborhood and dominated a specific industry, the exhibit clearly illustrates the trade that transpired between groups. Coptic Christians oversaw the craft of ivory carving, while the Jewish population controlled the silk dyeing and metalworking markets. Cross-cultural exchange was so pervasive that households of vastly different affiliations closely resembled one another.

Life in Fustat wasn’t all work and no play, however. Locals shared games, stories, and festivals with each other. When they had free time, Christians sat down with their Jewish neighbors for a game of chess as Muslims joined in communal games of dice. The glass-encased rook on display looks as if the Oriental Institute has just stolen a chess piece from a contemporary set; the rook’s size and design is perfectly up-to-date. This new exhibit reveals that Fustat, a relatively young city in the grand scheme of Egyptian history, exhibited clear signs of modernity in both its social structure and its production.

But why just see an exhibit? Why not hear it too? The Oriental Institute encourages visitors to test out the several headphone stations scattered throughout the room, offering an auditory supplement to the conventional approach of visual comprehension.  One can tune in to a selection of music composed by Fustat’s own Obadiah the Proselyte. Why not listen to a brief chapter of The Thousand and One Nights while studying this very text displayed before you? Give old Maimonides two minutes of your time to tell you about his daily life in Fustat (apparently it’s incredibly filthy and rather putrid).

Between artifact and recorded testimony, the visitor encounters many unexpected factoids. In Fustat, men, women, and children wore makeup on the daily. By 900 C.E., residents of Fustat even owned multiple-piece manicure sets. The visitor cannot help but wonder, however, how much Fustat really fulfilled the Oriental Institute’s depiction of this city as an intricate haven of peaceful coexistence, as the issue of unequal taxation across religious groups seems to be a subtle theme underlying the exhibit.  Although the Muslim administrators who held the reins of power in Fustat enacted a policy of religious tolerance, non-Muslims were forced to pay higher taxes. Unfortunately, the exhibit gives no mention of how the Muslim government of Fustat addressed this cultural tension.

This exhibit stands as a worthwhile inquiry into the delicate and successful balancing of diverse ethnic groups within the confines of a hot and cramped medieval metropolis. In Fustat, the city of Old Cairo, Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived, worked, created, and flourished as one. Given the state of interreligious tension today, we all might benefit from a quick trip to the Oriental Institute.

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