Most of the first buildings developed in Khedivial Cairo following 1868 were gone only a couple of decades later. This is a history of the modern city's earliest days.
Anyone familiar with downtown Cairo will find it hard to believe that not that long ago – a mere 140 years back in time – the area was cultivated land reclaimed in the 1850s over the rubbish dumps separating the old Ottoman city from the Nile. It is perhaps even harder to imagine that many early buildings of the ‘new quarters’ developed from 1868 onwards were already gone a couple of decades later, and that by the 1930s, a completely new landscape with opulent apartment buildings (among them the Yacoubian Building), art deco movie theaters (Metro, Radio, Diana) and grand department stores (Cicurel, Chemla, Davies Bryan, Omar Effendi, Hannaux) had replaced the early suburban houses of ‘Ismaïlia’, as the area was named upon its creation in reference to its founder, Khedive Ismail.
Cairo’s Ismaïlia Emerges
The most short-lived buildings of khedivial Cairo were probably the circus and the racecourse (public entertainment was an important facet of the new city envisioned by Khedive Ismail). The former stood to the rear of the Opera House, next to the Azbakiyyah gardens. Built over a few months in 1869 by the German architect Julius Franz and the French engineer Regis de Curel, it was torn down in 1872, giving way to the huge Mattatias apartment building (by Ambroise Baudry, 1876), an unfinished, neo-classical, arcaded block, itself demolished in 1999. The racecourse, a huge walled and half-covered structure, was built in the very heart of Cairo’s new quarters (the entrance was from Midan Mustafa Kamel) and survived longer than the circus, but in 1881 its land was subdivided and sold as building lots. One of the last surviving buildings of that development is at 27 Sherif Street, in a sad condition, although registered as historical heritage since 1995. The house was built in 1884 by French engineer and art collector Alphonse Delort de Gléon – as can be read on the founding inscription still existing on the façade – in the Mamluk style that he cherished, and was for long a distinct landmark in Cairo’s social and cultural life. In the 1890s, the building housed the Cercle Artistique, a club that organized an annual art exhibition every Ramadan, where international and local figures showed their works. It later housed the Automobile Club d’Egypte, until it was purchased in 1914 by the famous art and antiquities dealer Maurice Nahman who turned it into his residence and showroom. Such was his reputation that museum curators came from all over the world to his shop to buy Egyptian, Islamic or Coptic antiques.
Early Khedivial Cairo was essentially a suburban development, where land was given for free to anyone committing to build a house surrounded by a garden for a substantial amount of money in a maximum of two years. Few Cairene residents, whether foreign or Egyptian, could meet the requirement, and yet, in no time, most plots were allocated – and eventually re-allocated when the first owner could not fulfil his obligation – and construction of the new area began. In 1874, the photographer Emile Béchard produced an illustrated survey of the sixty-one buildings already constructed. The one- or two-storey houses ranged from plain, modest structures to opulent, heavily decorated mansions, of which very few have survived to the present. The palace in Moorish style of Mohamed Sherif Pasha, a minister of Khedive Ismail and son-in-law to the French-born Soliman Pasha, designed by Julius Franz in 1871 on Soliman Pacha Square, and the mansion of another member of the Turco-Circassian elite, Ali Sherif, known for his stables of race horses, on the opposite side of the back street (hence the name of the street: Sherifein or Two Sherifs), are no longer there. The Sabet palace on the same square was replaced in 1898 by the Savoy Hotel and in 1934 by the Baehler buildings. One of Nubar Pasha’s residences, a building on Khazindar Square to which the German architect Carl von Diebitsch was commissioned to add Moorish decors and an annex in the same style in 1865, experienced a similar fate; after being turned into a hotel (known as the Oriental, then Khedivial Hotel), it was replaced in 1914 by the Sednaoui department stores (Georges Parcq, architect).
The Last Survivors of a Golden Era
The imposing Mamluk-style palace of the French Count Gaston de Saint-Maurice, used as the French Embassy since 1884, was dismantled in 1937 with many elements transferred to the new site in Giza. The palace had been decorated with architectural salvage from Ottoman buildings destroyed when old streets had been torn up to make way for the modern development. Today, the French Embassy building boasts many precious elements that were in the original Villa Maurice. These include an impressive qa’a (hall) with four iwans (vaults), a fasqiyya (fountain), carved door panels inlaid with ivory and marble dadoes. The Immobilia, the tallest building in Cairo at the time (Max Edrei and Gaston Rossi, architects) was erected on the cleared site. At about the same time, the neo-classical palace of banker Raphael Suares (Ambroise Baudry, 1877), which stood on Mustafa Kamel Square, and the neighbouring ‘Arab-style’ residence of Ambroise Baudry himself on Sheikh Aboul-Sebaa Street were also demolished. The eighteenth-century ceilings from Baudry’s house were moved to a new house on Pyramids Road, the Ispenian Villa, designed by architect Charles Aznavour and tragically looted and destroyed in 2013.
The last remnant of the early houses built in the area is a dilapidated villa on Shawarbi Street. Hardly visible from the street because of successive encroachment by shops, the villa once stood in the middle of a large garden, abutting the Villa Maurice, and had an annex attached to it which was known as the ‘Villa Medicis du Caire’ because it offered studio space and rooms to visiting painters. Ambroise Baudry had been commissioned by Baron Alphonse Delort de Gléon in 1872, to build the palace in the ‘Arab style’ as the genre was then labelled. Trained at the studio of the famous Orientalist artist Jean-Léon Gerôme and successful in the multiple businesses he had set up in Cairo, the Baron was eager to encourage art in any form. In addition to subsidizing artists, he also collected Islamic art, not only through local dealers but also through agents sent to Yemen and the Hijaz. Reflecting his taste for Islamic art, the house displayed many features of Cairene historical architecture: ivory inlaid door panels, polychrome marble dadoes, a hall lit by a large central lantern and qamariyyas, and mashrabiyyas over all the windows. Purchased in 1908 by a wealthy landowner, Mohamed Shawarbi Pasha, the house was subsequently used as the Italian Embassy and in the 1930s as the headquarters of the political journal al-Siyasa. It is now occupied by a trading firm. The house was stripped of most of its interior decor in 1995 but painted ceilings are still visible, as are some of the glass windows and the Arabic foundational inscription naming Delort de Gléon and his architect.
The few other buildings that have survived from those early days in the southern part of Khedivial Cairo (Sheikh Rihan and Nasriyya areas) include a school for upper-class girls (École des Jeunes Filles Nobles) designed in 1872 by Ali Pasha Mubarak and later used by several government ministries, and the massive neo-classical palace of Ismail Saddiq al-Muffatish built around 1875 on Lazoghli Square and now used as a warehouse by the Ministry of Finance. Close by, stood the palace of the mother of Khedive Ismail at Qasr al-Ayni, occupying with its gardens the whole area where the suburb of Garden City was developed after 1906. Its monumental gate with the initials of Khedive Ismail can be seen in the Eastern cemeteries, where it was relocated at the time.
Ismaïlia Transforms Again
By the 1940s and in a relatively short time span, downtown Cairo had already experienced quite a radical transformation. More was to come in the following decades. Another landmark that disappeared in 1955 was the private museum of amateur collector Omar Sultan attached to his palace on Gama’a Sharkass Street. Built in 1907 in Islamic revival style, the gallery and residence were known as Dar al-Mathaf and housed the huge Ancient Egyptian art collection assembled by the young amateur, who was the brother of feminist Hoda Shaarawi. Shaarawi herself lived nearby, in a Mamluk-style house, adjoining another house-museum in the same style on Qasr al-Nil Street belonging to aristocrat Antoine de Zogheb. Cities tend to change fast, evolving with the needs of different eras. Keeping their memories alive through architecture is rarely an option but surviving images and texts still have the power to tantalize us with a glimpse into early khedivial Cairo.
All images are courtesy of the author.
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Mercedes Volait is CNRS research professor at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art in Paris, where she heads the unit devoted to architecture and antiquarianism in the modern Mediterranean. She also edits the digital journal Architecture Beyond Europe and is currently working on a catalogue raisonné of nineteenth-century photographer Beniamino Facchinelli’s Cairo work.