Although European architecture inspired the streets and buildings of khedivial Cairo, European architects were themselves inspired by Cairo's Mamluk architecture, leading to the creation of the Neo-Mamluk style.

It is well-established that the architecture of Khedivial Cairo was influenced by the European stylistic trends of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Khedive Ismail (1863-1879), the grandson of Mohamed Ali, dreamed of making Egypt a part of Europe (‘l’Egypte fait partie de l’Europe‘) and because of this, devised a major redevelopment plan for the city of Cairo. In 1868, he started to build a new city west of old medieval Cairo dubbed ‘Paris by the Nile’ by many, and ‘Paris of the Orient’ by the Europeans. It boasted broad streets lined with modern buildings designed by European architects.


The construction of the Suez Canal was the khedive’s most ambitious and most expensive project. This grandiose undertaking resulted in thousands of European bankers, businessmen and architects flooding into Cairo to look for opportunities. The building guidelines developed by Ali Pacha Mubarak for the city centre did not dictate a specific architectural style, but did include requirements to maintain high quality construction; this cleared the way for European designers to be inventive, turning the centre of Cairo into an eclectic architectural hub. French, Italian, Hungarian, and Austrian architects designed buildings along the new streets, including Antonio Lasciac and Marcel Dourgnon from Austria; Mario Rossi and Francesco Battigelli from Italy; Leo Naflyan from France, and Franz Pacha of Hungary.

The Suez Canal was completed in 1869 and the crowns of Europe, led by the French empress Eugenie, travelled to Cairo to celebrate the event. She stayed at the Gezira Palace, now the Marriott Hotel, built specifically for the occasion. Despite this significant achievement, Khedive Ismail’s numerous ambitious projects sank the country into bankruptcy, paving the way for the British occupation of 1882. Ironically, this helped the economy regain its strength, and Europeans continued to flock to Egypt to establish themselves in profitable enterprises.


Khedive Ismail’s dream of a ‘Paris by the Nile’ became fully realized as many areas of the city continued to develop along European lines. Cairo, in the process, lost its Mamluk architectural identity, and became a centre of eclectic design, predominantly in the beaux -arts style. It was only in the 1920s that a new sense of a regional style started to emerge, due, in a large part, to the newly discovered exoticism of the East. The discovery of inspirational sources in Orientalist paintings inspired by the translations of the Arabian Nights, and the many publications on the Alhambra of Granada, fueled the trend. The European neo-Islamic style hit Cairo and its newly founded suburb of Heliopolis, which became a frenzy of building activity; the neo-Islamic buildings that came to line its centre are full of Andalusian and Mamluk design elements. Remarkably enough, some buildings even followed the aesthetics of the ‘Estilo Sevillano’, developed in Spain in the 1920s. Additionally, the neo-Mamluk style was born, spreading across Cairo, and then on to Central and Eastern Europe thanks to Austro-Hungarian architects.

Early neo-Islamic architecture appeared more neo-Andalusian than anything else. Later on, and as European architects became more familiar with Islamic architecture, they started to develop a new style, based on the careful study and analysis of the buildings in Old Cairo. A notable architect was the Italian Mario Rossi, who worked for the Egyptian government in the 1920s and designed several mosques. His well-known projects are: the Mosque of Omar Makram at Tahrir Square; the Zamalek Mosque on 26th of July Street; and al-Mursi Abu al-Abbas in Alexandria. His projects reflected a revival of the Mamluk design elements, consistently used in Cairo from 1250 to 1517. Examples of Ottoman architecture could be seen everywhere around the metropolis, but they did not capture the imagination of European architects. Of course, the style was worthy of the great Ottoman empire and was accepted as such, but it was not viewed as representing Cairo, or Egypt for that matter. Only Mamluk architecture was seen as representing the nationality of the city and its history; this led to the development of the neo-Mamluk style.


A notable example of the neo-Mamluk style is the Assicurazioni Generali Trieste building on Qasr al-Nil Street, which housed the Italian insurance giant. Designed by the Austrian architect Antonio Lasciac, it was built in 1910. Its name was placed under the windows in large Italian and Arabic mosaic signs, which still dominate the street-front today. The building has shops at the street level with apartments and offices on the upper floors, and its façade is articulated with projecting towers that divide it into an asymmetrical yet balanced composition. It is richly ornamented with panels filled with floral designs, placed above the windows and in the spandrels of the arches. The arched windows are a mix of semi-circle and pointed horseshoes with voussoirs of alternating colours. The windows and balconies on the top floor have wooden awnings similar to the ones built by the Mamluk Sultan Qaytbay in the Fifteenth Century. The façades are capped with crenellations that are a mix of the stepped type from the complex of Qalawun, built in the thirteenth century, and the fleur-de-lis type from the Circassian Mamluk period.

The elements used are a mix of Bahri and Circassian Mamluk with a Spanish flair. This is a unique mix since the design follows the rules of early twentieth-century Mudéjar high-rises in Seville, Madrid, and Barcelona. This is neo-Mamluk architecture at its very best since it truly reflects the vibrancy of the original style. The overall effect is dynamic, as it uses architectural elements to make up for the absence of rich Mamluk ornamentation. Not surprisingly, the architecture of Cairo ignored the Ottoman period in its search for a new style. For almost 300 years after the conquest of Cairo by the Ottomans in 1517, and until the French campaign led by Napoleon in 1798, the architecture of the city followed design guidelines drafted in Istanbul. The exuberant Mamluk style was replaced by sterile architecture using strict design rules. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, other countries, now free of Istanbul, also turned their back on the Empire’s rigid guidelines in search of new styles, as witnessed in places as far away as the former Yugoslavia.


In Bosnia, Sarajevo was settled in 1457 during the reign of Ottoman ruler Sultan Mehmed Fatih. It became the capital in 1462 and remained part of the Ottoman Empire for 421 years. It was relinquished in 1878 at the Berlin Conference to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which lasted until 1918. After World War I, Bosnia became part of the former Yugoslavia. As a consequence, it was under the influence of Austro-Hungarian architects in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This greatly impacted the buildings of the period since the architects looked elsewhere for design inspiration.

A perfect example of the neo-Mamluk in Europe is Gradska Vijecnica or City Hall (also beledija or baladeyia), built in 1896 on the bank of the Miljacka River to house the city municipality. It was originally designed by the Austro–Czech architect Karlo Parzik, who was dismissed due to disagreements, leaving the building to be completed by Alexander Wittek. In 1949, it became the public and university library, but sadly the collection burned down in 1992 after a Serb grenade attack. According to sources, Wittek travelled twice to Cairo and was impressed by the mosque of Sultan Hassan. In actuality, however, the building was influenced by a combination of several Mamluk buildings as well as the neo-Mamluk architecture of Khedivial Cairo.

With the old city in the background, the Miljacka River in the foreground, and the hills around Sarajevo visible from the Kulina Bana, the building is perfectly situated. It consists of split levels, four floors at the back and two at the front. There are sections that project upward and others that project outward. This is, of course, a modern concept of arranging space that was pioneered by the Circassian Mamluks. The main façade is composed of a central projecting cube, of the gala hall, and two extended wings. They terminate at chamfered corners, which have two entrances that rise for the full height of the façade and are crowned with stalactite or muqarnas conches. The projecting cube, with its galleries of pointed horseshoe arches on the first and second floor, is a reminder of designs used in Cairo. There are five arches in each gallery; these have ablaq voussoirs and are supported on columns with simplified capitals on the first floor, but with abstracted Corinthian capitals on the second floor. This ensemble is capped with a muqarnas cornice and a row of composite fleur-de-lis crenellations. The latter alternates between the fleur-de-lis and a stacked design of the same, which is raised on a tall stem.

What is intriguing about the city of Sarajevo is its vast number of Ottoman mosques, with their large shallow domes and pencil-shaped minarets. None of them were used as a source of inspiration by the architects of the Nineteenth Century, who looked instead towards Mamluk and Andalusian architecture. This is proven by another nearby building on the same Kulina Bana Street, which incorporates elements like the fleur-de-lis and the stepped crenellations, exact replicas of features present at the Complex of Qalawun.

Amazingly enough, the neo-Mamluk style appeared in other European countries and even crossed the Atlantic Ocean. In Zgorzelec in Western Poland, a building was constructed with the familiar fleur-de-lis crenellation and the horseshoe arch. In the United States, the most notable example is the Murat Shrine in Indianapolis, designed for the Shriners fraternity group as an entertainment centre. It was constructed in 1909 after the designs of Oscar Bohlen, who was a member of the group. At first sight, the structure could be mistaken for a Mamluk design; however, the proportions lack the familiar pleasing aesthetics since the dome is too small and the tower too big. Some common elements are incorporated though, and provide the Murat Shrine with its neo-Mamluk classification; notably, it features fleur-de-lis crenellation, muqarnas, and ablaq banding. Despite being an odd building in Indianapolis, it is a testament to the greatness of Mamluk design.


What was the driving force behind this design trend? Was it Orientalism pushing images from Islamic period Spain and Egypt as representative of Romantic architecture? There were many artists traveling during the nineteenth century who went to Spain, Morocco and Egypt. Their work influenced the architects of their time, paving the way for the explosion in the 1920s of neo-Islamic design in many parts of the world. Cairo is a case in point, as the architecture preceding the reign of Mohamed Ali is very similar to that of the period following his death. What was built in-between did not evoke the imagination and as a result was not revived; only the neo-Mamluk lives on and is seen as representing the city of Cairo.

This brings us to the post 25 January era, which is witnessing the destruction of the architectural heritage of the city on an unprecedented scale. It goes without saying that many buildings in the centre of the city were damaged, including my school, the Lycée Français du Caire, a wonderful example of neo-Mamluk architecture… which was burned down four times! 

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 5, 2013