Clashes between the army and protesters in front of the Defence Ministry in Abbasiya made the headlines last week, pushing the district and its residents into the limelight. But this is a district that has been equally shaped by history, culture and fine architecture, as Al-Ahram Weekly discovers
A historical perspective
Amira El-Noshokaty revisits her childhood neighbourhood of Abbasiya
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Abbasiya was named after Abbas Hilmi I Pasha (1848-54), who was the first to build a house in the area and encouraged people to follow suitA collection of old mansions and palaces of Abbasiya, source: Ninteenth-century Cairene Houses and palaces by Nihal Tamraz Saray Al-Zaafaran, currently the administrative premises of Ain Shams University;1890s photograph showing a stucco workshop;the sabil in Abbasiya at the corner of modern day Abbasiya and Al-Sarayat Street,Qubbat Al-Adl
Amidst the crowds that throng Abbasiya Square in Cairo are architectural gems that bear witness to the rise and decline of this district of the city and its long social history.
The neighbourhood is named after its founder, the khedive Abbas Helmi I (1848-1854), who started by building the saray (palace) of Abbasiya and then surrounding it with military schools. Once a vast structure with a 2,000-window façade, the saray is now tucked away in a military area behind the present Ministry of Power in Abbasiya.
According to Nineteenth Century Cairene Houses and Palaces by Nihal Tamraz, the district was built in three phases. First, western Abbasiya was built, consisting of house and villas for the upper classes. Then, eastern Abbasiya, mainly middle-class housing and four-storey apartment blocks, was built, followed by Abbasiya Al-Qeblia, consisting of workshops and markets and later expanding to dominate the rest of the neighbourhood.
Walking in the streets of this district today, visitors often have to duck into side streets in order to appreciate architectural gems that have become increasingly scarce today. Many of the historic villas and mansions have unfortunately now been demolished, leaving the district dominated by its four-storey buildings, two apartments on each floor. Years of dust have transformed their colour from beige to soft grey, but the beauty of their art déco, art nouveau, baroque and Islamic architecture still captures one's eyes. Each building originally had a front yard and a back garden, giving space for privacy.
However, over the past few years these survivors of the district's glory days have also been destroyed, turning four-storey buildings into 12-storey ones and filling garden and yard areas with additional buildings. Looking at the streets today, it is not difficult to see the contrast between the modern-day buildings, each containing many tiny apartments, and the older, spacious houses that gave residents room to breathe.
Abbasiya was once well known for its dry, desert climate, and as a result the district once also hosted a number of hospitals, including the Italian and Greek hospitals that were built in the early 20th century. According to Tamraz, part of the saraya safra (the yellow palace -- a synonym for the Abbasiya Mental Hospital) was transformed into an asylum for the mentally ill during the reign of the khedive Tawfiq, Abbas Helmi's better-known successor, after which it became a British hospital (1930-1940), before turning back into what it is today. Horse races were also held in Abbasiya during the khedive Ismail's reign in the 1860s, according to Tamraz.
Abbasiya has a unique collection of historic monuments, including the Mamluk Dome, the al-qubba al-fidawiya, located off Abbasiya Street, built by prince Yashbak during the last quarter of the 15th century. The dome is said to have acquired its name from the term fedayeen, or fighter, during the Orabi uprising against the nascent British occupation in 1880. Also in Abbasiya, the Dome of Al-Adil was built in 1500 and is believed to have been part of a larger complex built by the sultan Al-Adil Tumanbey.
There is also the sabil, or water fountain, of Umm Al-Muhsinin, built by the wife of the khedive Tawfiq and granddaughter of Abbas in the 1880s, which is located in Abdu Pasha Square. Finally, there is the Levi Shalom Synagogue located in Midan Ispitalia Al-Ferencia that was built for Cairo's Jewish community.
Like many ancient neighbourhoods in Cairo, despite all the changes that have taken place in recent years, among the crowded streets and busy squares of Abbasiya an authentic stained-glass window or the shade of an ancient tree can serve as a reminder of the beauty and tranquility that Cairo residents once enjoyed even in the heart of the modern metropolis.