by Nicholas Warner, 2006


In 1549, a Venetian printmaker named Matteo Pagano published a large wood engraving in twenty-one sections of the city of Cairo. This view continued the Renaissance tradition of depicting cities from an oblique aerial perspective. Cairo appears as a dense mass of buildings with numerous distinctive mosques, tombs, and palaces. Here for the first time was an image of a fabled eastern city and rival to the historic centres of Europe, that conveyed both a sense of its scale and its complexity.

Pagano’s view was to remain the standard western representation of Cairo for another two centuries. Though its viewpoint is imaginary, the depiction is accurate enough to permit a detailed interpretation of the city, its constituent parts, and the surroundings. Many of these elements are further described in a numbered sequence of legends that appear on the view itself. These relate to the separate Latin text, written by the renowned Orientalist scholar Guillaume Postel. With the legends as his starting point, Postel elaborates upon the architecture of the city, its conquest by the Ottomans in 1517, and the customs and beliefs of its inhabitants and rulers.

Volume One of this monograph provides an account of the sources and techniques used in the creation of this remarkable image, and the reasons and context for its production. It also provides a descriptive catalogue of the numerous later imitations of Pagano’s view of Cairo.

Volume Two contains a facsimile, translation and commentary upon Postel’s narrative alongside striking illustrations of each of the individual elements referred to in the view. This detailed study is of value not only to historians of architecture and cartography, but also to all individuals interested in Islamic culture and its representation by Europeans.

Volume Three contains a facsimile of Pagano’s view which, for the first time, reveals its size (two metres by one) and splendour to a wider audience.


Volume One
Chapter One. The Image of Cairo
Chapter Two. Pagano’s View of Cairo and its Commentary
Chapter Three. Contexts
Appendix One. The Diffusion of Pagano’s View
Appendix Two. The Letter of Pellegrino Brocado

Volume Two
Facsimile of the Descriptio Alcahirae
Caput Primum. Concerning the Origin of the Ismaelite or Muhammadan People
Caput Secundum. Consisting of a Description of the City of Missir of Massar
Caput Tertium. The Thirty-four Legends

Volume Three
The facsimile of the map in a slipcase

Author Information

Nicholas Warner is an architect trained at Cambridge University and the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University. He arrived in Cairo in 1993 to conduct research on the Islamic architecture of the city. Since then he has directed and participated in a number of projects. These relate to the documentation, preservation, and presentation of historic structures and archaeological material throughout Egypt. Among them was the creation of a new map of the core of the historic city of Cairo, together with a catalogue of its significant architecture. This has given him a unique experience of the character and appearance of the city, both today and in the past.

Review Highlights

‘Nicholas Warner has meticulously researched the context of the Pagano view’s production as well as the anomalous features in its detail, and his analysis of the problems that arise is unfailingly intelligent. As for the volumes themselves, they have been planned by experts in book design, and, printed in Arcadian Bembo and lavishly illustrated, they are fit for the shelves of scholar princes.’
Robert Irwin in The Times Literary Supplement

‘Warner has expounded meticulous care in depicting and analyzing every single detail in the map or associated with it and in comparing it to every known map of Cairo and other neighbouring cities from that period. Acknowledgement has to go to the publisher … which spared no expenses in printing this stunning three-volume study of the map and its context. The publication speaks for itself as a wonderful fulfillment of the library’s mission ‘‘to promote the cultural transfer between the Levant and Europe through exhibition and through publication’’.’
Nasser Rabbat in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians

‘A magnificent publication … because of the extreme rarity of the extant copies of Pagano's Cairo views, republishing a facsimile of the Arcadian Library's copy in its original dimensions is an extraordinarily valuable contribution to knowledge, and no doubt many scholars will benefit enormously from the third volume of this work, if not just love exploring it.’
Yahya Michot in the Journal of Islamic Studies

Sample Text

Preface: Cairo, like any great metropolis, has had its appearance and scale dramatically altered over the thousand years or more of its history. Yet some aspects of the historic centre of the city have proven to be remarkably resilient in the face of change. Despite the construction of the majority of modern buildings in concrete-frame and fired brick, these structures generally still respect an ancient street layout, and give an adequate impression of the scale and density of the city’s interior as it might have appeared in the past. The urban core, though a pale shadow of its former self, is still home to an astonishing range of artisans and workshops producing goods in almost every material. The surviving historic architecture that frames these and other activities is of an unrivalled variety, complexity, richness, and power. That this city, separated from its heyday by centuries of wear and tear, can still so impress us today, is perhaps the surest guide to the wonder with which it was viewed at the end of the fifteenth century.

Formal recognition of the cultural value of the physical remnants of the city was made in 1882 with the establishment of one of the earliest initiatives anywhere in the world to preserve such a heritage: the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe. While the focus of this commission was primarily the conservation of individual examples of Islamic architecture, its members were also aware of the value of ‘the whole’: in other words the value of the city as the primary artefact that took precedence over each of its individual components. This value was confirmed, almost a century later, by the addition of Cairo to the World Heritage List. Although such acknowledgements of the importance of preserving the city for the future are necessary they cannot do more than slow down the long and inevitable process of deterioration and change. This is one reason why the representation, both visual and verbal, of the image of the city through time assumes a greater significance. Whether that representation is dispassionate and precise (the result perhaps of architectural documentation) or biased and impressionistic (the travel account of a Christian pilgrim) is not paramount; for, by analogy with the city which is a sum of its buildings, all such views are part of a wider perceptual reality that complements the physical presence of the city itself.

Of all the many representations of the city, the ‘True Description of Cairo’ by Matteo Pagano must surely rank as one of the most evocative and impressive. I first came across Pagano’s view in the Institut de l’Égypte, that relic of one of Egypt’s more recent but most culturally significant occupations. It was in the form of what I now know to be a derivative print by Braun and Hogenberg, reproduced in facsimile. Intrigued by this nearly five-hundred-year-old ‘snapshot’ of the city, I bought it. Further knowledge of the view came through a perusal of the scholarly literature, but little could prepare me for the first sight, at the Arcadian Library in London, of the original, whose size and complexity seemed an appropriate mirror for Cairo itself. Much in the manner of the first-time visitor to the teeming bazaar, my initial attempts to understand the nature of this image were tentative. Prolonged exposure, however, brought improved (but not total) comprehension …

Introduction to volume one: In the middle of the sixteenth century, a now little-known Venetian printmaker named Matteo Pagano published a vast bird’s eye woodcut view of the city of Cairo. Although the adopted viewpoint is entirely imaginary, the depiction is accurate enough to allow a detailed interpretation of the city and its surroundings. The image printed by Pagano was to remain the standard western representation of one of the largest and most important cities of the Islamic world for another two hundred and fifty years. Despite its significance, however, the view has thus far attracted no major study – a lacuna that this book attempts to fill.

Cairo’s soubriquet in Arabic, ‘The Mother of the World’, was derived from its outstanding importance in trade and culture, fostered by successive dynasties that made it their capital for more than three centuries. Travellers from the Arab world were amazed not only by the city’s outward appearance but by the mass of people that inhabited it. In 1326 Ibn Battuta wrote:


… at length I arrived at the city Misr (Cairo), mother of cities and seat of Pharaoh the tyrant, mistress of broad provinces and fruitful lands, boundless in multitude of buildings, peerless in beauty and splendour, the meeting-place of comer and goer, the stopping-place of feeble and strong. Therein is what you will of learned and simple, grave and gay, prudent and foolish, base and noble, of high estate and low estate, unknown and famous; she surges as the waves of the sea with her throngs of folk and can scarce contain them for all the capacity of her situation and sustaining power.

Some of these travellers liked the city so much that they stayed. Ibn Khaldun, the renowned fourteenth-century historian and man of letters who came to Cairo from the Maghreb, saw beyond what he described as ‘the anthill of humanity’ to a deeper symbolic structure. The metaphor for civilization that the city represented was powerfully presented by him in his Muqaddima, at a time when European urban culture was comparatively undeveloped. Ibn Khaldun’s student, al-Maqrizi, was the author of one of the most important descriptions of Cairo, still relied on today in our efforts to comprehend the topography of the city and its parts, but even this was merely another contribution to an already well-established genre of urban history.

It was not simply the inhabitants of the Arab world who regarded Cairo with amazement. This was a sentiment shared by the many European visitors, for whom the city’s great size and specialist markets were without compare. Of the Europeans, it was the Venetians who came and went most freely. The removal of the relics of St Mark, concealed under joints of salted pork, from Alexandria in 828 proves that Venetian contact with Muslim Egypt started early. Venice, despite (or perhaps through) her direct involvement in the Crusades and her establishment by force of colonies throughout the eastern Mediterranean, remained the most significant European trading partner for the rulers of Egypt, whether they were Fatimid, Ayyubid, or Mamluk. Although the eagerness of Venetians to trade with ‘the Infidel’ earned them continual Papal interdictions and the hatred of their Genoese rivals, the commerce in luxury goods from Istanbul, Damascus, and Cairo remained constant after 1300. With trade came an increased understanding of the great cities of the East, and the customs of their inhabitants. In the case of Venice it also resulted in a taste for the oriental that was manifest in many aspects of domestic material culture.

Yet by the sixteenth century European interest in Egypt went far beyond the commercial. For Christians it was the land of the exile of the infant Jesus, rich in spiritual associations, where indulgences could be gained from visiting the sites connected with the Holy Family. For those with antiquarian leanings, the enigmatic remains of an entire vanished civilization provided endless material for musing and moralizing. Humanists seeking an understanding of the more recent, but rapidly expanding, culture of Islam could not easily ignore Cairo (the most conspicuously urban manifestation of that culture) or the languages spoken by its denizens. Renaissance rulers, moreover, looked beyond the decline of Mamluk rule to the dynamic and despotic figure of the ‘Turk’, the new master of the eastern Mediterranean, in whose origins and beliefs there was such a widespread interest. Venice was then a principal producer of the printed materials – the pilgrimage manuals, maps, grammars, and histories – that communicated much of this information to a wider audience.

This book describes the European fascination for a great Muslim metropolis, as manifest in two related artefacts of Venetian provenance: the view of Cairo by Pagano and its accompanying descriptive text. Volume One offers a context for understanding both. A frame of reference for the image of the city through a study of its antecedents and parallels (both European and Muslim) is given in Chapter One. Pagano’s was not the only view of Cairo to survive from the sixteenth century, and even if neither had the impact of Pagano’s printed image, two significant alternative views are presented here by way of comparison: the panorama of the Italian pilgrim Brocardo and the illuminated manuscripts of Piri Reis, the pre-eminent map-maker and admiral of the Ottoman fleet. Chapter Two considers the various individuals responsible for the production of the view and text: the printer, the designer, and the writer. Matteo Pagano’s known corpus is discussed as a whole, together with the work of Giovanni Domenico Zorzi, the artist whose name appears on the view. Only recently was an author for the anonymous accompanying text convincingly proposed: the French cosmographer and orientalist Guillaume Postel. The involvement of such a complex figure in the enterprise of describing Cairo has added another facet to this study. The process of making the view is also presented in detail in order to establish its genesis with greater precision.

The abundance of city-views in the sixteenth century is an absorbing facet of cultural production that was to culminate in Braun and Hogenberg’s comparative urban atlas in 1572: the Civitates Orbis Terrarum. In consideration of this, Chapter Three attempts to place the production of the view in the context of other printed city-views from this period. The relationship of the view to an apparent European obsession with all things ‘oriental’ is also addressed in this chapter, in the context of the Venetian book industry and the trade with the East. A testimony to the longevity of Pagano’s ‘True Description of Cairo’ can be found in an appendix to Volume One, which contains an illustrated catalogue of the numerous different versions of the image as it appeared over succeeding centuries. Volume Two of the book is devoted to a commentary on the details of the view discussed by Postel in his descriptive text (presented here in facsimile and partly translated into English). This commentary is supplemented by further observations about numerous features of the view ignored by Postel, but whose study provides another level of understanding for the image. The inclusion of a handsome facsimile of the view in Volume Three of this publication will permit the reader to appreciate the entirety of Pagano’s work at full scale.

Introduction to volume two: This volume contains two parallel commentaries relating to Pagano’s view of Cairo. The first is the original commentary provided in the booklet accompanying the view, the Descriptio Alcahirae attributed to Guillaume Postel, and the second is my own. The first two chapters of this booklet (describing the origins of the Muslims and the city of Cairo) are not translated, but their thematic content and points of interest are discussed. The third chapter (explaining the thirty-four captions or Legends upon the view) is translated in its entirety into English from the Latin as transcribed and annotated by Codazzi. This translation employs a typographic distinction, made in the original text by the use of square brackets, between the Latin translation of the captions from vernacular Italian and their further treatment by Postel. Thus, the captions are presented in small capital letters, the notes and text of Postel in italics, and the modern editorial remarks and commentary in standard text. The third chapter is illustrated with relevant details taken from the view, reproduced at a variety of scales. For clarity, captions superfluous to the subject at hand have been removed. If the commentary upon a particular Legend is extensive, further pertinent details from the view are reproduced beside it. As some of the numbered captions on the view are located at a distance from the subjects they describe, it has proved necessary to reproduce, in these cases, the relevant text blocks closer to those subjects.

Apart from the thirty-four numbered Legends on the view, there are many other unnumbered labels present that deserve analysis. These provide the subject of the Addenda to the treatment of the Descriptio Alcahirae. Most, but not all, of these labels refer to particular features on the view. Occasionally, the same subjects are touched on within the texts of the Legends themselves, as elaborated by Postel, but in general they stand without further remark in the Descriptio. The observations in this section are intended to complement the main commentary by describing these elements, in the belief that they impart a significant amount of additional information to the reader. Also included in this section is a broader discussion of points of human interest and urban features that are clearly represented on the view but not directly commented upon, either in the original captions or in Postel’s text. The choice of which elements of the view to highlight, in addition to those indicated by obvious labels, has been a personal one. In general it has been informed by a desire to present a more complete picture of the city of Cairo than that provided by the text of the Descriptio. As with the treatment of the third chapter of the Descriptio, details are extracted from the view to illustrate this section. The location of all details, relating to both the Legends and the Addenda, is shown on a key inserted at the beginning of the third chapter. A further key, bearing the names of all other identifiable urban features in the view, follows the conclusion of the Addenda.

From the addenda: Date-pickers. Legend thirty-three, whose subject is the cassia or carob tree, mentions en passant the abundance of palm trees in Egypt. The view of Cairo also provides a separate scene showing the harvesting of dates: an age-old activity that can still be witnessed around the city today. The scene shows a Nubian and another figure with a cane standing on either side of a palm tree, up which a third individual (possibly another Nubian) is climbing. In the background is a man crouching over a basket for the picked fruit … The date palm, Phoenix dactylifera L., is one of the oldest fruit trees in the world and is mentioned in ancient Egyptian medical and religious texts, as well as in both the Bible and the Quran. It has been cultivated in Egypt since ancient times. Every part of this perennial tree, which can grow up to thirty metres high and live for one hundred and fifty years, has a use apart from the food which the dates provide. The trunk serves building purposes, the leaves are used for baskets and furniture, the bark is woven into rope, and the fruit stalks are burnt as fuel … According to the Quran, dates have always been considered beneficial. Mary gave birth to Jesus under a palm tree, and heard a voice telling her: ‘Shake the trunk of the palm tree towards thee: it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon thee. Eat, then, and drink, and let thine eye be gladdened!’ In Cairo, according to Christian tradition, a palm tree gave succour to the Virgin by lowering its fronds so that she could partake of its dates, and a church was later built on this site.

From the addenda: The People of Cairo. In 1554 Pierre Belon described the Egyptians as a happy fun-loving race totally unlike the Turks who were ‘mornes, lents et paresseux’. Leo Africanus, too, noted that the people of Egypt were of a friendly disposition and fond of word-play. They practised commerce ‘without ever having to leave the borders of their country’. Many studied law, but, in spite of the number of schools, there were few men of letters. Felix Fabri commented on the multitude of races to be found in the city, which he portrayed as a hive of activity with its public bookshops, portable kitchens, water porters and travelling salesmen …

The text of the Descriptio gives what are effectively population estimates for Bulaq (4,000 homes), Bab al-Luq (3,000), the area to the south of Bab Zuwayla (12,000), the city centre (8,000) and the island of Rawda (1,500) which are all taken directly from Leo Africanus. Modern estimates for Cairo’s population at the beginning of the sixteenth century vary. Basing his projection on Leo’s figures, and allowing for 5–6 family members per household, Michael Dols arrives at a total population of 177,500–213,000 persons of whom 40,000–46,000 inhabited the area of Fatimid Cairo. Andre Raymond gives a roughly equivalent tally. However, Jean-Claude Garcin suggests that these figures fail to take into consideration peripheral areas of the city, and proposes 270,000 as a more realistic estimate.