Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 September 1999
Issue No. 445
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Tahrir Square in the beginning of the century

Centre of the centre

Tahrir Square is the crossroads of noise, traffic and vital services.Fatemah Farag seeks respite from the commotion, remembering the grand midan's role in our modern history and collective consciousness
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Tahrir Square is not only the hub of Cairo, it is home to some of the city's most important buildings and a constant headline-maker in the local press. Whatever happens in Tahrir immediately becomes a national concern. Take for example the recent water pipe breakdown, or, more generally, the continuous coverage of never-ending plans to 'develop' the square: putting up footbridges, re-routing traffic, and the most recently announced idea -- a labyrinth of underground garages in the first years of the new millennium.

People run back and forth in a constant stream that wends its way from the Nile Hilton and the Egyptian Museum to the American University in Cairo, the Arab League to the imposing Mugamma'. "It's the place everyone has to cross to get anywhere," said a young banker while an older woman chipped in: "It's crowded and noisy." A store owner pointed out: "It's the best place to do business," while a foreigner commented: "It's a real nightmare to cross."

Amidst the hustle and bustle, one tends to forget the historical significance the square has held. Expansion and modernisation are mirrored in urban evolution. Cairo is a case in point, its current centre of the centre a poignant example. The midan, or at least the site, has developed to mirror the city -- the birth and growth of Cairo as we know it today.

Once, the highly developed square was a patch of silt, part of the Nile's bed. In the sixth and seventh centuries of the Islamic era (the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries AD), the Nile shrank eastwards, uncovering land which was to become the Qasr Al-Aini area, Munira, Garden City, and Tahrir Square. In those days, however, the area was known as Al-Louq.

The first developments on the new land were far from glamorous. At the beginning of the last century, the Cairo tanneries were moved from Hawsh Al-Sharqawi (south of Midan Bab Al-Khalq) to the Louq area because of their bad smell. It seems, however, that they were set up in the area known today as Sherif Street. In 1865, they were moved to an area near Fustat, where they have remained ever since.






The grand midan has been a focal point around which Cairo gathers and one of the platforms of the city's modern history. (photos: A Masraff, Emil Karam, Antoune Albert, Fathi Hussein, Nour Sobeih and Amr Gamal)

According to El-Sayed Mohamed, the author of a book on Cairo's streets and midans, the location first became a square under the rule of Sultan Al-Zahir Baybars. He recounts the events as follows: "Al-Zahir Baybars canceled Midan Bab Al-Louq in favour of a midan to its west, a site known today as Tahrir and the northern section of Garden City."

And a midan it remained, until the time of Al-Nasser Mohamed Ibn Qalawun, who developed the area into a garden reputed to have included all sorts of fruits and flowers, many of which were brought in from the Levant. Meanwhile, a certain Emir Tussun became an important political figure, prompting the sultan to give him a part of this garden. Tussun established a stable there, on the banks of the Nile. The stables won the place its name: Zaribat Tussun.

After thriving for a time under Al-Nasser, the area became a quagmire of swamps and lakes interspersed with gardens. The next saviour of the site was Ali Mubarak under Ismail Pasha (1863-1879). Ismail was the patron of a comprehensive project to develop the city of Cairo and Mubarak was his right-hand man in the task. The latter earmarked an area of 359 feddans for major development and rehabilitation -- an area originally known as the Ismailia quarter, today the downtown area.

Again, El-Sayed Mohamed explains the process. "The swamps and lakes were filled in, such as the Azbakiya Lake and Qarmout Lake (which was on the west side of Adli Street and extended till Soliman Pasha Street), as well as Al-Fawala Lake, which covered most of the area between Adli Street and Qasr Al-Nil, Shuqaf Lake, and others. Streets were planned in straight lines at right angles in most cases and squares were made. On both sides of the streets was a walkway for pedestrians, and the middle of the street was for cars and animals. Water pipes were extended to water the new quarters' gardens and gas was brought in to light the area. So it was inhabited by princes and great people. It became -- and remains -- the navel of the city and is the site of the most important services whether they be government, companies, banks or commercial stores."

Although Ismail is always credited with the creation of Midan Al-Ismailia, Said Pasha before him oversaw developments that fed into the creation of the square. In fact, the first landmark in the history of what is known today as Tahrir began with the Qasr Al-Nil Barracks (which stood where the Nile Hilton stands today) set up in the reign of Khedive Said (1854-1863). The barracks also served as the Ministry of War and drew people's attention to the area west of Cairo, setting the pattern for developments that were introduced by Ismail Pasha later on. The British took over the barracks when they took over Egypt, and the red buildings were to become a hated symbol of occupation. Eventually Egypt was to rid itself of the British and in the place of the barracks, the Arab League and the Nile Hilton hotel were built.

André Raymond indicates that the railway station (Bab Al-Hadid) was built in 1856, prompting the development of buildings on either side of the tracks, also developing the general area around Tahrir.

In 1946, the National Committee of Workers and Students proclaimed Thursday 21 February of that year Evacuation Day and called for a general strike. According to a leaflet issued at the time, the day was to "make it clear to British imperialism and to the world that the Egyptian people have completed their preparation for active combat until the nightmare of imperialism that has crushed our hearts for 64 years has vanished."

Ahmed Abdallah recounts the sequence of events as follows. Massive demonstrations were organised, and included students marching from Giza to the centre of Cairo. However, when the demonstrators reached Ismailia Square, they were confronted by the British garrison and began to burn the barracks and fences. In response, four British army vehicles moved towards them and a barrage of machine-gun fire opened up. According to the most reliable estimate, 23 demonstrators were killed and some 120 injured. The government disclaimed all responsibility and blamed students for allowing their "peaceful demonstrations" to degenerate into violence "because of infiltration by the riffraff... in which students and educated people simply disappeared from view." The day was proclaimed Students' Day in commemoration of Bloody Thursday; the barracks were removed the same year.

The reorganisation of Ismailia Square under the 23 July Revolution, who turned it into Tahrir (Liberation) Square, also had obvious political connotations, not only in the new name of the square but also in many of the buildings that were to border it: the Arab League, built in 1964, the Mugamma' -- the image of an overbloated bureaucracy -- and the Nile Hilton, the first international hotel to become functional in Nasser's Egypt.

All were symbols of the new regime, at least until 1972, when the midan once again became the focus of the student movement and opposition to the status quo.

It was 24 January which witnessed a dramatic escalation in the confrontation between students and the government. Students discovered that the leaders of a sit-in at Cairo University had been arrested. "Some 20,000 infuriated students headed towards central Cairo, where security forces failed to disperse them. This was the first occasion on which President Sadat had to face street riots, and it set a precedent which he never forgave or forgot," recounts Abdallah.

The destination was Tahrir Square, and specifically the column that stood in its centre. The choice of venue is in itself ironic. Originally set up for Ismail's statue, the granite base was left empty for years waiting for an incumbent and as one leader after another was ousted by nature or politics, it was eventually brought down altogether.

For the duration of the sit-in, however, the "cake of rock", as it was dubbed, became a platform for revolutionaries. A '70s activist describes the event thus: "They started gathering around the campus, and the spontaneous cry was 'to Tahrir', this being the closest thing we have to the centre of Cairo. The pedestal was probably an obvious choice, being the closest thing to the centre of Tahrir. It was also, as I recall, surrounded by a sort of circular garden. It therefore offered an obvious focal point to gather round. It also provided a sort of platform, which was used for speeches, and for Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm to sing their revolutionary songs. It was right opposite Isaivic café, then a gathering place for leftist intellectuals of the '60s, who were ecstatic about the student uprising and met in the café to write up statements and deliver them from the pedestal."

The unusual scene attracted Cairo's inhabitants who, according to Abdallah, tried to help the students by providing them with food to supplying them with blankets to guard them against the cold January night. "Later that night, the chanting students were warned to disperse by the commander of the Central Security Forces. Having refused to do so, they were dispersed by force at dawn, only to reassemble in smaller groups, which toured the central shopping area in Cairo shouting, 'Cairo, arise'," concludes Abdallah.

As the hub of a city growing at phenomenal rates, it seems only natural that the midan would witness some of the most important events of the past 25 years: not only political movements, which included the 1977 bread riots, but also events such as the funeral of Umm Kulthoum, during which over two million mourners "hijacked" the late singer's coffin in Tahrir in their march towards Al-Hussein Mosque.

The midan's development also stands testimony to the continuous, and sometimes piece-meal, development of Cairo. A neo-Islamic palace is torn down so that a high rise can be built, but the latter never rises because the owners have gone bankrupt. An ugly pedestrian footbridge is installed and pulled down, traffic is re-routed endlessly because of the construction of the underground and a LE300 million project is signed that will bring underground garages to the square in the next millennium. A giant poster of Sadat in admiral whites is put up and brought down.

Because there are no definitive maps of the infrastructure, major problems such as last June's water pipe explosion result in weeks of repairs, flooding of streets and major traffic problems. Astra, a run-down coffee shop where people connected to the "art" scene once hung out, is replaced by a fast food outlet. Some green space has always been left aside. Years ago, the space was wider and people came out in their pyjamas for the evening breeze. Today, youngsters in tight jeans and T-shirts find Tahrir a convenient spot to hang out with their friends. All signs of the changing times, with reminders of the past in between.

"Tahrir is a problem," whispered one old timer confidentially, "But then Cairo is a big problem. Don't we love it anyway?"


Mohamed Kamal El-Sayed Mohamed: Asmaa wa Musammayat Misr Al-Qahira, The Egyptian General Organisation for Books, 1986

André Raymond, translated by Latif Farag: Al-Qahira: Tarikh Hadara, Dar Al-Fikr Lil-Dirasat wal-Nashr wal-Tawzi', 1994

Max Rodenbeck: Cairo: The City Victorious, Picador, 1998

Ahmed Abdallah: The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt, El Saqi Books, 1985

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