The Streets and squares of Downtown Cairo are filled with a virtually infinite supply of historic landmarks. Even native Cairenes who are familiar with the neighborhood can stroll through its streets, discovering keys to the city’s modern history with each visit. The list of Downtown Cairo’s famed squares, streets and buildings is nearly never-ending, though some of the more prominent landmarks are worth noting.
Talaat Harb Square, formerly named after Mohamed Ali’s general Suleiman Pasha, is home to a number of distinctive landmarks. Renamed in 1954 after the prominent economist and founder of Banque Misr, a statue of Talaat Harb stands at the center of the square. On the corner of the square and Talaat Harb Street sits the once prestigious Groppi. Dating back to the 1920's, the cafe was once a premier chocolate shop and tearoom, favored among Cairo’s elite, though its reputation has suffered in recent decades. A step away from the square, on Talaat Harb Street, Cafe Riche was once an intellectual hotspot. Singer Om Kalthoum used to entertain patrons of the cafe, whose crowd of regulars once included some of the city’s famed writers and political activists. The spot remains popular among tourists and those yearning for a bygone era in Cairo’s history. Talaat Harb Street, one of the neighborhood’s busy retail boulevards, is lined with some of Downtown Cairo’s most beautiful examples of its Belle Époque architecture, including the Yacoubian Building.
Hoda Sharawy Street boasts a number of historic buildings as well. The street is named after the Egyptian feminist who famously removed her niqab after returning from a trip to Rome, and dedicated much of her life to promoting women’s rights in Egypt. The street is home to the original Felfela restaurant, which was fittingly founded by an Egyptian woman.
At the edge of the original Ismaelia district, Opera Square was once home to the Royal Opera House. Inaugurated in 1869, the building was designed by Pietro Avoscani and Rossi in the style of the famed La Scala in Milan. For a hundred years the Opera House showed some of the world’s most acclaimed operas, including the premier of Aida in 1869, which was commissioned by Ismail Pasha. Tragically in 1971, the wooden architectural masterpiece was destroyed in a fire. In its place sits a concrete car garage, an unfortunate testament to Downtown Cairo’s ever-threatened cultural heritage.
One of Downtown Cairo’s oldest remaining buildings is the Viennoise Space on Mahmoud Bassiouni Street. Although official records of the space’s date of establishment have been difficult to obtain, photographs from 1898, when the now abandoned Said Halim Palace was under construction, show the Viennoise Space completed. Unused for years, the building is now part of Al Ismaelia’s portfolio and has recently been offered as an art space to the Downtown Contemporary Art Festival (D-CAF).
In many respects, Tahrir Square is the face of Downtown Cairo. The square has gone through many changes in its history. It was originally known as Ismaelia Square, named after Khedive Ismail, who commissioned the neighborhood, and featured an impressive water fountain, greenery and park benches. Following the Free Officers Revolution of 1952, the square took on a new name. Today it accommodates thousands of commuters on a daily basis as one of the busiest traffic circles in Cairo. Through its ever-evolving history, however; one thing has remained constant, Tahrir Square is where Egyptians congregated again and again, to protest, to celebrate and to keep Egyptian spirit alive.
To discover more of Downtown Cairo’s historic figures and landmarks, check out these resources:
Paris Along the Nile: Architecture in Cairo from the Belle Époque by Cynthia Myntti
Grand Hotels of Egypt: In the Golden Age of Travel by Andrew Humphreys
Cairo: City of History by Andrew Raymond
Egypt’s Belle Époque: Cairo and the Age of the Hedonists by Trevor Mostyn
Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist by Huda Shaarawi
Naguib Mahfouz: His Life and Times by Rasheed El Enany
Cairo Cosmopolitan Edited by Diane Singerman and Paul Amar
The Golden Years of Egyptian Film Edited by Sherif Boraie
Cairo Street Stories: Exploring the City’s Statues, Squares, Bridges, Gardens and Sidewalk Cafes by Lesley Lababidi
Re-Envisioning Egypt: 1919-1952 Edited by Arthur Goldschmidt, Amy Johnson and Barak Salmoni
Biographical Dictionary of Modern Egypt by Arthur Goldschmidt
The Literary Atlas of Cairo: One Hundred Years on the Streets of the City by Samia Mehrez