29 Apr. - 5 May 1999
Issue No. 427
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Well may they weepBy Fayza Hassan
The telephone call came early in the morning. "They are pulling down the Mattatias building in Ataba Square," the voice informed us. "Impossible -- it can't be, not the Mattatias building! Not the one with the famous café? It's a landmark," said someone who had heard the news. Others disagreed. "It was only built under Ismail," they argued almost spitefully, hinting that a building should date at least from the Ottoman period to deserve a proper requiem. "Besides, it was rat-infested."
Later, many drift towards Ataba Square to see for themselves. The scene is one of desolation. There are gaping holes where the "weeping arcades" described by Jacques Berque stood only yesterday; the top of the adjacent wall has been knocked down, exposing the roof of the charming National Theatre. Drivers slow down to take a better look, bringing the normally chaotic traffic in the area to a total standstill. Passersby loiter, happy to contribute their bit of wisdom. "It is for the tunnel," they tell each other. "It will relieve the traffic," or, "it will help preserve Al-Azhar," or even, "it was a ruin anyway, we have to move on, to catch up with the times."
And so we should, but did the Mattatias building really have to go? With a last look, we silently leave the scene, slightly ashamed of our inability to save a fallen old friend. As night falls, a horse-drawn cart pulls up. Two or three silhouettes jump off and proceed to climb over the toppled stones and clumps of masonry to reach the dark caverns which had probably been their shops. They come back, staggering under the weight of miscellaneous items which they load onto their barrow. Jamaleddin Al-Afghani's shadow seems to be hovering over the eerie scene. It is said that the Mattatias café was his favourite haunt, and that he met with his followers there. During that time, the café allegedly became the Freemasons' den, but the place was also frequented assiduously by intellectuals and political figures such as Mohamed Abduh, Saad Zaghlul, Ibrahim El-Helbawi (the famous lawyer) and later by Abbas El-Aqqad, Ibrahim El-Mazni, and Sheikh Fahim Qandil (editor-in-chief of Al-Oqaz, a popular periodical published in those days in Cairo). The café not only provided the usual social pleasures found in similar establishments, it featured a small nook where simple meals were served to patrons, who often came in the morning only to leave late at night.
Patrons of the Mattatias café -- from left to right: El-Afghani, Abduh, Zaghlul, El-Aqqad and El-Mazni
Besides hosting these illustrious figures in its arcaded café, the Mattatias building had a distinguished record in its own right. Marie-Laure Crosnier Leconte and Mercedes Volait recount its history, impossible to appreciate fully even before the building was pulled down, due to the disgraceful state of neglect in which it was kept for a century. It had already become an eyesore in 1972, when eviction orders -- later carried out half-heartedly -- were issued to the low-rent tenants and the historical and architectural vestige was marked for demolition.
The Mattatias building was built by French architect Ambroise Baudry, hired by Mattatias Nahman, a rich banker who, in 1872, had purchased 3,000 square metres along the southern boundary of the Ezbekiya Gardens, on the site of the former Cairo Circus. Located behind the Opera, the circus had been thrown together for the celebrations of the Suez Canal opening in 1869. Its sale to Nahman was authorised by Khedive Ismail on 20 May 1872. The work, begun in November of the same year, was interrupted in December 1876, before completion. Nahman, a very demanding client who had insisted on the highest building standards, was hit hard by the 1875 khedivial bankruptcy, forcing Baudry to postpone indefinitely the realisation of his first significant contribution to the "modern" Cairene architectural landscape. By this time, however, the edifice, of neo-classical style, featured two superb storeys in cut stone (for the stone work, craftsmen had been specially imported from Syria), rising over elegant arcades, surrounding a central courtyard. The enterprise had cost around 600,000 francs thus far and, though unfinished, it stood out, considered far superior to similar constructions of the period, for its refinement and the quality of its workmanship.
It is indeed well known that, in his haste to set the scene and build his theatrical décor for the grand Canal opening, Khedive Ismail, plagued with a chronic lack of finances, was often forced to sacrifice quality to appearances. Undaunted nevertheless, he had vowed to baffle his illustrious visitors with a copy, albeit of papier maché, of their habitual surroundings. While work proceeded apace on the Canal and the country was being refurbished, he ruthlessly put his capital's urban fabric under the surgeon's knife, attempting to transform the typically labyrinthine mediaeval city into a model of rigorous planning à la Haussmann -- almost literally overnight.
"The enthusiasm for geometry which inspired the authorities and obsessed the municipal bureaucrats called forth protests from archeologists and aesthetes [of the time]. They spoke of vandalism..." writes Jacques Berque about the assorted innovations and renovations undertaken, adding that A Rhoné, a traveller passing through the city when the facelift was in full swing, lamented that "Cairo has become dangerously infatuated with checker-board planning. The traditional Arab or Mameluke style of building was now being influenced by that degenerate Italian Gothic... which included the deplorable dregs of every style."
In the wake of the controversial khedive's desire to modernise at any cost, priceless monuments disappeared for ever. Cupolas were mercilessly knocked down, minarets demolished, mosques and miscellaneous palaces razed, with architects and town planners locked in a mad race to have the work finished on time for the big event.
Not everyone shared Rhoné's opinion, however. There were those who, having suspected all along that Cairo's frequent bouts of deadly epidemics were due in part to the stuffiness and overcrowding of its narrow alleys, were happy to see the old city suddenly open to light and fresh air. Ali Mubarak, director of public works under Ismail, and an advocate of urban geometry, was instrumental in carrying out the khedive's ambitious dream. As early as 1868, according to historian Ghislaine Alleaume, Ali Mubarak had presented the ruler with a comprehensive project of law, which, while completely modernising the city, was aimed at reinforcing state control over the builders' guilds by providing for a gubernatorial restructuring of the urban space, taking into account any natural and consistent future developments.
The overall project was never acknowledged by the khedive, however, in particular because he was reluctant to grant the administration of public works an autonomous status and an independent budget as recommended by Mubarak. Rather, he wished to keep complete control of the operations of modernisation in his own hands. Work was generally carried out according to his whims, with constructions started then abandoned, their budget reallocated to new endeavours which had taken his fancy at that particular moment. Furthermore, according to Jean-Luc Arnaud, he preferred to play the different branches of his administration off against each other, in the belief that he would thus keep a firmer grip on their respective activities.
The remodeling of the hapless Ezbekiya Gardens is a case in point. Work was started a few months after the khedive's return from his trip to Paris, where he had visited the Exposition Universelle. Plans were drawn and, in the first months, the work proceeded in leaps and bounds under the supervision of the French engineer Cordier, director of Cairo's Water Company. Ismail's complicated financial schemes to finance the works floundered within the year, however, and alternative sources had to be found. In the interim, the more ostentatious features of the new layout were scrapped for lack of funds. Suddenly disappointed with the design of the garden, the khedive hired the famous Barillet Deschamps to do the landscaping, and replaced Cordier as head of the overall project by Pierre Grant, then director of the administration of public thoroughfares. The original plan was altered once more according to the newcomers' suggestions and the renovation programme was finally ready to embark on its second leg.
New hard-surfaced streets were laid out, roads supplanted the Qantaret Al-Dikka between Bab Al-Hadid and Ezbekiya, and the old bed of the canal which passed north and east of the gardens was filled in. Abdel-Aziz Street was boldly carved out, joining Al-Ataba Al-Khadra and Ezbekiya to Abdin. North of this new thoroughfare, the Théatre National de Comédie was constructed and inaugurated in 1868. Visiting Cairo in 1870, British writer MacCoan waxed lyrical on the "enclosed ornamental gardens crowded with bijou country houses". He was also duly impressed by the new Mohamed Ali Street -- Ali Mubarak's pride and joy -- "which [had been] ruthlessly cut" through the "native quarters", from Ataba Al-Khadra Square, all the way to the Citadel. This boulevard, inspired by the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, was characterised by "[b]awaki or weeping arcades [which] were built alongside so that homes could jut out over them, thus giving some essential metres and increasing the price of the land."
Right, top to bottom: the Mattatias café as it was last week; the former owners removing the last bits and pieces on a horse-drawn cart; the arcades of the Mattatias building poised to receive the first deadly blow of the wrecking ball.
Left: The crane clearing the way for things to come
photos: Sherif Sonbol
Ibrahim Pasha, whose beloved sycamores had been uprooted to make way for the grottos and artificial lakes of the new Ezbekiya Gardens, had a new street named after him, which connected the new Opera Square to Abdin Palace. In 1872, Ibrahim's statue, sculpted by Cordier, was erected in the middle of the new Opera Square, where it stands to this day.
As Barillet Deschamps began his work, creating an Egyptian replica of the Park Monceau on the Ezbekiya site, the space to the south of the garden was cleared for the hasty construction of a small replica of La Scala di Milano, completed in five months by the Italian architects Fasciotto and Rossi. In an attempt to save on building costs and time, wood was used for the structures of the upper floors. The Opera House (or the Italian Opera House as it was sometimes known), Ismail's little chef d'oeuvre of rococo refinement, which had allowed him to treat his royal guests to the kind of cultural entertainment they were accustomed to, was to have a fate even more heartbreaking than that of the Mattatias building.
For over 80 years, Egyptians in full regalia had come to attend the performances of the various saisons. They were thus introduced to the best in Italian opera, French and British theatre and American operetta. Egypt was high on the agenda of all international troupes for well over half a century.
As the political climate began to change after the 1952 Revolution, however, the Ezbekiya area, deserted by its cosmopolitan revelers, lost its lustre; the statue of Ibrahim, in the now deserted Opera Square, seemed to be pointing an accusatory finger toward Clot Bey Street, as if denouncing this former den of turpitude. In the background, the Opera House looked forlorn and uncared for, an incongruous and useless reminder of Cairo's Belle Epoque. In 1971, exactly 100 years after the Christmas eve première of Verdi's Aida, a fire blazing through the wooden structure engulfed the building, together with the original costumes, scenery, accessories and original score of the famous opera.
Completing the design of his new "fun" quarter, Ismail chose the site for the Cairo Circus -- the choice piece of real estate purchased three years later by Mattatias Nahman -- right at the back of the Opera House; on the southern and eastern sides of the garden, he ordered foundations laid for two commercial buildings which were to include shops and residential apartments and which were financed by his dayra (domain); the remaining land on the northern limits of the garden was subdivided and allocated to rich notables. Following the system adopted for the Bois de Boulogne, but also by the waqf or endowment system, kiosks and commercial establishments, such as coffee shops and restaurants, were constructed inside the garden's walls, the lease of which was to pay for the maintenance of the grounds. The remaining structures in the vicinity of the area were whitewashed and superficially renovated; "gaslights were installed along the adjacent streets; Al-Muski Street was 'upgraded' and Europeanised on the extremity closest to Ezbekiya; and even the minarets of the nearby mosques were given gaily painted red and white stripes for the occasion," relates Janet Abu Lughod.
Left: Opera Square in its heyday (in Arnaud, Le Caire); Right; the Mattatias building in 1997 (in Ambroise Baudry) The hustle and bustle of Midan Al-Ataba, at the turn of the century -- and today
Clearly, as attention focused on the general appearance of the area which had to reproduce as closely as possible a rather mythical Paris model, the infrastructure was the object of a much more cavalier implementation. Typically, the work took into account the pragmatic needs of the sovereign rather than the stipulations of a logical framework. To the khedive's chagrin however, his manipulations eventually backfired, and he could not show the city's centrepiece at its best to distinguished guests, since the actual garden was only completed in 1871, by which time they had come and gone.
The khedive's erratic remodeling plans, which had launched a fashion with the increasingly Westernised elite, had angered the more conservative Egyptian intellectuals and, in 1881, the Committee for Ancient Monuments, which had just been established, drew up a list of 800 relics to be preserved. At the same time, the Tanzim (the municipal authorities) under the leadership of Ali Mubarak, were going on a rampage, knocking down all projecting balconies, straightening façades and aligning buildings in an attempt "to impose on everything a rectangular order". Furthermore, Mubarak had decided to demolish several monuments already listed by the Committee. To their objections, he replied that beside these ancient monuments, stood sites where public executions had once been carried out. "We no longer wish to preserve such memories," he said. "We want to destroy them, as the French destroyed the Bastille."
Although many travellers and writers were prompt to describe Cairo as a permanent construction yard, where the new neo-baroque Italianate constructions lining the boulevards and squares, Haussmann fashion, clashed violently with the monumental Mameluke architecture, others saw in Ismail's building spree the beginning of a less austere, more modern and glitzy age. Cairo was becoming an eclectic city. "One drove through streets reminiscent of Paris, past soldiers and barracks reminiscent of London, to the Nile which could be nowhere but Egypt," MacCoan remarked enthusiastically.
"After the siesta was over," writes Trevor Mostyn, "singing would be heard among the flowering trees and pergolas of Ezbekiya. Military bands would tune up in the gloaming and the whole chiaroscuro of Cairo would slowly converge until the gardens were a mass of colours and boisterous living. Beautiful women in silks, their mules shod with silver, would ride delicately through the lanes, escorted by massive eunuchs in flowing gowns, and at night the gardens would be given over to bacchanalia with promiscuous wooing in the grottos. On the terrace of the great hotels, society figures in their frock coats and straw hats sat drinking with all the social elegance which they would have adopted in Nice or Trieste. Rich, young Egyptians were not excluded." But, as Mostyn notes repeatedly, this idyllic setting was not to everyone's taste: a generation later, writer Hafez Ibrahim was to complain: "Why," he wondered, "do the sons frequent the Ezbekiya, whereas the fathers used to frequent the mosques?"
Janet Abu Lughod: Cairo, 1001 Years of the City Victorious, Princeton, 1971
Ghislaine Alleaume: "Politiques urbaines et contrôle de l'entreprise: une loi inédite de Ali Mubarak sur les corporations du bâtiment," Annales Islamologiques 21, 1985
Jean-Luc Arnaud: Le Caire, mise en place d'une ville moderne 1867-1907, Actes Sud, 1998
Doris Behrens-Abouseif: Azbakkiyya and its Environs, from Azbak to Ismail 1476-1879, IFAO, 1985
Jacques Berque: Egypt, Imperialism and Revolution, Faber and Faber, 1971
Marie-Laure Crosnier Leconte and Mercedes Volait, eds.: Ambroise Baudry, L'Egypte d'un Architecte, Somogy, Edition d'Art, 1998
Gerard Georges Lemine: Maqahi Al-Sharq, transl. Mohamed Abdel-Moneim Galal, Akhbar Al-Yom Organisation, 1990
Trevor Mostyn: Cairo, La Belle Epoque 1869-1952, London Quartet, 1989