Posts tagged history

Cairo on the toilet: a brief history


[Advertisement from 1939 for a company selling and installing modern bathrooms]

Domestic space, in Egypt and elsewhere, underwent enormous transformations for a larger segment of urban society from the beginning of the 20th century. While innovations in modern plumbing began to become available to the elite in their palaces and residences in the mid to late 19th century, the majority of society still had to do things the old way (bucket of water for washing and go outside for #2). However, within the span of a decade in the beginning of the 20th century modern plumbing was accessible to more people. Already buildings built during the boom of 1897-1907 in Cairo were equipped but those were not where the majority of Egyptians lived. By the 1920s things pick up quickly and pipes were added to older homes across the city while newer buildings built by and for the middle and working class began to have more access, still it was considered a luxury. Remember that the hammam was still an important feature in the city and every neighborhood had several such spaces.

Improved hygiene at home and rational domestic space appear in the popular press and popular culture as evidence of good manners and class. For example, advertising for modern bathrooms proliferates in the 1930s onwards. At the same time popular magazines were saturated with advertising for household items as well as personal hygiene products such as Nabulsi Farouq, a popular soap named after the king. In a popular ad circulating in the 1940s, Egypt’s two leading performers Muhammad Abdel Wahab and Om Kulthoum are pictured along with testimonies to the product at hand: “Naboulsi Farouq is an enjoyable and surprising product that attests to Egyptian industry,” a signed statement by Om Kulthoum reads.


In a 1944 film, “Bullet to the Heart,” Abdel Wahab performed one of his most famous musical scenes entirely in a modern bathroom as the star undressed and sang in the bath. That particular scene and song are essentially a celebration of modern plumbing. Yet this was a celebration of modernity as afforded to a particular class inhabiting a particular kind of dwelling. Middle and upper classes were to desire and therefore pay for such amenities and perhaps hire an architect along the way to provide the plans for such spaces. A modern bathroom was a sign of social refinement and class mobility.


In the early 1950s modern sewage and plumbing were still not available to vast segments of society particularly outside big urban centers. During that decade the state invested heavily in sanitation, sewage and water infrastructure. Housing projects across the country built by the state introduced many to the modern bathroom for the first time. The state also  manufactured toilets, sinks and other household items for the modern Egyptian family. Such products were sold at reduced prices in showrooms across the country. The toilet became a national project and a symbol of developmentalism.

11 Recent Cultural Disasters in Egypt


In recent decades there had been a slow but persistent destruction of Egypt’s rich cultural heritage, specifically its buildings, archaeological sites, and museum collections. Heritage and the rich histories it carries were under assault with incidents such as the theft of masterpieces from museum collections, the $55 million Van Gogh that disappeared in plain day light as an example, but also lesser known pieces from the country’s vast and uncatalogued collections are constantly disappearing. In most cases these kinds of thefts or sudden disappearances go unnoticed and unreported. The assault on Egypt’s cultural heritage is more often the result of mismanagement, conflicting policies, lack of policy enforcement and the state’s hegemonic control over the arena of culture and heritage in general without proper mechanisms for civilian oversight or transparency. Tens of museums across the country close for extended periods with no planned reopening, sometimes a decade, in the name of renovation. In the meantime the whereabouts and condition of collections remain a mystery and there are no channels for the public to inquire about such information. High level officials are never held accountable. In other times the state is directly the vandal, as was the case with the botched renovation of Cairo’s heritage central station in 2011. Added to this is the insatiable appetite of the market for Egyptian cultural artifacts ranging from ancient statuettes to doors and wooden ceilings of the homes of historic Cairo. These items end up in private collections in Europe and the Gulf.

Adding to the rapid destruction of heritage is the undemocratic nature of urban management in Egypt. Take for example the disastrous case of Luxor where its former governor (an appointed military general with no experience or knowledge in heritage management or urbanism, appointed to run one of the world’s richest cities in terms of cultural capital) decided single handedly to destroy entire stretches of historic urban fabric, forcibly evict residents from historic village homes that represent some of the best examples of vernacular domestic architecture, and to create an empty badly paved plaza in front of Karnak Temple in place of the centuries old trees and palm groves that separated the temple from the Nile. These are but few examples of the havoc done onto the city by its appointed governor with all the tools of the security state at his disposal to intimidate residents and imprison those who get in the way.

One of the main culprits in the deterioration of Egyptian heritage is the state’s take over of the Waqf system, which tied the maintenance of properties to an endowment, and by doing so provided financial resources for the upkeep of endowed buildings. When the system was canceled by the state in the early 1960s, the state failed to provide sufficient funds to maintain previously endowed buildings. This also is tied to the conflict between the Waqf Ministry and the Antiquities Ministry over which institution is responsible for which monuments. Additionally, the Antiquities Ministry is the only one in the Egyptian government required to generate its own income, which it generates from ticketing at historic sites, creating an unbreakable link between national patrimony and tourism: With low tourist turnouts, financial resources to repair and maintain monuments decline and monuments carrying layers of Egypt’s history fall into disrepair. Moreover, this link between heritage and tourism has meant that only sites with touristic potential are maintained while others tucked in the urban fabric and unknown to package tourists become forgotten, locked away and neglected. The link between tourism and patrimony must be undone as Egypt’s material culture is not merely a cash cow for tourist money but it belongs to Egyptians first and foremost.

All of the above was part of the relatively slow destruction of Egyptian heritage. However, since 2011 these processes have accelerated at an unprecedented rate. In the last three years there have been three main processes for this accelerated destruction: first, in many cases the political uncertainly led the middle men in the processes described above to continue and accelerate their work, since there was no guarantee what the future would bring. Second, in other cases the flimsy control of the state over urban issues, such as the selectively applied ban on the demolition of historic or listed buildings, disappeared overnight. Because there was no real comprehensive policy that incorporated heritage into an effective economic structure the ban on demolition was imposed not because there were benefactors or because there was a widely recognized value for such structures, rather the ban on demolition was literally associated with particular persons in the ruling regime. Thus when such figures seemed to be out of the political picture, many heritage buildings were demolished in order for their owners to profit from the land or to build new profitable structures. Finally, a third wave of destruction is a direct result of the political uncertainly where heritage was used as a bargaining chip to shame the revolution or it was in the crossfires of fighting or attacks. Mosques, churches, museums, and government buildings were burned, looted, or destroyed.

It is important to read Egypt’s heritage drain within a regional context. From Syria’s enormous losses of major historical sites to the looting of Iraqi museums and collections following the American invasion. Through various processes of erasure, the “old Middle East” has been systematically losing hundreds of years of cultural heritage. If museums, folklore and cultural constructions were essential tools for the invention of nations in the 19th and 20th centuries, then their destruction could be read as the undoing of nations in the 21st century.

Here is an abbreviated list of some of the major cultural and heritage losses in Egypt since 2011. Many of these cases have been under-reported and lost amidst the news of massacres, mass arrests and political turmoil.

1. Major damage to Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art and the National Library and Archives building and collections.


Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art, known locally until recently as the Museum of Arab Art, holds the world’s most comprehensive collection of Islamic art covering all periods of Egypt’s history since the coming of Islam and including items from around the Islamic world from Iran to Turkey. The museum was closed for nearly a decade to undergo a renovation that resulted in mostly cosmetic changes to the galleries with only a selection of 2500 items put on display, a small fraction of its more than 100,000 items. The building housing the museum is a heritage building completed in 1903 also houses the main headquarters of Egypt’s National Library with its special manuscript collection. Pictured above is a clipping from a magazine from the 1960s complaining about the architecture of the then new police headquarters across from the historic museum.

The Museum was severely damaged in January of this year after a bomb blast targeted the police headquarters across the street. Read more here.

2. Destruction of many of Cairo’s historic and landmark villas and palaces


Since the 1990s villas and mansions that were built by a burgeoning bourgeoisie from the end of the nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century have been destroyed. Since 2011 the rate of destruction has accelerated and listed villas were targeted and even removed from the heritage list by direct order of the prime minister. Known examples include Villa Casdagli and Villa Ispenian in Cairo as well as the residence of key figures in Egyptian history such as Makram Ebeid palace in Qena (which also happens to be located across the street from the city’s main police headquarters). Many more were damaged or destroyed without ever being studied or documented, taking with them a significant slice of modern Egyptian history.

3. Destruction of Mansoura Theater

In December 2013 a car bomb targeting the police headquarters in the city of Mansoura caused major damage to the city’s historic theater located across the street. While the Culture Ministry vowed to repair the building, the municipality deemed it must be demolished. The fate of the building is still uncertain. The theater is a turn of the century building that was among a series of theaters and opera houses that were built in cities across the country (including small and medium cities) and patronized by the local elite.

4. Looting of the Malawi Museum in Minya

The Malawi National Museum in the southern city of Minya was entirely looted. In August 2013 as many as 1089 objects recorded in the museum inventory were stolen in a single heist. Around 50 items were destroyed or burned. Months later it has been reported that half of the items were later returned. In December it was reported that the museum was undergoing restoration. The museum contained a special collection of artifacts discovered locally. The world famous Nefertiti bust, now in Berlin, was discovered nearby in 1912.

5. Destruction of the Institut d’Egypte


In December 2011 amid clashes between security personnel and protesters an inconspicuous historic building at the corner of Qasr el Aini and Sheikh Rihan Streets caught fire. The building engulfed in flames was home to the Egyptian Research Council (المجمع العلمي المصري) also known as the Institut d’Egypte. The library in the building contains original publications dating back to 1798 including the famous Description de l’Egypte. Following a gift from a Gulf emir and a botched restoration of the building it was announced the following year that the building reopened although nothing is known about the fate of its collection.

6. Uncontrolled urban transformation of the historic of Darb el Ahmar district in Cairo


One of the most spectacular urban transformations since 2011 has taken place at the heart of historic Cairo in one of the most revered districts, al-Darb al-Ahmar. Numerous buildings have been destroyed dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries, sometimes with official demolition permits. The problem is not only in the en-mass demolition but also the speedy constructions that have risen above 10-stories dwarfing all that remains of the city’s once intact historic neighborhood with an accumulated heritage of domestic architecture. Authorities have been fully complicit in this enormous cultural disaster often citing lack of security as an excuse for not intervening.

7. Encroachment on archaeological sites at Fustat, Dahshour and Al-Matariyyah

Archaeological sites north-west and south-east of Cairo have been vulnerable to building encroachment. At Dahshour, it has been reported, residents from a nearby village began building cemeteries over the site. While in Matariya, one of Cairo’s ancient sites where the city’s only obelisk is still standing, a neglected archaeological site had been transformed into a waste dump. In Fustat, the site of Egypt’s first Islamic capital, nearby residents began building on the site. In fact these acts of encroachment are the direct result of years of negligence and the policy that has cut monuments from their local context by building fences and treating the urban population as trespassers rather than active members of communities essential to monument preservation. In all the above cases the Antiquities Ministry has been slow to react and incapable of dealing with crises.

8. Partial collapse of Muhammad Ali’s Shubra Palace

This is a truly unique building, which had been inaccessible due to a over-drawn restoration costing millions during the years of Farouk Hosni. After the revolution started, the site, like many others across the country, was closed citing lack of security. During this period of closure news emerged that an entire corner of this early 19th century pleasure pavilion collapsed due to the unprofessional restoration completed years earlier. The news emerged months after the collapse happened. Since then news of the status of the site has been suppressed. It is important to note that “renovations” and “restoration” projects have often been the result of direct order given to a contractor, often with no substantial experience in such work. These projects cost millions without independent supervision of budgets or quality of work.

9. Thefts at several sites in Islamic Cairo

For years historic Cairo has been slowly drained of its exquisite architectural elements from door knobs to entire doors and wooden mosque pulpits and even ceilings of ottoman-era houses. Stories circulate in these districts about middlemen buying and bribing their way through the heritage of the city as their wealthy clients, often women from the Gulf, seek to acquire authentic antiques to decorate their newly built homes in the booming cities of the “new Middle East.”

Since 2011 the rate of these thefts and the audacity of the thieves have increased. While police occasionally foils a theft of historic buildings, many more go under the radar. The theft of decorative element from the door of the Sultan Farag Ibn Barquq funerary complex received some attention in 2012. However, we will never know the full extent of these thefts, again because the very system of managing these sites and the relationship between these buildings and neighboring communities are deeply flawed.

10. The rapid loss of Alexandria’s architectural heritage


If a city can visually, urbanistically and experientially represent the current state of Egypt most vividly, Alexandria is probably the best candidate. While the transformations taking place in Egypt’s second city can be seen across the county, no city comes close to Alexandria’s rate of deterioration and urban densification due to corruption in municipal government and the security apparatus and the power of the construction mafia. From tens of historic buildings demolished every month to thousands of new illegal constructions rising to the lack of improvement to basic services and the near absence of any municipal policy, Alexandria’s decline is irreversible.

The city’s iconic modernist building housing its municipality was torched and destroyed during the early days of the revolution. Unique structures such as the Villa Aghion were partially demolished, sites of cultural memory such as Lawrence Durrell’s villa are on the demolition list. The “bride of the Mediterranean” as it is known locally, is sinking into the sea.

11. The disappearance of Cairo’s Railway Museum


Another major casualty of mismanagement and corruption is the Railway Museum at Cairo’s central station. In 2010 it was reported that the museum “lost its tracks” and that a renovation was in order. Then, during the midst of the revolution, a renovation was hastily carried out at the station destroying the architectural design of its interior and the Railway Museum was dismantled. The museum renovation was never completed and the location of its collections is unknown. There is no information as to the intended date of reopening, if any, or who is carrying out the renovation, nor who is designing or curating the collection and display, if any. The world’s earliest museum dedicated to the railways is, for now, gone.

Frank Lloyd Wright Visits Cairo


[Frank Lloyd Wright accompanied by his wife at the time in the center of a group of architects and the head of the Architects Society, as well as the head of public buildings at the Ministry of Rural and Urban Affairs.]

In May 1957 Frank Lloyd Wright, 89 at the time, visited Cairo on his way back to the United States from Iraq where he spent a week. FLW was in Baghdad, the site of his proposed building for a new opera house as part of the “Plan for Greater Baghdad.” The plan was in the service of the ruling regime during its final days, an attempt by power to create a new public image for itself using its oil money and with the service of world renowned architects. Upon closer inspection the plan includes many entertaining details such as decorative themes derived from the 1001 Nights and a large statue of Haroun ar-Rachid with a good sprinkle of camels and other orientalist motifs. For FLW this was the Iraq he knew and given a blank check to create his master plan and architectural designs he must have thought he was digging deep into the historical treasure trove of the Iraqi past recovering “vernacular” and local references and images.


[Schematic drawing of the Greater Baghdad Plan, the Opera House is seen on an Island in the Euphrates given to wright to design a cultural complex that will put Baghdad on the international cultural map. At the bottom of the image and on the tip of the island is Wright’s monument topped by Haroun ar-Rachid.]

There were a few Egyptian architects who traveled to the US to study in FLW’s Studio including architect Kamal Amin. Wright’s trip to Egypt was part curiosity and part research, wanting to see more of the Middle East before building his first project in the region. The visit was organized by the Architects’ Society which together with Egypt’s Society of Engineers organized a reception at its main building on Ramses Street near Cairo’s downtown. The reception was attended by many of the country’s practicing architects and their wives to entertain Wright and his wife.

Prior to the reception Wright was given a tour of Cairo, which apparently was off putting as the city’s buildings did not conform to Wright’s expectations. During the reception Wright made a speech in which he was quoted in the press as saying:

It saddens me to tell you that what I have seen of your work in the streets of Cairo, and this is my first time in this city, was far beyond my expectations. I never expected that Egypt, which taught humanity the meaning of civilization, would be home to such cheap architecture built by its own architects and engineers. The many examples of your work I have seen during my speedy tour have no spirit, artistry or dignity. These structures are commercial and pedestrian, never have I seen such architecture for profit as I have seen in Cairo, except perhaps in Johannesburg.

Dear architects and engineers, you are responsible for the architecture of this and future generations. Where in your work is the collaboration between the architect and the structural engineer, between the architect and the artist and artisan, between the architect and the sculptor? Building must result from all these collaborations, otherwise architecture becomes what you have built here, empty, cheap and single-note show pieces. If your architecture shows anything it shows that you built with your minds but not with your hearts. Architecture is not only physics and science, it is life, hope and feelings.*

He then turned his back to his audience and said, “this is enough, I have given Cairo a lesson you should never forget.”


[Frank Lloyd Wright at the residence of one of his former students Salah Zaitoun, looking at images of recent projects]

It is not clear from the published report on the visit what buildings exactly triggered Wright’s disappointment. Nor is it clear where in Cairo exactly he toured, although given that the reception was at the Society of Engineers building, it is most likely that Wright’s tour was mainly around the city’s downtown area with its many early twentieth century blocks and a smattering of more recent buildings.

There is much to be said about Wright’s observations of architecture in Cairo but for the purpose of this blog post here are a couple of points. First, Wright was seen in Egypt as the father of العمارة العضوية or “Organic Architecture.” However, this approach to architecture had little reverberation in Egypt where a structural modernist idiom was dominant. Second, underpinning Wright’s critique of architectural design in Cairo is Wright’s expectation of local practice in Egypt to be informed by tradition or, to use a less loaded term, local references. This is clear in Wright’s own work such as the Imperial Hotel in Japan, in which local architectural references were incorporated, although perhaps only in an additive fashion and in ornamentation, into his design. Egypt, like Japan, is an ancient place with layers of historical architectural traditions that for Wright would have been necessary elements in his view of a modern Egyptian architecture. This was of course not the case as the prevailing architectural aesthetic in Egypt for several decades already before Wright’s visit was what is known as the “International Style,” preceded by a period of eclecticism drawing decorative references from a wide variety of sources. Third, if indeed much of what Wright saw was the architecture of downtown’s early twentieth century overlaid on a 19th century “Parisian” city plan of radial squares, then Wright must have been shocked by what looked to him nothing like the “east” he expected. This might explain his comment that many of the buildings he saw were “commercial.” Whether Wright’s dismay was pointed at ornamental downtown “Belle Époque” buildings or plain modernist buildings, both of these architectures must have looked out of place for wright. Egypt must have had its own Haroun ar-Rachid to dig up, dust off and put on a pedestal.

The following day after the reception, Wright was taken by a group of architects on an excursion north of Cairo to the Qanater, an area of Nile-side gardens and famous barrages which opened to the public in 1868. This excursion was led by the head of the Architects Society at the time, Tawfiq Ahmed Abdel Gawad, who wanted to show Wright one of the most admired works of architecture and engineering, the barrages. During the trip, it is reported, Wright told Abdel Gawad that he had visited the Egyptian Museum earlier that morning. The museum, Wright said, was more of a storage facility that is not suitable for the display of the treasures of ancient Egypt. Wright then proceeded, in the business fashion of a true global architect, to lobby the head of the Architects Society to get him a commission to build Egypt a new museum so that “he can leave his mark on the East.”

* Cairobserver’s translation of the quote originally published in Arabic.

Whose Heritage? Reflections from a disappearing Alexandria

محمد عادل دسوقي

في الصفحات الأولى من الجزء الأول من ثلاثية «القارة المائية» والذي يصف فيه الكاتب نيكولاس وودز ورث رحلته للإسكندرية كواحدة من ثلاثة مدن بحرمتوسطية كبرى، يستقل المؤلف القطار المتجه للمدينة، وتأتي جلسته إلى جوار طالب جامعي سكندري كان منشغلا بهاتفه المحمول. يتبادل الاثنان كلمات قليلة عن الإسكندرية. غير أن الشاب يخرج عن صمته فجأة عندما بدى على الكاتب الاهتمام الشديد بإحدى الفيلات القديمة المهمَلة تصادف أن يمر القطار إلى جوارها في نهاية رحلته

إنها لا شيء، قالها وهو يشيح بيده في رفض. “هناك مئات من هذه المباني في الإسكندرية. كان الأجانب الأغنياء يعيشون فيها. إيطاليون، يهود، يونانيون، شوام، فرنسيون.. لقد رحلوا جميعا. والآن تختفي هذه البيوت أيضا. سرعان ما سيهدم هذا البيت أيضا. ما أهميته؟ انه قديم”ـ

تعليق الشاب، مثل الفيلا نفسها، أثار الدهشة والتساؤل لدى الكاتب، فكتب يقول أن مثل هذا البناء التاريخي لو وجد في روما أو نابولي لكان له شأن آخر، لكنه في الإسكندرية أصبح مثالا على الإهمال. تعليق الشاب قصير ومقتضب، لكنه بلا شك لسان حال الكثير من سكان الإسكندرية على اختلاف أعمارهم وتخصصاتهم. بسبب عملي في تدريس العمارة واهتمامي بتاريخ المدينة العمراني سمعت مثل هذه الآراء كثيرا، ليس فقط من الطلبة بل من زملاء ومن مهندسين يمارسون المهنة منذ فترات طويلة، منهم من قام ببناء عمارات سكنية فوق حطام مثل هذه الفيلا منذ بداية السبعينيات. واليوم، وبعد عقود من هذا “الاستبدال العمراني” سيطرت الأبراج الخرسانية تماما على خط سماء المدينة. أحياء كاملة اختفت ملامحها العمرانية بشكل كامل عبر العقود الأربعة أو الخمسة الأخيرة. تغير عمراني سريع وكاسح لن يدرك فداحته إلا من يقوم بمقارنة الصور الفوتوغرافية القديمة لشوارع المدينة وميادينها بحالتها اليوم. تضاعفت قيمة هذه اللقطات كثيرا مع تغير المدينة. بعض الصور تفشل كل الجهود المبذولة الاستنتاج مكانها الحالي، رغم أنها تحمل تاريخ يعود الثلاثينيات مثلا

الإنسان بطبعه يرتبط بالأمكنة التي نشأ فيها أو تلك التي ارتبط بها تاريخ أسرته أو احدى الجماعات التي ينتمي إليها اجتماعيا أو ثقافيا أو دينيا. والمجتمعات المختلفة دائما ما تتخيل أن هُويتها مرتبطة بأماكن بعينها تصبح “أمكنة للذاكرة” وتحمل بالتالي قيما ومعانٍ أعمق وأهم من غيرها. ولايخلو سياق خاص بالهوية الوطنية من حديث عن أماكن تحمل رمزية ينبغي على الجميع أن يحافظ عليها. فالسؤال هنا إذن لماذا ترك سكان الاسكندرية مدينتهم تتحول بهذا الشكل؟ ولماذا أصبحت المباني التاريخية إرثا يخص غيرهم من جنسيات أصبحت في نظرهم غريبة على المدينة؟ ومتى أصبح “القديم” غير ذي أهمية؟ لا شك أن مأزق التراث في الإسكندرية مرتبط بظروف المدينة الجغرافية والتخطيطية والاقتصادية، لكنني هنا سأقوم بالتركيز على التغيرات السياسية والديموغرافية الجسيمة التي طرأت على الإسكندرية (وعلى مصر بشكل عام) في أعقاب يوليو 1952 باعتبارها أحد الأسباب المباشرة وراء هذه التحولات

لقد كان العمران ولا يزال وسيلة هامة تم استخدامها في دعم الأنظمة السياسية بأساليب مختلفة عبر التاريخ. فمن يتحكم في شوارع المدينة وميادينها يستطيع أن يؤثر بالتالي بقوة في وجدان أهلها وذاكرتهم الجمعية بالشكل الذي يتوافق مع مصلحته. من يتحكم في عمران المدينة يتحكم بالتالي في قرار إقامة (أو إزالة) النصب التذكارية بما يتفق مع روايته المفضلة للتاريخ، ويملك آلية تغيير أسماء الشوارع والحارات والمحطات ومباني الخدمات العامة بأسماء الأشخاص والأحداث التي يريدها أن تبقى في الأذهان لكي يبني عليها شرعيته، ويملك القرار في اختيار ما هو جدير بالترميم والحفاظ من عمارة المدينة وما لا يستحق سوى الإهمال والتخريب، ويتحكم أيضا فيما يصح أولا يصح إقامته من طقوس أو احتفالات جمعية يمارسها سكان المدينة في حيزاتها العمرانية العامة. هذه السياسات التي تجمع ما بين التحكم فيما هو مادي ملموس وما هو معنوي غير ملموس تعمل في مجملها على تشكيل جوانب لا يمكن الاستهانة بها من المجال العام الذي يتفاعل من خلاله سكان المدينة، وبالتالي على تشكيل وجدانهم وهويتهم

وإذا تتبعنا التاريخ العمراني لمدينة الإسكندرية الحديثة منذ أن ازدهرت على يد الوالي محمد علي باشا وحتى اليوم، نستطيع أن نقسم هذا النوع من سياسات التعامل مع العمران الواعية لتفاعل “العمران-الذاكرة” إلى ثلاثة فترات تتزامن في الحقيقة مع التغيرات في الساحة السياسية المصرية. الحقبة الأولى هي حقبة الأسرة العلوية خاصة منذ عهد الخديو اسماعيل الذي كان أول من أقام تماثيل في الميادين العامة بالقاهرة والإسكندرية لترسخ تاريخ الأسرة في الحيزات العامة، فكان تمثال جده محمد علي باشا بميدان المنشية هو الأول من نوعه الذي يقام في مدينة تنتمي إلى العالم الإسلامي. ونستطيع أن نحلل طبيعة الصراعات السياسية المعقدة بين سلطة القصر وسلطة الاستعمار ونفوذ الجاليات الأجنبية وأيضا التيارات والأحزاب السياسية الفاعلة في ذلك الوقت (الذي ترسخت فيه الأفكار النهضوية والقومية المصرية) من خلال رصد وتحليل التماثيل والأضرحة وأسماء الشوارع والميادين في الإسكندرية

 أما الحقبة الثانية، وهي الحقبة الناصرية، فقد أولت اهتماما بالغا بهذا النوع من إدارة العمران، فحرصت على استبدال كل ما يمكن أن يذكّر أو يرمز إلى فترة حكم الأسرة العلوية بالمدينة برموز “ثورة يوليو” وما يدعم شرعيتها من أسماء وأحداث تاريخية. فأصبح النصب التذكاري «للخديو اسماعيل» هو نصب «الجندي المجهول» و«فكتوريا كوليدج» أصبحت «كلية النصر»، وميدان «محمد علي» أصبح ميدان «التحرير»، وشارع «توفيق» صار شارع «عرابي»، وهكذا. وصاغ نظام ناصر نسخة معدلة من التاريخ كانت المدينة نفسها وسيطا في ترسيخها لدى العامة ضمن مشروع محكم استهدف ذاكرة المصريين بذاكرة جديدة (أو “ذاكرة مضادة” كما يطلق عليها ميشيل فوكو). كما تسببت سياسات عبد الناصر الاشتراكية ذات المفهوم الضيق لفكرة الوطنية بشكل مباشر وغير مباشر في رحيل جماعي للجاليات ذات الأصول غير المصرية عن الإسكندرية، وفي المقابل توافدت على المدينة أعداد هائلة من سكان أقاليم مصر الأخرى، ومن ثم، ومع هذه التغيرات الديموغرافية المفاجئة، لم تتوفر الظروف المناسبة لنشأة تلك الأواصر التي تربط بين قطاعات كبيرة من سكان المدينة وبين حيزاتها العمرانية والتي لا تتحقق إلا عبر فترات زمنية طويلة من التفاعل المتبادل

أما الحقبة الثالثة التي امتدت منذ بداية السبعينيات وحتى بداية العقد الثاني من القرن الحادي والعشرين، فهي حقبة “الانفتاح” وشرعية “أكتوبر”، والتي اهتمت فيها السلطة لفترة وجيزة في السنوات الأولى لحكم السادات بفكرة الذاكرة والعمران أقامت أثنائها نصبا تذكاريا لحرب أكتوبر بميدان «الجمهورية» (محطة مصر سابقا)، وأزالت أو تعمدت اهمال بعض رموز الناصرية (مثل مبنى الاتحاد الاشتراكي الشهير) في سبيل تحقيق “ذاكرة مضادة” جديدة، قبل أن تفقد اهتمامها تماما بالفكرة، تاركة المدينة تتشكل بواسطة رؤوس الأموال الجديدة الوافدة على المدينة دون تدخل يذكر من الدولة التي زهدت أيضا في أفكار الحفاظ العمراني والتراث. ليبدأ وجه المدينة في التحول السريع الذي لم يتوقف لحظة حتى الآن

لقد تركت هذه السياسات المتناقضة أثرها البالغ على علاقة سكان الإسكندرية بمدينهم وشوارعها وعمارتها الفريدة. وزادت حدة المشكلات الاقتصادية وتعقيدات البحث عن الرزق من انصرافهم عن الاهتمام بشأن المدينة وتراثها. والسؤال الآن إذن كيف يمكن من الأصل أن يتم الحفاظ على أبنية تاريخية في مجتمع أغلبه قد لا يعتبرها تراثا يستحق الحفاظ بعد كل هذه التحولات السياسية والاجتماعية؟

لقد حققت بعض الجهود الداعية للحفاظ على تراث المدينة بعض المكاسب في العقد الأخير من القرن العشرين عندما حاول عدد قليل للغاية من المتخصصين أن يقفوا في وجه التحول العمراني، وعلى رأسهم جاء د. محمد عوض ليضع لأول مرة قائمة للتراث العمراني بالإسكندرية أتمها عام 1999، ونجح بعدها في اقناع محافظ المدينة بتطبيقها كقائمة للمباني المحظور هدمها في المدينة مستفيدا من قانون الحاكم العسكري في ذلك الوقت الذي حظر هدم “الفيلات التاريخية”. ثم أقرت الحكومة قانونا “للحفاظ على التراث المعماري” عام 2006 به ما يكفي من عقوبات (وثغرات) وتحددت بعده قائمة جديدة لتراث يحظر هدمها. فهل نجح كل ذلك في الحفاظ على “تراث” المدينة؟ لا شك أن هذه الإجراءات قد أبطأت بعض الشيء من وتيرة الهدم والتحول، لكنها لم توقفه بأي حال من الأحوال. لقد أثبتت التجربة أن القوانين مهما بلغت صرامتها لن تقنع أحدا بأن ما يمتلكه من مبان تاريخية هو تراث قيّم عليه أن يحافظ عليه ليبقى لأولاده وأحفاده. لقد هدمت مبان رائعة وهامة كانت مدرجة في القائمة الأولى وفي الثانية ولم يترك المُلاك والمستثمرون وسيلة أو حيلة أو ثغرة قانونية أو حجة دستورية أو ظرفا سياسيا استثنائيا إلا واستغلوه في هدم المزيد والمزيد من هذه المباني

الأمر إذن مرهون بأن يشعر سكان المدينة نفسهم مرة أخرى بقيمة هذا التراث الاجتماعية والثقافية والاقتصادية وبالتالي بتبعات خسارته. ومطلوب منا جميعا كمهتمين أو متخصصين أن نعمل على سد الفجوة بين سكان المدينة وتراثهم المفترض بكل السبل الممكنة. وعلينا أن نذكر أجهزة الدولة  بفداحة ماتسببت فيه سياسات الحقب الماضية وأنها الآن معنية - رغم ترهلها ومشكلاتها العاجلة والمزمنة - ببناء ودعم هذا الوعي إذا أرادت أن تحافظ على ما تبقى من المدن المصرية

Cairo as History: David Sims on Raymond, Rodenbeck and Golia

The following is an excerpt from David Sims’ Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City out of Control


Cairo as History

The single strongest pull in the imaging of Cairo is probably the city’s historical dimension. And Cairo certainly has a lot of history, over four thousand years of it if Memphis and Giza pyramids are considered part of the city, and over one thousand years even if Cairo’s history is considered to have begun only in the Fatimid era. In fact, it could be said that there is a whole industry, curiously dominated by American and French scholars, which looks just at Islamic Cairo. It even seems sometimes that the most important commentator on Cairo is the fourteenth-century chronicler and urban observer Ahmad ibn ‘Ali al-Maqrizi.

It is worth remembering that, although Cairo certainly has a proud historic past, at present the parts of the city that can be considered historic (that is, those that existed at the time of the French occupation in 1798) represent only a minuscule fraction of the whole. Currently the population of these areas does not exceed 350,000 persons, or 2 percent of Greater Cairo’s total of over seventeen million inhabitants. It should be added that the population of these small areas continues to decline, and if the government has its way, historic Cairo will soon become a sterile open-air museum with little else but theme-park embellishments and tourist shops.

Although historic Cairo is now an almost insignificant part of the modern metropolis, Cairo as history seems to trump the literature. In the last fifteen years three substantial books have appeared that look specifically at Cairo—Andre Raymond’s Cairo: City of History (published in 1993 in French, and in 2001 in English), Max Rodenbeck’s Cairo: The City Victorious (1998), and Maria Golia’s Cairo: City of Sand (2004). Each tries to see the city as a whole, and each includes descriptions of contemporary Cairo. Yet in each the historical emphasis is at the forefront, if not overwhelming.

Raymond’s book is the most historic, devoting only one chapter of some thirty pages to Cairo’s development over the 1936 to 1992 period. And this chapter is predictably named “The Nightmares of Growth.” It concentrates on “galloping population growth,” wholesale urban expansion on precious agricultural land, and “frenetic growth” of what had been genteel neighborhoods, the “near-paralysis of traffic,” and deplorable infrastructure services. Raymond devotes only two pages to the phenomenon of informal or spontaneous settlements around Cairo, which flourish “without the help of any planning, in agricultural areas that one would wish to preserve,” focusing instead on laments for the decline of the historic quarters and the ugliness of recent architecture. Raymond seems to see nothing good in recent developments, implying that his “city of history” is losing its soul. He concludes:

But Cairo risks becoming an ordinary city, another example of the vast conurbations proliferating throughout the world…the population threat is still present, poised to sweep away the fragile barriers that technicians and politicians have managed to erect to direct its flow. In the past demographic growth has been an asset to Egypt, giving it power, prestige, and authority. Today it is a mortal danger. Cairo long played the part of safety valve for Egypt’s population growth. Tomorrow it could be its detonator.

This gloomy assessment was published in 1992, when Greater Cairo had just eleven million inhabitants. Today it has over seventeen million and is still nowhere near detonating.

Max Rodenbeck’s book on Cairo is also unabashedly historical, and the first two-thirds present a very readable and insightful historical time-line that starts in earnest with the Arab conquest of Egypt in AD 640 and the establishment of al-Fustat. The last third of the book covers modern Cairo since the 1952 Revolution, going through the rule of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, and focusing on Egypt’s changing fortunes and social dynamics and how they played out in Cairo. Religion and fundamentalism, political games, bloated bureaucracy, foreign aid, riots, Sufi mulids, coffee houses, class hierarchies, the hopeless education system, garbage and the zabbalin, song and film, are all subjects for observation. Cairene kindliness, stoicism, humor, and wit in the face of economic stagnation and chaos rightfully claim pride of place. Rodenbeck offers few generalizations, but he does sit back and muse, quite accurately: “On the surface Cairo’s ways of coping seem hopelessly tangled and sclerotic. They can be maddening…By and large, though, the city’s mechanisms work…In richer cities formal structures, rules, and regulations channel a smooth flow of things. In Cairo informal structures predominate.”

Rodenbeck never completely abandons the historic take on the city, even when discussing modern facets. He is clever at intertwining the old with the new. Thus Nasser’s autocracy is compared with that of the Mamluks, modern Cairo’s cavalier attitude to garbage is compared to a similar pharaonic nonchalance, today’s rampant bribery is compared to legal knavery recorded on tomb reliefs from the New Kingdom as well as to medieval Cairo’s corrupt judges and bribed witnesses, and present-day funeral obsequies are compared to both the pharaonic and Islamic preoccupation with death. These comparisons might help provide continuity in a take on Cairo that is more or less biographical, but it does not in itself explain how modern Cairo grows and works. For example, although the book was published in 1998 when almost half the city could be considered informal, the phenomenon of informal urban development and its ascendancy in Cairo’s landscape is hardly mentioned, except in a quote from Asef Bayat on the informal city’s style of “quiet encroachment” and a reference to the “higgledy-piggledy burrows of Bulaq al Dakrur.” To Rodenbeck, as to many other observers, the hard life of the poor is found in an amorphous geographic landscape called “the Popular Quarters,” which combine new informal Cairo with older tenement and historic areas.

Maria Golia’s book is less historic than either Rodenbeck’s or Raymond’s. In the preface she poses the question: “Some of us wonder, watching Cairo teeter between a barely functional glide and an irretrievable nosedive, what keeps this plane in the air?..How and why, given some of the most grueling, incongruous conditions imaginable, Cairo retains its allure and its people their sanity.” She aims at looking at “Cairo’s broader present moment, its giddy equilibrium and unfolding contemporary nature,” pursuing lines of inquiry about Cairo’s millions and their “grace under pressure.” Golia bravely tries to do just that, but even so, she also cannot avoid the historical spin. One of her five chapters is devoted entirely to the city’s history, and references such as “the arc of fourteen centuries” pepper the text.

At one point Golia asks “Perhaps today’s greatest riddle is not so much ‘where is Cairo headed?’ as ‘where is Cairo at all?’ Is it in the old quarters, or the remnants of belle époque downtown, or in the new middle-class areas on the west bank, or in the satellite cities of the desert? Or is the real Cairo to be found in the myriad hovels in which most of the people actually live?” Except for her pejorative and incorrect descriptions of informal Cairo as a collection of hovels, this is a good question! Unfortunately she doesn’t really answer it, except to ask another question, which turns back to history: “Does a collective hallucination sustain the image of an ancient and venerable city when it is in fact disfigured with slums and crass consumerism?”

Even Janet Abu-Lughod, who describes the orientation of her well-known 1971 book on Cairo as “social and contemporary rather than historical and architectural,” seems unable to escape from being partly tied down by a thousand years of history. Over one-third of her book is devoted to the Islamic and Khedivial city, up to roughly the time of the First World War. However, the rest of the book investigates the formation and growth of the “contemporary city,” which roughly covers the 1920 to 1960 period.

Profile: Mahmoud Riad


[Mahmoud Riad and his graduating class at Cairo University, 1927.]

It maybe about time for the canon of the history of modern architecture to include an Egyptian architect from the modernist period. And if one Egyptian architect from that period is to be included it probably should be Mahmoud Riad. Riad is a prolific architect and planner who built many iconic buildings in Cairo (still standing) and who wrote and lectured about matters of planning and workers’ housing. He graduated from Cairo University’s architecture department in 1927 then went on to acquire a masters degree from Liverpool in 1931. During his apprenticeship he worked with “Shreve, Lamb and Harmon on their Manhattan masterpieces, the Empire State Building and 500 Fifth Avenue, before returning to Egypt to establish his own practice.” Riad founded his practice in Cairo in 1933 and later served in the Ministry of Public Works and the Cairo Municipality.


[Riad’s thesis proposal for a bus+rail terminal for Alexandria, 1931.]

"In the 1950s, after years of service at the Ministry of public works, he was named Director General of the Cairo Municipality, a position that he held until the late sixties. During his tenure, he oversaw and developed some of Egypt’s most important projects, like the planning of Nasr City and Cairo Stadium. News of his stern and professional reputation made waves in the international scene, as he was asked take part of the UN meeting on metropolitan planning as one of the "expert" professionals in the field. In 1965, Mahmoud Riad was appointed the position of technical advisor to the Ministry of Housing & Public Affairs in Kuwait , where he oversaw the planning and construction of all projects taking place in Kuwait until his death in 1979 - leading him to establish professional and personal relationships with the likes of  Reima Pietila, Sir Colin Buchanan, and  Kenzo Tange."


[Ford facilities at Imbaba in Cairo, 1937.]

Riad’s most notable projects include the Egyptian Cotton Company’s Cardiology Clinic and hospital in the industrial city of Mahala el Kobra in 1943. Also, The Misr Insurance Company building in Lazoughly, 1946; Misr Insurance Company building in Tawfiqiyya, 1948; Misr Insurance Company building on Talaat Harb in downtown Cairo, 1952; The Socialist Union Building (the now burned NDP building), 1959; The Arab League, 1955; and Hilton hotels in several cities including Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria as well as in Cairo in partnership with Welton Becket.


[Misr Insurance Building on Talaat Harb Street under construction, completed in 1952.]


[Model of the Arab League Building, completed 1955.]


[Elevation of the Misr Insurance Company Building in Tawfiqiyya, completed 1948.]

Mahmoud Riad is a foundational figure in twentieth century Egyptian architecture. His legacy is little known outside a small circle of specialists as the Egyptian modernist phase continues to be undermined within the contemporary education of Egyptian architects. As it is the case of many of Riad’s fellow architects from the early and mid-twentieth century the legacy of such architects can only be assembled with the availability of archival materials. Luckily the family of Riad has maintained his archive. The family maintains Riad’s architectural practice which is now seeing its third generation. The information and images posted in this blog post come from a fantastic beautifully designed website by Riad’s grandson architect who has meticulously constructed a portfolio of Riad’s works, a biography, a CV as well as an assortment of other materials such as personal correspondence with Kenzo Tange. The website showcases the continuity of the family business across three generations from Mahmoud Riad’s first 1933 establishment of his practice to his son’s practice and now the grandson.


[Mahmoud Riad with Um Kalthoum in the 1950s.]

Event: Book Launch of Maisons de France au Caire

Book Launch on Wednesday May 29 at Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO) in Mounira at 5-7pm, followed by a presentation and debate with the author, Mercedes Volait at 7pm, and an exhibition and sale at 8pm.

Maisons de France au Caire. Le remploi de grands décors mamelouks et ottomans dans une architecture moderne
(French Diplomatic Architecture in Cairo. The reuse of Mamluk and Ottoman Fragments in Modern Buildings).

Cairo: IFAO Publications, December 2012 [in French and Arabic]
Hardcover, 298 pages, 231 illustrations.
ISBN 978-2-7247-0636-9

The book presents a detailed analysis of the two main premises that the French diplomatic mission successively occupied in Cairo : the Neo-Mamluk mansion designed in 1875-79 for the French aristocrat and early Islamic art collector Gaston de Saint-Maurice, based on the reuse of historical material (marble fountains, floors and panels, moucharabiehs and carved ceilings), complemented by matching design, and the Neo-Moroccan structure designed in 1934-38 to accomodate the historical fragments when the diplomatic mission was transfered to a new site. Based on unpublished sources, both visual and textual, complemented by contemporary photography, the book traces the artistic and political history of these consecutive reuses and reveals their accompanying epigraphy, of which a full illustrated catalogue is proposed.

The table of contents is available at:

Cairo’s 19th century transformation in 7 points


Cairo, like many cities across the globe, underwent a significant process of urban transformation in the mid-19th century. At the core of these transformations, which can be traced in cities from Latin America, Europe, and Asia, are sewage systems, street lighting, and drinking water systems. Most of these major infrastructural changes happen below street level, which explains why commentators on the 19th century often look up at what is visible, buildings, and rarely look below their feet. Also important to note that contrary to the dual city narrative 19th century infrastructural changes were implemented in both new and old parts of the city, with varying difficulty and speed for obvious reasons. Cairo has fallen victim to urban history that has elided the complexity of the city’s urban transformation during that time. I have already argued before that Paris was never along the Nile. On a recent trip to Paris I walked down the uniform apartment blocks of Haussmann’s Paris and stayed in one such building where behind the homogeneous facades are often small apartments reached by rickety small wooden stairs. Cairo’s 19th century (and early twentieth century) apartments were often dismissed as hastily-built Parisian simulacra in analysis obsessed by reductive East/West dichotomies and which privilege the eye. A closer investigation of Cairo’s “Parisian” architecture beyond reducing architectural history to facade reading, reveals a different set of socio-economic constructs that produced these buildings.

The focus on the above-mentioned aspect of 19th century urban development in Cairo has kept the major changes of that era in the footnotes of the official narrative. Today, as the city is desperately in need of comprehensive urban transformation and upgrading it is important to highlight the less visible but major projects carried out 150 years ago around the reign of Ismail that continue to shape the city today in ways more fundamental than mere aesthetics. Here are 7 major 19th century projects that reshaped Cairo:

1. Stabilizing the Nile Banks: The Nile in Cairo shifted with season which made the prospect of urbanization Nile-side a difficult one. Stabilizing the banks of the river, completed by 1865 and filling the adjacent areas that previously flooded made urban development possible and added riverside properties to the city’s real estate. However before the prospect of real estate the first large Nile-side building erected along the newly stabilized river were the new barracks of the Egyptian army (1865-68) known as Qasr el Nil. Tahrir Square would have been underwater if it wasn’t for this major infrastructural project. Qasr el Nil Bridge was also erected following the stabilization of the river and was opened in 1871.

2. The Northern boundaries: The areas north of historic Cairo near the recently built train station (1854) consisted of small hills which were flattened and and used in the draining and filling of the city’s lakes further south. Near by there were fields of radish فجل which were removed to make way for a new neighborhood named Faggala فجالة and Sakakini further north. A square was planned fronting the train station as the city’s northern entrance and Shubra street (tree-lined and extending north to Muhammad Ali’s Shubra palace) was connected to this area directly.

3. Abdeen Area: To the west of the old city was a small lake fronted by the estate of Abdeen Bek. The area was surrounded by marches to the west and slums to the east. The estate became the location for a new royal palace (moving the seat of power from the citadel down to the level of the city) and the new palace was built in 1863. The lake and marches were filled and a city square and new streets extending from the new palace were planned. The neighborhood of Abdeen was born.

4. Azbakiyya: Another area that was radically transformed was the posh district of Azbakiyya which overlooked a lake. The lake was filled and transformed into a garden during the rule of Muhammad Ali and the garden was redesigned again during the rule of Khedive Ismail. The transformation of Azbakiyya included the creation of several small public squares such as Khazindar and Attaba as well as Opera Square. The famed Cairo Opera House (1869) was built along side the public garden and several hotels were erected on the west side of the garden which was a linking space between the edge of the old city and the westward urban expansion that became downtown.


5. The East Bank: Major avenues were planned to crisscross the city connecting the western edge of the old city to the Nile. Such new streets were Emmaddidin, Muhammad Farid Bek, Almalika (Ramsis), Merit Pasha and Qasr el Aini. Ismailia Square (Tahrir) began to take shape by the 1870s as well as surrounding squares such as Bab el Louk and neighborhoods such as Mounira, Dawaween. These newly planned areas were paved with water systems underground, sidewalks and trees above and street lighting installed before building lots were developed by individuals.

6. The West Bank: Also following the stabilization of the river the west bank, which was raised two meters above water level, was available for development. Although it largely remained agricultural several new projects were implemented: The Orman Botanical Garden and the Giza Zoo as well as the Pyramids Road. A new Giza palace was erected as well.

7. Gezira Island: Known today as Zamalek, the island was consolidated out of several smaller islands and was largely left as a retreat with a palace and garden erected to host the French queen during her visit (today’s Marriott). With the exception of the palace the island was meant as an escape, a natural landscape dotted with wooden shacks/huts which gave the island its name. Eventually parts of the landscape were formalized into gardens and later streets were implemented such as Gezira St., Gabalaya St., Nile St., and eventually Foad St. (26th July).

These major projects were initiated during the reign of Khedive Ismail, however earlier projects took place during his grandfather’s rule such as the opening of several streets through the old city and the legislation of Tanzim laws for urban management. Also other major transformation took place later in the 19th century such as the filling of Khalij al-Masri (1890s) and the creation of Cairo’s first tram line in its route on what became today’s Port Said St.

Muhammad Ali Street and the shifting symbolism of Cairo’s cityscape


[the arcades in Muhammad Ali Street.]

By Joseph Ben Prestel

For many passers-by, the Southeastern edge of Ataba Square might be marked by the hustle and bustle from a myriad of shops selling electronic gear, household amenities, and other essential goods for everyday life. In this neighborhood with buildings packed densely next to each other, the view up Muhammad Ali Street is surprising. As if unimpressed by its crowded surroundings, the street runs for about two kilometers straight towards Sultan Hassan Mosque. Looking up from Ataba Square, the dome of the mosque is visible at the very end of the thoroughfare. This perspective bears witness to the building initiative that Cairo went through in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Khedive Ismail (1863-1879) ruled the country. Yet Muhammad Ali Street dodges the “Paris on the Nile” narrative often used by travelogues and guidebooks to describe this period. Instead, the street carries a multiplicity of meanings that have been attributed to the urban environment over time. Allusions to it associate the street with a range of topics, from nineteenth-century Paris to Egyptian folk music.

Construction of Muhammad Ali Street was completed between 1872 and 1874. The street was part of the large urban renewal program under Khedive Ismail, whose aim was described by his minister of public works Ali Mubarak as making “the streets and buildings ready for the expansion of trade, to align the cityscape to the prosperity of the country.” Whereas Ismail’s building spree focused mainly on new quarters of the city, such as Ismailiyya or the area around Bab al-Luq, Muhammad Ali Street was one of the few interventions in the old part of town. The street was designed to provide an important shortcut between the eastern and western parts of the city. Prior to its construction, Cairenes had to cross at least five other neighborhoods in order to get from the then thriving quarter of Azbakiyya to the citadel. After 1874, Muhammad Ali Street offered a direct connection between these two centers of urban life. With a width of twenty meters, the new thoroughfare meant a tremendous intrusion in an area in which streets had up until then not been wider than six meters. The project required cutting through two kilometers of densely populated neighborhoods. According to some statistics, the construction of the street resulted in the destruction or partial destruction of about 700 buildings. A few structures on Muhammad Ali Street still show traces of this process today. In order to make way for the new street, the front part of the fourteenth-century mosque of Qusun was destroyed. The remainder of the building, however, was left intact and only a new facade was added, leaving behind evidence of the demolition process. With its unique view, its arcades, and a boulevard-like width, Muhammad Ali Street represents to some scholars a prime example of the kind of intervention that urban historians associate with late-nineteenth-century Paris. To them, the street is merely a Cairo version of the famed Rue de Rivoli in the French capital. Often, such accounts deplore the present state of the street, implying that Muhammad Ali Street lost some of the grandeur it held in the past.   


[Screen shot from the movie Sharia al-Hubb (1958), in which the street and its arcades are depicted.]

Yet the symbolism of the street was never reduced to a seemingly apparent allusion to Paris. Instead of turning into a mark of French-inspired urbanism, Muhammad Ali Street soon acquired an ambiguous reputation as a center of musical entertainment. As early as 1880, police reports warned that it attracted dubious women from the entertainment industry. At the same time, brass bands such as the Hasballah group started settling on the street. By the middle of the twentieth century, Muhammad Ali Street was well known as a center of Egyptian folk music. The street appeared in numerous cultural productions, such as the 1945 movie Sharia Muhammad Ali. In the 1958 blockbuster Sharia al-Hubb starring Abd al-Halim Hafez and Nagwa Fouad, the street serves as the backdrop for a story of social ascent. Through his musical talent, the poor Abd al-Munem finds his way to love and fortune, ultimately moving from Muhammad Ali Street to the opera house. The movie, which opens with a long shot of the street, exhibits Muhammad Ali Street as the place where musicians live, gather, and are contacted by potential customers, such as the hyped-up foreigner “Christo” who hires Abd al-Munem to teach music at a club for young ladies. According to studies on female dancers in Egypt, the entertainment industry on the street began to decline in the 1970s. Yet scholars  were still referring to the street as a center of folk music into the 1990s. In his Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt, Walter Armbrust wrote: “Muhammad ‘Ali Street is famed as the street of traditional entertainers. Even today, when most of the entertainment business has moved to Pyramids Road in Giza, or other newer glitzier neighborhoods, Muhammad ‘Ali Street is thick with shops selling lutes and other musical instruments.” The number of music shops might have dwindled further since the publication of Armbrust’s book in 1996, but the name still conjures images of Egyptian folk music. Three years ago, a Cairo-based TV station produced a program teaching belly dance under the title Sharia Muhammad Ali.

 It might be  a telling irony that this street, which some historians like to refer to as Cairo’s Rue de Rivoli, is popularly known as a center of Egyptian folk music, thus linking characters as diverse as Eugène Haussmann and Nagwa Fouad. To the superficial observer, none of these references are immediately apparent. Today, Muhammad Ali Street is packed with furniture shops. Rather than recalling lutes or nineteenth-century Paris, it appears more like a place where you would buy an armchair along with a three-piece suit. Looking at Muhammad Ali Street from different historical perspectives illustrates that there is more to the streets of Cairo than meets the eye. Instead of one essential meaning, its history reflects the multi-layered symbolism attached to streets, squares, or buildings. Despite the intentions of political groups or planners, the meaning of these urban spaces can hardly be fixed.  

The severed branches of local government

by Aaron Jakes

Sometime in the middle of last March, while I was still living in Cairo, I was working at my desk when I heard a noisy argument outside my window. The street in Zamalek where I lived was home to about a dozen little shops, along with a small café and a cafeteria, and I had long since learned to tune out the shouts and clamors that punctuated the busy working day outside. So I didn’t take much notice of the altercation or the more subdued commotion that followed for the next couple hours. When I headed downstairs and into the street a bit later, I was immediately struck by the brightness of the afternoon sun and by a queasy feeling that something was out of place. The cause of these unexpected sensations, I quickly discovered, lay before me in a pile of logs, neatly stacked next to the curb. Those logs were all that remained of the trees that had formerly lined the entire block.

Two of the neighborhood shopkeepers were standing together across the street, so I wandered over to ask what had happened. Earlier that morning, they explained, a large branch had fallen from one of the trees, damaging the hood and windshield of a car parked on the street. When the car’s owner arrived a short while later, he flew into a rage and demanded compensation from the proprietors of the shops nearest to the car, alleging they were at fault for failing to care for the tree. They argued back and eventually resolved the dispute by paying him a token sum, but once the disgruntled car owner had driven off, they gathered a meeting of the other shopkeepers. The trees, my friends explained, were the property and responsibility of the Governorate of Cairo, but it had been years since the city government had sent anyone to clean or prune them. It had therefore fallen to the small commercial establishments on the street to fill the void of basic municipal services, even in this most affluent neighborhood of the city. The shop owners had loved the trees and enjoyed the canopy of shade they provided. But the day’s events had convinced them that the cost and liability of upkeep were more than they could bear. With some reluctance and an awareness that they were breaking the law, they cut them all down.

I have found myself thinking a great deal about those trees in the months leading up to this week’s referendum on the fiercely contested final draft of Egypt’s new constitution. Since the drafting began, debates have raged over the religious identity this document assigns to the state, over the privileged status it reserves for the military, over the rights it does and does not protect, and over the balance of powers it describes between the different branches of the national government. But despite the breadth and intensity of the struggle over both the text of the draft and the process by which it was written, all sides have overwhelmingly focused on the central state that governs the nation as a whole.

In this context, there has been very little discussion of the seemingly mundane articles dealing with provincial and local government. But as my colleague Mohamed Elshahed recently argued in a fiery posting on his blog Cairobserver, these articles fail to address in any adequate fashion the problems of urban and local governance that affect so many aspects of people’s everyday lives. The issues, of course, extend well beyond the erosion of basic services that led my neighbors to take matters into their own hands and chop down some trees on our block. Indeed, as Elshahed and others have argued, the highly centralized and profoundly undemocratic structures of governance below the national level have played a central role in driving forward a process of rapid, haphazard, and devastatingly uneven urbanization across the country. The corruption, incompetence, and institutionalized impunity of provincial governors and local officials, moreover, played a crucial role in the pillaging of public resources and the unplanned allocation of land in both urban and rural areas under the Mubarak regime.

Cairo’s Patron Saint: Sayeda Zainab


Throughout Egypt are hundreds of shrines belonging to historic figures many of whom have become destinations for visitation and pilgrimage by various religious orders. Some of these “saints” have become the loci of the cities where they are located as in the case with Sidi Badawi in Tanta, Sidi Mursi Abul Abbas in Alexandria or Sayeda Zainab in Cairo. This means that over the centuries the shrines developed into significant landmarks with impressive mosque structures that became iconic in each of those cities. Cairo is dotted with many tombs and mausoleums belonging to various historic religious figures, however Sayeda Zainab is arguably Cairo’s patron saint. The grand daughter of the prophet Mohamed is known to have been buried at the spot where the modern-day mosque stands and for the past millennium it has been a site of pilgrimage for Egyptians and Muslims in general. To mark this venerable saint, various rulers of Egypt have built, rebuilt, renovated, expanded mosques at this location.

Architecturally, the most notable mosques built in honor of Sayeda Zainab started during Ottoman rule of Egypt when in 1549 Ali Pasha al-Wazir built a notable structure which was rebuilt in 1761 and in 1798 a renovation was interrupted by the French invasion of Egypt. The interrupted renovation was later completed during Mohamed Ali’s rule and ever since the ruling dynastic family of Mohamed Ali paid particular attention to Sayeda Zainab along with other key mosques around Cairo and Egypt. Another renovation took place in 1859 during which two additional shrines were added for Sheikhs Atrees and Aydroos (عتريس و عيدروس). The current structure however is a modern one dating to 1884 and was ordered by Khedive Tawfiq.

Important to remember that Khedive Tawfiq was the ruler of Egypt who also founded the Comite de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe for the documentation and preservation of Cairo’s historic monuments (mainly Coptic and Islamic). The new mosque of Sayeda Zainab was built during the same time as several key mosques of historic and religious significance around the city particularly those belonging to saints such as the mosque al-Hussein. The architecture of both Al-Hussein and Sayeda Zainab is a late 19th century academic rendition of Mamluk architecture. It must be noted that this also coincides with the construction of Egypt’s final grand mosque, Al-Rifai which was also designed in a neo-Mamluk style infused with Italian and other eclectic details (a reflection of the diverse team of architects and designers working as part of the Comite). The re-appropriation of the Mamluk style was an aesthetic reflection of how members of the royal family saw themselves vis-a-vis their Ottoman heritage and the Egyptian context which they ruled.

In 1898 when the Khalig al-Masri was filled (the water channel that ran through the old town where today’s Port Said Street is now located) the square in front of the mosque was created and was named after the patron saint of Cairo. Since the mid-19th century, this part of Cairo was home to many important families and institutions such as the Ministry of Education and the first National Library. Ali Mubarak, the planner of Cairo’s 19th century urban expansion known today as “downtown” lived in the Sayeda Zainab district. Also famous 19th century Azhar scholar Mohamed Abdu lived here. The area was also home to working class families and it was where the 1919 revolution grew and the square outside the Sayeda Zainab mosque was a place of protest during those events. The area continues to be one of Cairo’s most vibrant working class districts. At the beginning of the 20th century the district and area surrounding the mosque and the square was home to nine cinemas nearly all of which have been out of business for over a decade.

The mosque was expanded once again during the reign of King Farouk and reopened in 1942. After it was damaged during the 1992 earthquake Sayeda Zainab underwent yet another renovation in 1999 costing 30 million pounds. The mosque is owned and managed by the ministry of religious endowments (Awqaf) and despite its rich history and architectural quality it is NOT a listed monument. Only 500 of Cairo’s Islamic buildings (numbered in the thousands) are listed by the ministry of antiquities (perhaps an indication of the serious problems of how that ministry is managed).

The mosque continues to be a focal point for this community and it is the site of the annual feast dedicated to Sayeda Zainab which celebrates her birth. The coffee shops around the square and the mosque were places where some of Egypt’s most notable writers and journalists met and exchanged ideas. This is a district with deep historical roots with a monument that is not only significant for this part of the city but for all of Cairo. If there is any serious political will to work with the community to develop this district around Sayeda Zainab there is a lot of potential to be realized.

The mosque is open and is fully functional. If you visit make sure to visit the silver shrine inside.

Book: Cairo, Centre in Movement


The author of Architecture for the Dead, Galila El Kadi’s new book on Cairo’s central area and its development since the 19th century is a much needed addition to the literature on the city. The bi-lingual book, in French and English, combines disciplinary approaches such as history, social history, urban geography, architectural history and urban morphology. The Cairo central area “is composed of the medieval city, the modern city established in the mid-19th century, and the new district extensions dating back to the middle of the past century, which have received activities migrating from the original sectors as well as recent innovative technological activities. The CCA (Cairo Central Area) is the product of fusion of diverse areas that were separate cities in the past but have become central districts of today’s metropolis.” (14)

The area covered in El Kadi’s book is what David Sims referred to as the formal/historic core. It includes 1000 year old streets as well as more recent development dating from the 1970s. Districts included in this core are: Boulaq, Azbakeya, Ismailia (downtown), Daher, Old Town (a large area with several historic districts known as the medieval city, known touristicly as “Islamic Cairo”), Mounira, Garden City, Roda, Zamalek, Doqqi, Giza, and Mohandessine.


[Limits of the Cairo Central Area, according to El Kadi, p.15]

The book is divided into three well illustrated chapters each looking at the central area of Cairo with a different set of tools. The first addresses Cairo’s centrality within the national and regional contexts. The second provides an analytical approach to the city’s anatomical development over two centuries with particular attention to issues of urban form, pattern, landmarks, distribution of functions, and evolution of residential areas. The final chapter zooms in on a neighborhood, a square and a street to reveal further details about the layers of the city and its anatomy. In this final chapter architectural typology takes a leading position as the scale of analysis shifts from the urban to accommodate the architectural scale. Questions pertaining to urban morphology and fabric string the three chapters together.


[Ramses Street, an architectural catalogue, p. 157]

The third chapter is particularly interesting. The author identifies parts of the urban anatomy then follows three approaches in analyzing such parts to “grasp these spaces in their material and intangible dimensions.” The first approach is historical and aims to “grasp the initial moment of the urban project’s conception and its evolution.” The second approach is morphological and it “inspects the elements of urban make-up and analyses the interrelations between the hierarchy of thoroughfares, the forms of land division and the constructions.” And the third approach is what the author calls “sensitive” which “reflects on perceptions, impressions and illustrates the memories linked to specific place and imparts a new meaning to it.”


Galila El Kadi’s Cairo is a much needed, well researched, clearly written, and richly illustrated addition to the literature on Cairo. The book makes some significant departures from previous works on Cairo by demarcating the Cairo Central Area as a unit of analysis rather the conventional approach of focusing on parts of this central area (downtown, or the medieval city) severed from their context. The book also provides a wealth of new information regarding urban transformation of various districts over time. For example the district of Garden City is rendered in four maps on page 228 which show the development of this zone from 1930 to 2006. Such maps, and diagrams in addition to photographs provide an easy to read wealth of information that shows change over time rather than the conventional snapshot view of a particular location during a particular time. This is a book about Cairo as a changing and moving city.

The book concludes by suggesting that a close reading of the city’s development over the past several decades reveals the resilience of the central area as a focus of the city despite decentralization plans by the government. Perhaps this study will attract the attention of policymakers, and consultants who have mislead previous governments that moving away from the center is a worthwhile endeavor. It is time to reconsider plans to escape Cairo and to focus development and regeneration plans back to the center where the spirit of Cairo lives on.