The lay of the land: Property, gender and household in the development of al-Darb al-Ahmar district in Mamluk Cairo

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University of California, Santa Barbara

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Social sciences, Cairo; Christian, Christians in Islamic cities, Gender, House ownership, Mamluk, Mamluk Cairo, Neighborhood, Property, Social history, al-Darb al-Ahmar


This history of a single district of Cairo explores the connections of thesocial fabric of Mamluk and early Ottoman society to the built environment. The al-Darb al-Ahmar district of Cairo in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was composed of a few commercial and light manufacturing areas surrounded by residential neighborhoods laid out on both sides of the Bāb Zuwayla gate. The square facing this gate had come to serve by 1450 as a secondary city center. Sultans, their favorites and family members founded monuments in the district and surrounding streets. However, most of the urban fabric of the district was made up of residential neighborhoods lined by houses and small apartment buildings that have gone largely unnoticed. Physical connections between these neighborhoods encouraged the development of locally based social networks, expressed in part through practices surrounding theownership of houses.

Both Christian "Middle Class" extended families and elite Mamluk households worked within the general framework of Islamic laws regarding ownership, inheritance and endowment of property. Christian families welcomed holding property jointly, and were more likely to retain ownership within the extended family over the long-term. Conversely, theMamluk and ulama elite households with more resources at their disposal, though more likely to alienate property as a religious endowment were also more likely to exchange or sell it in relatively rapid order. Women of both groups were property owners, but exercising their rights required the mediation of men. Representatives of all these groups expressed in their purchasing or ownership practices significant loyalty to the district.

Consideration of Cairo society at the level of the neighborhood demonstrates above all connections and continuities. These took different forms: physical connections between the district and its neighborhoods, the neighborhoods and its houses, and their connections in thecollective imagination through place names; social connections between members of extended families or households and their ties to and within specific urban spaces; and continuities between the Mamluk and Ottoman city and the legal strategies and practices of both periods.