Introduction to Cairo By Gaslight
by Brandon Black
Let us begin with the matter of why an editor living in New Orleans should commission an anthology of stories set in Cairo, Egypt.
At thirty degrees North latitude, Cairo is, if not a twin of New Orleans, She is at least a sister city. Like New Orleans, She is a major international port, an exotic destination for travellers from the world over and a cultural centre for all the many varied peoples around Her. She is a hinge, a nexus, a centre for trade and communication connecting Europe and Africa with Judea and Arabia, the Mediterranean and Turkey. If New Orleans is the City of Sensual Delights, then Cairo is the City of Intrigues, although She certainly isn’t any slouch in the sensual delights department Herself. As New Orleans is fed by the winding waters of the Mississippi, the longest river in North America, so is Cairo watered by the sacred flow of the Nile, longest river in the world. And like New Orleans, Cairo is a city called home by many people of varied and different complexions.
Cairo is a city of minarets and mysteries, of travellers and their tales and of journeys begun and journeys ended. Cairo sings of a fabled past where Pharaohs built magnificent edifices such as the Great Pyramids, unmatched statuary like the Great Sphinx and one of the first advanced civilizations on Earth at a time when Western Europeans had not yet managed the written word. Egyptian civilization was literally made fertile by the Nile, nurtured and nursed by it, its sacred waters providing the agricultural foundation that would lead to empire. And like New Orleans, Cairo is a gate and home to powerful gods and ancient spirits birthed in Mother Africa. Founded with the planet Mars rising, the oldest name for Cairo is Khere-Ohe, “the Place of Combat,” as legend proclaims it the site for a cataclysmic battle between Horus, God of the Sun and Sutekh the Destroyer.
But all that is in the world we know. This Cairo is different. This City of a Thousand Minarets dwells in a world where Napoleon led his troops through Her streets mounted on a clockwork steed and the Battle of the Nile was fought between airships. This Cairo is one of an infinite progression of Cairos, all seen through the lens of steampunk fiction. Steampunk makes an ancient and exotic locale all the more ancient, and certainly, all the more exotic. Floating temples drift lazily overhead, exchanging places throughout the city in an architectural ballet. Elaborate palaces filled with untold riches are populated by the rulers of the city, be they Sultans, Ottoman governors, British Lords, Mohammedan caliphs or French airship admirals. This Cairo is not only home and port of call to steamships travelling up and down the Nile’s waters, but her towers are home or at least, a temporary roost, for airships travelling to and from India, Ethiopia, Capetown, Cameroon, Singapore and far Cathay.
Muskets fire and scimitars clash with swords as Muslims and Crusaders battle in the streets. Cannons bellow and blaze as airships barrage one another in the skies. Filigreed brass men, forged in the coal-fired furnaces of Ottoman Turkey, prove their worth on the battlefield as noble houses clash to see who will rule the Sultanate, and Imams struggle desperately to regain lost power after a resurgent cult of Bast sweeps the ancient Goddess back into favour. Egyptian mechanical cavalry ride out to do battle with Ethiopian steam oliphaunts in a clash between the two growing empires.
Among these infinite alternate Cairos are ones where the Khedive of Egypt threw off the yokes of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire to join with the great air pirate tribes of North Africa and turn Cairo in a Mecca for air piracy. Sky smugglers traffic both in the new mechanised wonders of the Age of Steam and in talismans and artefacts of unknown and unfathomable mystic power from antiquity. Other Cairos see a long and bitter cold war between Britain and France turn Egypt into the front line of a European proxy war. Further afield lay Cairos that witness the struggles between Carthage and Rome reach all the way into the nineteenth century.
The streets and alleyways are thick with spies and secrets abound, though their veracity cannot be proven. Darkling whispers and shadowed cries of passion are as much Her traffic and Her trade as any pallet of Egyptian cotton or sack of sugared dates. The City of Intrigues stands as She always has, a monument steeped in secrecy and sin, and to all who walk Her streets, encountering Her wonders and delights, Her dangers and Her heartaches, in time, She provides answers to queries both spoken aloud and unuttered, but makes no promises as to whether or not one will find the answers satisfying or even if they will lead one only deeper into mystery.
New Orleans-based fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Black is the editor of the By Gaslight steampunk anthology series. He has a Bachelor’s in Military and Political Journalism and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. His short fiction has appeared in Dark Oak Press’ Dreams of Steam III and Seventh Star Press’ A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. Brandon has just published a short anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fiction short stories entitled Mechanical Tales and is working on completing his first novel, I Was A Teenage Air Pirate.