Tales of Abdine
The Abdine area of Cairo, developed in the 19th century by the Khedive Ismail, is full of memories of the city's past, writes Samir Sobhi
Click to view caption|
Clockwise from top left: Abdine Palace, in 1870 and 1945; a baladi café, 1890; Tahrir Square, 1970; Abdine Square, 1892; liquorice vendor, 1920; sweet potato seller, 1920
According to Abdel-Moneim Shemeis, former head of the State Information Service, the Cairo neighbourhood of Abdine came into being after the Khedive Ismail built the Abdine Palace and planned the streets around it. Wide, modern streets were created all the way from the Bab Al-Hadid (Gate of Iron) to the north, Sheikh Rihan to the west, the Citadel to the east, and Sayeda Zeinab to the south.
The Khedive Ismail bought Abdine Palace from a man called Abdine Bey, a former army commander. Near the palace, he constructed a building to house the Royal Guard, currently the offices of the governorate of Cairo.
To the east of Abdine, Kantaret Sonqor (the Sonqor Bridge) once connected the neighbourhood of Abdine with Al-Helmiya Al-Gadida and Darb Al-Gamamiz (Sycamore Road), which ran along the eastern side of the Khalij Al-Misri, the transportation canal that passed behind the palace and whose course matches the current Port Said Street.
The Sonqor Bridge was vital because many flour mills were located nearby, people at that time buying flour in bulk in order to make bread in their yards. There were bakeries as well, of course, but most bread was produced in private homes, and baking was part of the daily routine of cooking.
On Midan Lazoghli in the Mounira neighbourhood, there is an interesting mansion -- now under renovation -- which once doubled as the Finance Ministry and residence of Ismail El-Mofattesh, treasurer of the Khedive Ismail. Foreign diplomats entertained in the mansion wrote with admiration about the mud ovens in the courtyard, one of them being made from ancient tiles believed to date back to Pharaonic times.
Not far from Abdine Palace in the direction of Sayeda Zeinab is the Haret Al-Zir Al-Moallaq (Alley of the Suspended Drinking Pot), a street named after a drinking pot hung from chains rather than being placed in a four-legged ring stand as was the usual practice. The writer Ahmed Roshdi Saleh also lived in this street when he was studying literature at Cairo University.
Traditional drinking vessels were often placed in areas that did not have a sabil, or water fountain. One of the most remarkable sabils in Abdine is that of Mansour Pasha Yakan on the corner of Nubar Street a few steps away from the Interior Ministry.
Nearby is the Haret Al-Saqayyin (Alley of the Water Carriers), once one of the most sought-after streets in the neighbourhood. Among the celebrities who lived there in the past was Mohamed Pasha Al-Hakim, owner of the first printing house for medical books in the country.
The 19th-century British chronicler Edward William Lane also lived here, author of The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836). Lane used to dress in Ottoman clothing and was known in the neighbourhood as "Mansour Effendi". Prime minister Boutros Pasha Ghali and Al-Ahram editor Dawoud Barakat were also born there.
Farther to the west where the Omar Makram Mosque now stands a small mosque, or zawya, once stood. This was called the Zawyet Al-Sheikh Al-Abit (Mosque of the Dim-Witted Sheikh), and the nearby street was named after it. Across the street, there is an Italianate building that was formerly Egypt's Foreign Ministry. Originally, the building belonged to Fakhri Pasha, son-in-law to King Fouad.
Shemeis is interested in the history of Al-Sheikh Al-Abit, saying that "I got interested in the sheikh and learned that he used to work for the intelligence service of Mohamed Ali, part of the secret police apparatus run by Sheikh Youssef, the intelligence chief at the time. Youssef hired dozens of men and women to collect intelligence about life in the country, and he would compile their accounts in a periodic report sent to Mohamed Ali."
Sheikh Youssef used to live in a house behind the Al-Saniya School in Sayeda Zeinab, and the door of the house had a secret opening for informants to drop their reports into. Sheikh Youssef is now buried in a mausoleum on the first floor of a grand residential building on Qasr Al-Aini Street not far from the parliament.
While the intelligence service collected news for the palace, journalism was beginning to emerge as a source of information for the general public. Journalists had to gather news about the government and its activities, and since most government buildings were concentrated in Mounira, journalists used to congregate in a coffeehouse not far from Lazoghli Square. This was called the Qahwet Abu Shanab because the Greek owner had an impressive moustache, or shanab.
In the middle of Lazoghli Square, there is a statue of Lazoghli Pasha, who served first as treasurer and then as prime minister under Mohamed Ali. Lazoghli died before photography was invented, and when Ismail Pasha decided to honour him with a statue, the French sculptor commissioned for the job asked for a picture of the subject.
This posed a problem for the Khedive Ismail's aides, who couldn't locate one. Then one day the governor of Cairo encountered a water carrier near Khan Al-Khalili who looked exactly like Lazoghli. He took the man home, dressed him as an Ottoman aristocrat, called the photographer, and soon the sculptor had just what he needed to complete his statue.