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Cairo’s Central Markets

Around turn of the century to the 19teens a new feature in Cairo’s urban life appeared: The Central Market. This is yet another important but forgotten element in modern Cairo’s urban history and so far as I know nothing has been written about this, yet.

My first introduction to these markets was at Bab el-Louq (a short 3 minute walk east of Tahrir Square). Bab el-Louq square is the long elliptical space midway between Abdeen Palace (Gomhoriyya Square) and Tahrir Square. In around 1870-73 when the palace and the Qasr el Nil Bridge were built; Ismail Street (now Tahrir Street) was to link the two together but the line had to bend in order to connect the bridge with the palace, that bend became Bab el-Louq square. The Square once had an important tram station until all the tram lines (almost all 124 kilometers of tram lines) were dismantled under Sadat in favor of cars. Today the Square is a parking lot.

Overlooking the square is a large turn of the century building with a large central arch. It was difficult to notice what this was at first because of the typical clamor of storefronts which fragment any once cohesive facade. The inscription above the central archway reads “Marche de Bab el Louq 1912” in French and “سوق باب اللوق ١٩١٢” in Arabic.

The interior is a beautiful, intact, original iron truss roof not unlike what you see in turn of the century train stations. The floor plan is a grid of shops selling (or that once sold) vegetables, meat, poultry, dairy, etc. I have a feeling these shops were once much more attractive as the market was once truly central to the community and was well frequented with shoppers. There is also a gallery on the second level that borders the perimeter with more shops. The gallery is reached by the original iron stairs and railing, although there has also been some modifications added. It seems as though some squatters have moved into the rooms on the upper floor which overlook the streets outside.

Today the market is in a sad state and is little frequented by shoppers who shop elsewhere. Many of the shops and shop spaces are either closed or vacant and only a few vendors are present but their livelihood depends on this place. I am not sure what went wrong here and why this place fell into disrepair but it seems like it could again become a viable commercial and food center for the community. Perhaps this is part of the problem, the community, is no longer the same as the one that was once served by this urban institution.

Once I discovered Bab el-Louq market, I continued to admire it every time I was in the area. I thought it was the only one until one day while in a taxi on the overpass above Attaba Square and over Azhar Street  I had a glimpse of yet another massive market structure. And Indeed there is another central market near Attaba and it seems to be even bigger than the one above. I haven’t yet explored this building but it is there and as the image below shows it has a cross plan rather than Bab el-Louq’s more rectangular plan.

And to my surprise, while I was checking out the disaster of a renovation at Cairo’s train station, I walked out and decided to walk through Boulaq and reach the Nile. As I entered the area where the microbusses line up to pick up passengers outside the station, I noticed a dilapidated large classical facade. At closer inspection I found the faded letters that once read “Marche, سوق” and I couldn’t be happier to discover this place. This building too I haven’t explored in detail but the image below shows it too has a cross plan and it is sizable. I believe it said 1901 for its inauguration date, although I need to go back and check.

Together these three markets form a triangle around central Cairo. These were the main destinations for the urban bourgeois to shop for food around 1901 or 1912. It would be interesting if there are other central markets from this era that have also survived and are waiting to be brought back to life. Central Markets have been replaced by the corner stores “بقالة”, vegetable street markets or supermarkets such as Metro or hypermarkets such as Carrefour. A century after these were built and now when Cairo is in desperate need for urban regeneration, these Central Markets can be catalyst projects that have the potential to become again focal points for communities and provide commercial space for vendors. I think of Barcelona’s Mercat de Sant Josep every time I go to Bab el-Louq and I hope that somehow these markets will be revitalized and with them revitalize the communities around them.

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