Sunday,17 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)
Sunday,17 June, 2018
Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Paris of the East

From swampland to the Paris of the East, 19th-century Khedival Cairo has many stories to tell as it celebrates its 150th anniversary, reports Nevine El-Aref

The historical edifices of Alfi and Emadeddin streets and Talaat Harb Square are scheduled for renovation (photos: Sherif Sonbol)

Pedestrians strolling through 19th-century Khedival Cairo, today largely corresponding to the downtown area of the city, will likely encounter many different scenes this week as Abdeen Square and Alfi and Muizz streets are transformed into cultural stages celebrating the area’s 150th anniversary.

Khedival Cairo extends from Qasr Al-Nil Street to Attaba, taking in Opera Square and the Moski district. 

This week will see festivities throughout the area, as to the rhythm of traditional flutes, drums and tambourines folk dancers dressed in colourful costumes will roam the district’s streets and squares showing off their performances.

The historical edifices of Alfi and Emadeddin streets and Talaat Harb Square are scheduled for renovation (photos: Sherif Sonbol)

 Traditional Arab music and opera concerts are to take place while guided tours around the different areas of Khedival Cairo are to be organised for revellers. Billboards are to be installed on the façades of every edifice in Khedival Cairo to provide detailed information on the history of the buildings, their designers and their architectural styles. Screens will be installed throughout the downtown area displaying documentaries relating to the history of Khedival Cairo since its construction in 1867 until today.

A photography competition of historical edifices in Cairo will be organised in collaboration with UNESCO under the title “Our Heritage through Khedival Cairo”.

According to Mohamed Al-Sheikh, secretary-general of the Cairo governorate, the competition will strengthen the value of heritage in the hearts and minds of the public, its aim being to raise awareness of it and to draw people’s attention to the importance of the area’s historic buildings and their distinguished architectural styles reflecting one of Egypt’s historical periods.

The competition also highlights measures to preserve and protect the area for future generations. Al-Sheikh said that each photographer participating in the competition could enter up to three original photographs. The first prize is LE15,000, the second is LE10,000 and the third is LE5,000, he said.

Al-Sheikh pointed out that the façades of the 125 edifices earmarked in the event were maintained thanks to a budget of LE100 million provided by businesses, banks, and the owners of edifices in downtown Cairo. The buildings are located in five squares and five main streets, he added. 

Reham Azzam, in charge of downtown building renovation at the National Committee for the Protection and Renovation of Cairo’s Heritage, said that within the framework of the celebration the committee was starting the second phase of its development project for Khedival Cairo.

This includes the development of the khedival buildings in Emadeddin Street in downtown Cairo, among the first to be constructed in the area. The buildings were once home to the khedive Ismail’s entourage and servants from Abdeen Palace. Today, although they stand majestically tall and replete with history, they have become homes to offices, shops and cinemas.

“We decided to start with the khedival buildings due to their very important role in Cairo’s heritage,” Azzam said, adding that “the buildings are quite challenging due to problems with their structure, as well as their design.” She believes that the edifices are unique in their French architectural style in Cairo, and renovating them will be an example of the hard work the committee is doing to renew the prestigious buildings of the downtown area.

“The glory of the khedival buildings makes the area one of the most mesmerising spots in Egypt,” Azzam said, adding that despite time taking its toll on the buildings they were still proof of how architecture can add much to a city’s beauty and elegance.

The historical edifices of Alfi and Emadeddin streets and Talaat Harb Square are scheduled for renovation (photos: Sherif Sonbol)

HISTORY OF THE DISTRICT: The history of the district goes back to 1867 when the khedive Ismail visited Paris for that year’s World Fair and decided to rebuild Cairo, then still a largely mediaeval city, on the Parisian model designed by city planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann.

New street plans were drawn up, canals were filled in, and edifices were built in the best neo-classical and neo-baroque architectural styles. The Khedivial Quarter was an architectural masterpiece, competing with the most beautiful cities in the world and an open museum featuring all the European architectural styles. It was also a buzzing cosmopolitan hub known as the “Paris of the East”.

In 1872, Clot Bey and Mohamed Ali streets were built to connect the new city centre with the old parts of Cairo and the Citadel area. The 406-metre Qasr Al-Nil Bridge with its beautiful four bronze lions carved in Italy was inaugurated on the banks of the Nile as well as the Abul-Ela Bridge designed by French architect Gustave Eiffel, the designer of the Tour Eiffel in Paris.

In 1875, the Old Cairo Opera House was inaugurated, grand boulevards were opened through the old city area, and tramlines connecting Ataba with Abbaseya and Shubra soon followed. A modern sewerage system was installed, and paved streets planted with trees imported from China, India, Sudan and the United States were built.

New suburbs were constructed such as Zamalek, called the Jardin des Plantes (Garden of Plants), because of its collection of exotic plants shipped from all over the world. French landscape designer de la Chevalerie designed the island’s landscape plan, gardens and plant nurseries.

The French influence continued during the time after Ismail stepped down from power, with architects Alexan Marcel, Leo Nafiliyan, Raoul Brandon and Antoine Backh all designing several edifices. French architect Georges Parcq, for example, built many buildings in Cairo during the early 20th century, including the French Embassy.

Italian architect Antonio Lasciac built the Club Risotto buildings in Mustafa Kamel Square in 1929, architect A Castaman built the Groppi buildings in Talaat Harb Square, and Italian architect Mario Rossi took part in the building of the Omar Makram Mosque in Tahrir Square. Architect G Balian built various buildings in Talaat Harb Street in 1934, and architect Mustafa Fahmi Bek was responsible for the Engineers Organisation building on Ramses Street.

In Khedival Cairo, squares were used as open-air museums to exhibit statues of political and societal leaders such as Talaat Harb, Mohamed Farid and Mustafa Kamel in a bid to spread nationalist feelings through art connecting the Egyptian political and social heritage with daily life.

During the early 20th century, downtown Cairo became the home of Egyptians and Europeans alike, with residents including statesmen, artists, intellectuals and businessmen. It quickly emerged as a vibrant hub of cultural, commercial and political activities, and it became a source of inspiration for Egypt’s artists and writers.

Fashion-conscious Cairenes strolled the sidewalks of Qasr Al-Nil and Talaat Harb streets, visiting the city’s chic department stores in search of the latest European trends. Film fans flooded downtown cinemas to watch the premiers of both Egyptian and foreign movies, while diplomats wined and dined together at foreign-owned cafeterias and clubs and activists discussed politics.

The district was also familiar with political upheavals, the first in 1919 with the revolution against the British occupation when protests were largely centred in Tahrir Square and Talaat Harb Street. In the 1952 Revolution, the streets of downtown Cairo flooded again with people celebrating the success of the Free Officers Movement.


RECENT HISTORY: Following the 1952 Revolution, many street names were changed and buildings demolished in an effort to rid public memory of the previous monarchical regime.

Many of the area’s residents left the neighbourhood for districts such as Maadi, Heliopolis and later Mohandessin. Downtown Cairo, once a premier residential neighbourhood, then became nearly abandoned by some segments of society. Many apartments were closed, while others were rented to clinics, workshops, ateliers, stores and offices, a fact that transformed Cairo’s Belle Epoque buildings into structures of faded glory.

Although the buildings that remain from the district’s heyday have fallen into disrepair, the area still retains an air of elegance, and it has enormous present potential. In recent years, the government has initiated a comprehensive renovation scheme to recreate the atmosphere of the Khedvial city that Ismail built and to rescue the area from degeneration.

The Khedival Cairo project is being undertaken under the auspices of the governorate of Cairo, represented by professor Soheir Hawass and the Cultural Coordination Organisation. They point out that many of the present problems facing the architecture of downtown Cairo did not appear until the Open Door Period in the 1970s when new construction materials were used and there was a rejection of all that was old.

“It was an act of revenge against the old regime and its buildings and edifices,” Hawass said, adding that towers were then constructed in downtown Cairo, such as the commercial building replacing the National Hotel in Abdel-Khalek Tharwat Street. The hotel was composed of two domed structures, but one of them was demolished and replaced by the Talaat Harb Mall.

Elegant shops disappeared and were replaced with others selling shoes and commercial products. The owners of these new shops did not bother to preserve the distinguished architecture of downtown Cairo, and they started to decorate the façades of their shops and put up billboards in a way that degraded the area’s distinguished architectural style.

Several people blocked windows and balconies with ugly billboards. “The Khedival Cairo project does not only aim at restoring the façades of these edifices. It also seeks to renovate the buildings themselves and restore the area’s opulent atmosphere,” Hawass concluded.

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