THE UNDERWORLD OF MEDIEVAL CAIRO

An Arab city of the early medieval period

An Arab city of the early medieval period – From a contemporary manuscript

Introduction

Medieval Cairo was famous for its organised crime.

A memorandum prepared for the government of Egypt in the 1280s said that the crime hotspots were in redolently named areas that included ‘the Nile bank, the cemeteries, and ponds such as the Elephant’s Pool and the Abyssinian Pool…and certain public halls in the Husayniyya Quarter known as Qa’at al-Futuwwa, where turbulent folks hang out’.

Futuwwa Gangs

There have been suggestions that the ‘turbulent folk’ of the Muslim Futuwwa gangs and the ahdath city militia may both be the direct heirs of the Byzantine circus factions, large groupings of the young men of the city. Both were a continual cause of concern for the authorities, as an obvious source of criminality and violent disorder. Both were rowdy and disreputable. And, interestingly enough, membership of both groups had homosexual overtones, as older members were accused of having a predilection for the younger recruits.

The lineage is not as far-fetched as it may sound. The Muslim conquests in Syria and other parts of the Middle East meant that they became responsible for the same civil populations in urban areas – until their arrival, these had been Byzantine citizens, with all the cultural habits and behaviour that went with it. And both groups had the same name: the ‘young men’.

In an accurate demographic summary of gangsterism (and of those who commit the most violent and disorderly crime), the word ‘Futuwwa’ may also literally be translated as ‘young-manliness’. Sometimes these groups were harmless – providing occasional meeting places or social clubs for unmarried men. But, given the nature of those involved, many were not. Unsurprisingly, from the early 1260s onwards, some of these groups started to muscle in on the local criminal enterprises, and by the 1280s the term ‘Futuwwa’ had distinctly pejorative overtones.

Dare to be Different

Some of what they did, and much of how they displayed themselves, was calculated to mark them out as being different – a way of setting themselves apart from mainstream society. Futuwwa gangsters had a reputation for being good with knives, and if one were arrested, the others in the band were expected to come and get him out of jail, by whatever means necessary. Running prostitution rackets was not unheard of either. Gang members were even, it was said by some of their less broad-minded critics, expected to prostitute their women if necessary to help a comrade.

There was also an infamous initiation ceremony that sometimes involved naked young boys and youths – as with much else about the Futuwwa, this was viewed with suspicion by the more orthodox Muslim onlookers. Their meeting places were described as being somewhere ‘in which the wicked or immoral assemble’, and venues, disgracefully, ‘in which are wine and instruments of music and the like’. This disreputable reputation, combined with continued suggestions of homosexuality, gave the gangs a spectacularly bad name – and perhaps that suited them well enough.

The Crime Quarter
Medieval Middle Eastern Street Scene

Medieval Middle Eastern Street Scene – Public Domain

The coarse and almost deliberately shocking nature of the gangs was reflected in the areas in which they chose to live. The Husayniyya quarter of Cairo where they were based was where the more unmanageable, lower-calibre soldiers were garrisoned. And from the 1260s onwards, this cheap and turbulent neighbourhood had also seen an influx of often involuntary Mongol migrants, many of them acting as mercenaries.

It was a heady mix. A rough part of town was getting rougher by the minute.
Thirteenth-century Husayniyya was the most dangerous suburb in a dangerous city. It was well known for crime, and all the usual vices that went with it, but it was also famous for its young toughs – young men who, when supportive of the government, were available as a hardened neighbourhood militia. It briefly became slightly gentrified (in the early fourteenth century) but quickly reverted to form – a double whammy of flooding and a strangely specific infestation of roof-eating worms pushed the district firmly back to its down-market roots.

New Blood

The local Futuwwa gangs were supplemented (or temporarily supplanted) by the occasional influx of fresh and enthusiastic new blood. The Oirats, or Kalmuks (a Mongol tribe from the western steppes), for instance, settled in Husayniyya in large numbers in 1294-1296. At this distance it is hard to say what religion they belonged to – perhaps it was not entirely clear even at the time. They were not always regarded as being entirely Muslim, but they may have thought of themselves as such.

Whatever their exact beliefs, however, they were certainly culturally eccentric and made a big impact. They ate horses, and they had beautiful, desirable women. And, as they were, at best, on the fringes of Islam, they may well have retained their steppe predilection for alcohol. They started wearing Futuwwa dresses and carried weapons in the street – perhaps inevitably, they too set themselves up as gangsters in the vice rackets.

Robin Hood Syndrome

But, however threatening the Futuwwa might look, they also had a ‘Robin Hood’ or ‘artful dodger’ aspect to their reputation. They stood up for local people against government officials. If necessary, they helped defend native Egyptians against their foreign rulers and the foreign rulers’ mercenaries. And they provided an alternative way of life for those with no obvious way out of their rough neighbourhood – one which at least had a semblance of its own independence and dignity.

They were occasional allies for deprived people who had few life choices – a tenuous but welcome protection for the ‘hushrat’ (or ‘human vermin’) who constituted most of the inhabitants.

The Futuwwa probably had far more in common with the Frankish prisoners of war than either would have cared to admit. They were all subversives in their own way, doing whatever it took to survive. They were all rebels and adventurers.

And, in war or in peace, they were the last defenders of people with little hope.

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Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble
Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble

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SOURCES

  • Tibble, S. (2023). Crusader criminals: How knights went rogue. Yale University Press.

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