Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Stories of Cairo’s first bridge

Mai Samih examines the history of the first modern bridge built over the River Nile as its renovation nears completion

Old images of Qasr Al-Nil bridge
Old images of Qasr Al-Nil bridge
Al-Ahram Weekly

Building the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, the oldest modern bridge that stretches across the Nile in Cairo, was the idea of a son of Mohamed Ali Pasha, Ibrahim Pasha, a great army commander, as part of a 19th-century plan to rebuild Cairo.

According to, Streets with History, a book by historian Abbas Al-Tarabeeli, however, it was not until the rule of the khedive Ismail, later in the century, that a French company was appointed to build a bridge across the Nile in central Cairo. The first Qasr Al-Nil Bridge was constructed in 1872. It cost LE108,000 to build and was named Kobri Al-Khedewi Ismail (Khedive Ismail Bridge).

The other side of the Nile was full of gardens at the time, and people would cross the new bridge to walk in them, leaving the residential area of Shubra behind, though even this was then known for its gardens.

The name Qasr Al-Nil (Palace of the Nile) comes from the palace that Mohamed Ali Pasha built for his daughter, Princess Nazli, to live in on the banks of the Nile, Al-Tarabeeli notes. He appointed a company of Italian architects to design it, but when Said Pasha came to power in the middle of the century he ordered that the palace be demolished in order to build a military barracks on the site.

This was then named the Koshlaq Qasr Al-Nil, or military barracks of Qasr Al-Nil, according to Ali Pasha Mubarak, the famous 19th-century urbanist, architect and town-planner, in his Al-Khettat Al-Tawfeqeya (Tawfeqiyya Plans), an ambitious redesign of the city of Cairo.

The name of the bridge was changed two more times: after the 1952 Revolution, to Kobri Al-Tahrir (Liberty Bridge), and Kobri Al-Raees Gamal Abdel-Nasser (President Gamal Abdel-Nasser Bridge). However, the original name, Kobri Qasr Al-Nil, lived on because it was the name that had been chosen by the Egyptian people.

Today, the bridge connects the governorate of Giza to the governorate of Cairo. It is currently being renovated by Arab Contractors, a company partly owned by the government. Wael Fekri Sayed, the project manager, said the renovation was made possible when the National Bank of Egypt agreed to fund the restoration.

“The renovations include re-paving the ground with asphalt, fixing any structural problems in the bridge, and replacing the old pavements with new ones,” Sayed said. “We have used granite slabs, just like the old ones, for the pavements.”

He added that the conservation team had also done its best to match the colour of the pavements with the other parts of the bridge. The renovation should now mean that the bridge will be good to go for many decades to come.

“The bridge’s metal handrails have been properly repainted. They had been repainted many times before, but the old paint was never properly removed, so on this occasion we removed all the old paint with sandblasting machines and restored the rails to their original splendour.

“We are also repainting the 50 lamp poles, 25 on each side, which will also look wonderful when we finish. We intend to repaint the whole of the bridge’s structure, focussing on the top side as well as under it.” New lights will be installed both on the sides and in the lampposts on the bridge.

“The contract, worth LE4 million, includes renovation of the upper part of the bridge. Renovation of the lower part will be carried out by another company,” said Sayed. Arab Contractors will also carry out restoration work on the four lion statues on the four corners of the bridge.

For the time being, the granite pedestrian pavement tiles, as well as the concrete base beneath them, have been removed and new ones installed. “The current pedestrian pavement is 20 centimetres high, with 15 centimetre appearing above the asphalt. Sand and cement support the pavement. The old tiles were 30 by 30 centimetres, but the new ones are 60 by 30 centimetres for the red granite ones in the middle, and 25 by 60 centimetres for the dark-grey granite ones on the edges and in the centre,” Sayed explained.

“We removed the old asphalt and put on a new layer five centimetres thick. An asphalt compactor was used to smooth the asphalt and make it uniform in height. The structural breaks that enabled the bridge to open in the past were also repaired. This opening device functioned manually at first, but later a mechanical device was installed to replace it, though this was damaged in the 25 January Revolution,” he added. The bridge’s usable road space has also been enlarged to allow it to take more traffic.

Sayed said the four statues of lions that guard each end of the bridge are being restored by experts whose methods are similar to those used by the Ministry of Antiquities. The lions, in bronze, have to be cleaned with special chemicals. The graffiti on their marble bases is being removed to make them as good as new. Extensive research has been carried out to find materials that match the originals.

The project manager at the engineering company working with Arab Contractors, Mustafa Noaman, added that the work has been proceeding for two months. “We intend to finish by the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan,” he said, adding that his company’s part of the work has been supervised by the governorate of Cairo and financed by the Al-Ahli Bank.

Nour Al-Sherif Abdel-Latif, an engineer involved in the renovations, said that the company responsible for restoring the lights on the bridge had worked hard to make sure that the illumination was even and that it matches throughout. The old square lamps will be replaced with similar ones made of the same kind of glass as before. However, they will use LED lights that give more light, save energy and last longer.

The construction of the old Qasr Al-Nil Bridge began in 1869 and was the first modern bridge to be built on the Nile. It was opened on 10 February 1872 and was used for the next 60 years until another bridge, the current one, was built in its place. This time a British company, Dorman Long and Co., the same company that built the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia, won the bid in March 1930 to reconstruct the bridge at a cost of LE308,250.

The bridge was inaugurated by King Fouad in 1933, who named it after his ancestor, the khedive Ismail. The bridge was 382 metres long and 20 metres wide. The four statues of lions that were originally on the four corners of the old bridge were reinstalled, but this time on lower pedestals. The lions were made by French sculptor Henri Alfred Jacquemart.

According to Al-Tarabeeli, there are also differences in the materials used to build the two bridges. The old one was built in stone, while the new one was built on a steel frame and made extensive use of concrete. Its supporting pillars are made of concrete and faced with granite from Aswan. The new bridge weighs 3,360 tons, double the weight of the old one.

He cites a government decree, published in the Al-Wake’e Al-Misreya official gazette on 27 February 1872, 17 days after the inauguration of the bridge, to the effect that a toll would be charged on people or animals crossing the bridge. The fees would be used to maintain the structure and meet its costs. A camel carrying cargo across the bridge was charged two piastres, while one without cargo would pay one piastre. The owners of animals like cows and horses had to pay one piastre, 15 paras (1/40 of a piastre) if they were carrying cargo and 30 paras if not.

Carts with two horses had to pay three piastres if they were carrying cargo or people and one piastre if they were not. A shepherd had to pay 10 paras for each animal in his flock crossing the bridge. Men and women, carrying something or not, had to pay 100 paras. Passenger vehicles paid two piastres to cross. Children under the age of six, and escorted by relatives, were exempted from fees.

“We have many other renovation plans that we will carry out in different phases. We may renovate the Al-Galaa Bridge and the 15th May Bridge in the future, in co-operation with more than one consultant and funded by other sources. There is also a study we are doing to renovate the lower part of the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, the mechanical part, but that is for the future,” said Noaman.

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