Although Egypt’s urban history is lengthy, modern urbanization, characterized by massive and continuing rural-to- urban migration, is largely a post-World War II phenomenon.
Since 1947, urban growth rates have averaged about one percentage point higher than the rates for rural areas. Thus, for forty years, the urban population has been expanding at the rate of 4 percent annually.
Cairo, the country’s capital and largest city, has been affected the most by this urbanization. Between 1947 and 1986, the city’s population grew from 1.5 million to more than 6 million (within the city’s corporate limits).
During the same period, the population of Giza (Al Jizah), across the Nile from Cairo, grew even more dramatically, from 18,000 to 1.6 million.
In 1989 an estimated 10.5 million people, or 20 percent of all Egyptians, lived in the urban agglomeration known as Greater Cairo, which extended along both banks of the Nile from Shubra al Khaymah in the north to Hulwan in the south.
Within the city’s boundaries, the population density averaged 26,000 people per square kilometer.
In some of the more crowded quarters of the city, such as Rawd al Faraj, densities were as high as 135,000 per square kilometer.
Cairo is an ancient city, occupying a site that has been continuously inhabited for more than 3,500 years. Over the centuries, there have been nine distinct cities where Cairo is located. The “modern” city was founded in 969 near the site of ancient Egypt’s Khere-ohe, better known in the West by its Greek name of Heliopolis. In Arabic, “Cairo” means “victorious” and is the same name used for the planet Mars.
Cairo has consistently been a city of preeminence in the Arab world for more than 1,000 years, but its political and economic influence within and beyond Egypt has varied. One of its more illustrious periods ran from 1170 to 1345, when Cairo became one of the world’s largest cities with a population of about 500,000. The layout of central Cairo remains similar to what it was during that time. Many of the city’s renowned mosques–there are more than 600 Islamic monuments in Cairo–also date back to the medieval period. Cairo’s importance derived from its role as a center for the production and export of textiles and refined sugar and for goods manufactured from cotton, flax, and sugarcane. Cairo was also a transshipment center for overland trade from India and Africa to Europe.
The plague known as the Black Death devastated Cairo and the rest of Egypt between 1347 and 1350. The plague killed about 40 percent of the country’s population.
Cairo quickly lost its preeminent role as a transshipment center when the Europeans discovered a maritime route to India and China around the Cape of Good Hope.
Cairo remained Egypt’s administrative and commercial center, but it experienced relative economic stagnation for the next three centuries. By the time Napoleon conquered the city in 1798, its population had declined to approximately 200,000.
During the nineteenth century, the rise of the cotton export trade, government sponsorship of industrial development, and the completion of the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869 revitalized Cairo, and the city began to grow again. During the last half of the nineteenth century, the French approach to urban planning changed Cairo’s layout.
Egypt’s ruler, Ismail (1863-79), had been educated in France and aspired to have his capital rival Paris. To coincide with the ceremonies for the opening of the Suez Canal, Ismail proposed a design for “modern” Cairo.
The proposal included a wooden replica of La Scala opera house in Milan.
The structure was to host the premier of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida.
Ismail’s efforts to build a modern Cairo resulted in a separation–still apparent today–between the western part of the city, called Al Izbakiya Gardens (which is European) and the eastern part (which is Arabic).
Cairo has continued to grow rapidly since 1850, when its population was approximately 250,000.
By 1930 the population had reached 1 million. Throughout the twentieth century, it has been the most populous city in Africa and the Arab world.
Cairo’s development has been most intense since World War II, and has resulted in a variety of problems. The city’s population, growing about 300,000 per year in the 1980s, has strained urban services to the breaking point. Public transportation was woefully inadequate in the late 1980s, with about one of every four buses out of commission at any given time.
Public water supplies, sewer facilities, and trash collection were all overburdened.
Housing was perhaps the most pressing problem because persistent shortages of skilled labor and construction materials hampered efforts to build residential units quickly enough to meet demand.
The demand for moderately priced housing was especially high. Some people resorted to clandestine and semi legal housing arrangements; as many as 200,000 wooden, cardboard, and metal huts were constructed on the roofs of apartment buildings.
An estimated 500,000 people were living in the mausoleums in the city’s cemeteries.
Alexandria is Egypt’s second largest city.
Located on the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, it has been an important port ever since it was founded by Alexander the Great more than 2,300 years ago.
The city declined dramatically during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries when its maritime trade with Europe virtually ceased as a result of new sea routes around Africa to India.
When the French landed at Alexandria in 1798, barely 10,000 people lived in the city.
Alexandria grew substantially in the nineteenth century because of industrialization and Egypt’s emergence as an exporter of agricultural commodities to Europe. Between 1821 and 1846, Alexandria’s population grew from 12,500 to 164,000.
By the end of the century, its population had almost doubled to 320,000. Between 1947 and 1986, Alexandria’s population grew from 700,000 to 2.7 million.
In 1990 Alexandria was a major industrial center that included two large oil refineries; chemical, cement, and metal plants; textile mills; and food processing operations. Alexandria is also the country’s most important harbor for exports and imports.
Egypt’s third and fourth largest cities, Giza and Shubra al Khaymah, are part of Greater Cairo. The rapid growth of these cities since 1947 is directly related to the growth of Cairo. Giza (1986 population 1.6 million), opposite the Nile River island of Ar Rawdah, is the location of Cairo University and the famed Pyramids of Giza.
Shubra al Khaymah (1986 population 500,000), on the Nile north of Cairo’s Bulaq quarter, is a manufacturing suburb with a heavy concentration of textile factories.
As of 1989, Egypt had nine other cities with populations greater than 200,000. In the Delta were Al Mahallah al Kubra with a population of 375,000, Tanta with 365,000, Al Mansurah with 335,000, Az Zaqaziq with 260,000, and Damanhur with 215,000.
These five cities were local administrative, commercial, and manufacturing centers.
At the northern and southern termini of the Suez Canal were Port Said with a population of 358,000 and Suez with 271,000. In Upper Egypt were Asyut on the Nile with a population of 250,000 and Al Fayyum, an oasis with a population of 215,000. Five other cities had populations ranging between 150,00 and 200,000.
These included Al Minya, Aswan, and Bani Suwayf in Upper Egypt; Kafr ad Dawwar in the Delta; and Ismailia (Al Ismailiyah) on the Suez Canal.