For a city with such a long history; many are surprised to learn that Downtown Cairo is less than 200 years old. Until the mid 1800’s, the undisputed heart of Egypt’s capital city was predominantly swamp land. The banks of the Nile River flooded each year, rendering the surrounding land uninhabitable. It wasn’t until Khedive Ismail embarked on a campaign to create a modern city centre that Downtown Cairo began to take shape. Envisioning a vibrant city that would revive downtown contemporary urban centers in Europe and USA, Khedive Ismail sought the expertise of Baron Haussman a Parisian city planner to lay the framework for the new district.
The banks of the Nile were stabilized and a plan for Ismaelia was established to develop a neighborhood that would come to be known in Greater Cairo. In the area between the British barracks and Abdeen Palace wide boulevards were laid, flanked with pedestrian sidewalks, a rarity in Cairo even till this day. The boulevards were connected by a series of squares that would come to be adorned by statues of prestigious figures in Egyptian society. Public parks sprung up between the palaces and villas that housed Cairo’s aristocrats. As the district developed; architects from the Middle East and Europe flooded the scene to design what would become known as Cairo’s belle époque architecture.
By the early 20th century, multiculturalism prevailed in Downtown Cairo. The neighborhood was home to Egyptians and Europeans alike. Residents of the district included statesmen, artists, intellectuals and vendors. Downtown quickly transpired into a vibrant hub of cultural, commercial and political activity. Khedive Ismail’s idyllic dreams for the Nile-side neighborhood had become reality.
In the decades that followed, Downtown became a source of inspiration for Egypt’s artists and novelists who took to the sidewalk cafes daily. Fashion-conscious Cairenes strolled the sidewalks of Kasr el Nil and Taalat Harb, visiting the city’s chic department stores in search for the latest European trends. Fans of film flooded Downtown’s glitzy cinemas to watch premiers of both Egyptian and foreign movies. Diplomats wined and dined together at the foreign-owned cafeterias and clubs, and activists discussed politics over shisha and coffee.
When Cairenes had something to celebrate, they did so in Downtown. Likewise, when Egyptians had grievances to air they took to the streets of the area. In the district’s first brush with political upheaval during the Revolution of 1919 against the British presence, protests were largely centered in Tahrir Square and Taalat Harb Street. In the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, the streets of Downtown Cairo flooded again with Egyptians celebrating the success of the Free Officers.
Following the Free Officers Revolution, President Gamal Abdel Nasser would forever change Downtown Cairo as the state gradually took control over many enterprises and buildings.
Though the neighborhood remained vibrant and political, many street names were changed and buildings demolished in an effort to rid public memory of the previous regime.
By this time, many of Downtown’s residents had already begun migrating away from the neighborhood for areas such as Maadi, Heliopolis and later Mohandessin. The trend continues to this day, with many of Cairo’s residents taking to the ever expanding satellite cities. This has left Downtown Cairo once a premier residential neighborhood, nearly abandoned by some segments of the society. Many apartments have been all but closed up, while issues of rent control and fragmented ownership of Downtown’s buildings have transformed Cairo’s belle époque buildings to structures of faded glory.
But while Downtown Cairo has lost its prominence as a residential neighborhood and most of the buildings that remain from the district’s heyday have fallen into disrepair; the area still retains an air of elegance and has great potential. In recent years, government initiatives have sought to redevelop the public spaces of Downtown, though many of the state’s beautification efforts are currently on hold. Private investment initiatives including Al Ismaelia’s revitalization campaign promise to breathe new life into Downtown as a multi-functional neighborhood that reflects Egypt’s rich urban character. And in the wake of January 25th, 2011, when Egyptians again took to Tahrir Square and reclaimed the country, Downtown Cairo has reclaimed a place in the hearts of Egyptians as a public space that is unique to Egypt’s vibrant identity.