Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1427, (24 - 30 January 2019)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1427, (24 - 30 January 2019)

Ahram Weekly

What’s in a name?

Humphrey Davies and Lesley Lababidi, A Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2018, pp246

What’s in a name?

There must be many residents and visitors to Cairo who have often stopped to wonder about the origin of the capital’s street names. Some of them are not difficult to work out, such as Ramses Street, named after the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II, or 26 July Street, named after the revolution that ended the monarchy in 1952. 

However, other names are more mysterious and do not yield up their meanings as easily. Perhaps only those who have done the necessary research can identify the “Two Sherifs” referenced in Downtown Cairo’s Sharifayn Street with any confidence. Some historical figures may be obscure even to those who are otherwise familiar with their names, such as the Sheikh Rihan who has given his name to Sheikh Rihan Street by the Downtown campus of the American University in Cairo.

It is in elucidating the meaning of this second category of more mysterious and intriguing names that A Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo by Humphrey Davies and Lesley Lababidi comes in so useful. Well-known for his literary translations that have included Egyptian novelist Alaa Al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building and the late 19th-century Lebanese writer Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg, Davies has teamed up with veteran travel writer Lababidi, author of the Cairo Practical Guide, to produce this new guide to Cairo street names that is as sure to delight as to inform, being attractively written and full of arcane lore throughout.

Many will have worked out that Al-Qasr Al-Aini Street, the main thoroughfare running southwards from Downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square, must have been named after some now-disappeared former palace — the name means Al-Aini Palace Street — on the model of the similarly puzzling Qasr Al-Nil Street, also in Downtown, which neither contains an extant palace nor now leads directly to the Nile. But how many may have been misled by their imperfect knowledge into thinking that the name had something to do with a hot spring or possibly an eye (ain in Arabic)?

In fact, Davies and Lababidi write in their entry on Al-Qasr Al-Aini Street, the name, recorded since around 1900, comes from “the palace of that name built in 1466 at the southern end of the modern street in the area then known as Manshiyet Al-Mahrani by Shehabeddin ibn Ahmed ibn Abdel-Rahim ibn Badreddin Mahmoud Al-Eini (d. 1503), whose last name means ‘from Ayntab’ — today’s Gaziantep in Turkey — the birthplace of his grandfather, a celebrated scholar of religion.”

Qasr Al-Nil, or Nile Palace Street, a name first recorded in 1888, refers, they say, to “either of two palaces at the western end of the street. The first was built by Mohamed Ali Pasha for his daughter Nazli Hanem immediately to the north of the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge,” while the second was built in 1857 on the site of the first following its demolition and replacement by the Qasr Al-Nil Barracks. This was in turn replaced by the Nile Ritz-Carlton Hotel and the Arab League building that stand on the same site next to the Nile today. 

Of Sheikh Rihan, Davies and Lababidi admit uncertainty. The name of the street has been in use since 1888, they say, but it is not known to whom it refers. According to some, Sheikh Rihan “was a freedman of the Prophet Mohamed named Abu Rihana, according to others a descendent of Al-Husayn, grandson of the Prophet, and according to others simply unknown.” Moreover, Sheikh Rihan has been employed as a kind of default street name when changes in fashion or topography have rendered other names redundant. 

From 1871 to 1938, part of Sheikh Rihan Street was called Saray Al-Ismailiya Street (Ismailiyya Palace Street) after the palace built by the khedive Ismail in 1871 for his third wife Jaham Afat that once stood where the Mugamma Building stands today. Another part was called Al-Sultan Hussein Kamel Street from 1938 to 1954 after Sultan Hussein Kamel who ruled Egypt from 1914 to 1917 after the deposition of the khedive Abbas Helmi II at the start of World War I.


NAMING PRACTICES: Streets can be named after people, places, or events, as the examples above suggest, or after institutions, such as Gomhuriya (Republic) Street, formerly (until 1954) Ibrahim Pasha Street, or trades and activities, such as Tarboush Maker’s Lane (Haret Al-Tarabishi in the Downtown area) or Salt Seller’s Lane (Atfet Al-Mallah in Mounira).

In tracking down the meanings of central Cairo’s street names, Davies and Lababidi pay attention both to the first use of a name, meaning when and by whom it was bestowed, and any subsequent changes it may have undergone since. Some names are likely to have been given from above, though this mechanism only formally dates from 1960 with the establishment of the Cairo Governorate Streets Naming Committee. Earlier, names were likely to be assigned by developers, to be ratifications of already existing names, or to be the result of the patchy street-naming decrees published in the Journal officiel. 

Some streets were never officially named at all, in which case popular naming practices were often taken over by mapmakers and the authorities on a case-by-case basis. It can be difficult, particularly in cases of this sort, to decide when a given street was first named, Davies and Lababidi write, and as a result they have had to be adventurous in the search for documentation. 

What’s in a name?

In addition to maps and official sources, they have searched through history books, commercial and professional directories, and telephone books in search of evidence for the first or earliest use of street names. Even so, in some cases they have had to be satisfied with approximate dates, and despite their enquiries “it may be that we shall never know to what or to whom some names refer. Approximately ten per cent of the names in the book have been classed as ‘unidentified’.”

Changes in street names can come about for different reasons, but one common one has been changes in the political regime. After the 1952 Revolution, for example, many Cairo street names were wiped off the map and replaced by others less redolent of the previous monarchical system. 

Fifteen streets and three squares named after members of the former royal family lost their names in September 1954 and were given suitably republican replacements. Fouad Al-Awal Street (named after king Fouad I) became 26 July Street, Tawfik Square (named after the khedive Tawfik) became Orabi Square in memory of the 19th-century nationalist leader, and Al-Amir (Prince) Tusun Street in Zamalek was renamed Al-Shahid Ishaq Yaqoub Street after lieutenant Ishaq Yaqoub Hassanein who died defending Egypt from invading Israeli, British and French forces during the 1956 Suez Crisis.

Some streets are associated with individuals who once lived in or near them, such as in the case of the “Two Sherifs” Street (Sharifayn) mentioned above, which refers to two unrelated men, both named Sherif, who once had mansions in the area. Mohamed Sherif Pasha (1826-87), who also gives his name to the nearby Sherif Street, was a military man and politician, while Ali Sherif Pasha (1834-97), though also a soldier, was best known as a breeder of horses. 

However, it is not necessary for an individual to have lived in or near a street to have it named after him. Much of Zamalek, for example, laid out from the end of the 19th century onwards, has streets named after mediaeval Ayyubid Dynasty princes, including the Ayyubid Sultan Saladin (Salaheddin) himself whose street name dates to 1913 and Shagaret Al-Dorr Street, named after the wife of the last Ayyubid Sultan Al-Sayyib Ayyub who ruled in her own right as Sultana for three months in 1250. 

Reading through the names of individuals who have given their names to Cairo streets, at least in the central parts of the city covered by this book (roughly the Downtown area, Garden City, and Zamalek), it can be striking how relatively broad-minded those who name streets can be. While members of the former royal family lost out after 1952, with streets named after them being systematically renamed, this was not true of politicians and other figures associated with the previous regime.

Prince Tusun and others lost the streets named after them, but this was not the case for Hassan Sabri Pasha, prime minister in the 1930s, or even Fouad Serageddin Pasha, interior minister before the 1952 Revolution and secretary-general of the Wafd Party, who has a street named after him in Garden City.

Writers, artists and intellectuals are as likely to be honoured as politicians, military men, nationalist leaders, or lawyers. Artists Ahmed Sabri (1889-1955) and Salah Taher (1911-2007) and writer Taha Hussein (1889-1973) have streets named after them in Zamalek, for example. There are quite a few foreign figures, commemorated in Mirit Street (after French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette) and Shambuliyon Street (after French Egyptologist Jean Francois Champollion) in the Downtown district, and Clot Bey Street (after 19th-century French physician Antoine Clot) in Azbakiya.

Many distinguished women are also commemorated in central Cairo street names, including pioneering feminist Hoda Shaarawi in the Downtown district, writer Aisha Al-Taymouriya in Garden City, actress and journalist Fatma (Rose) Al-Youssef and political activist Safiya Zaghloul in Mounira, and of course singer Um Kolthoum in Gezira.

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