"Paris on the Nile” is a nickname commonly bestowed upon Khedive Ismail’s Downtown Cairo. Parisian city planner Baron Haussman had been enlisted to draw the lines for the district and European influences are common throughout the neighborhood’s architecture. In truth, however; Downtown’s identity has little to do with France. Rather, the district developed organically reflecting the melting pot that characterized Cairo at the time. Over the course of several decades, Downtown Cairo took on a truly unique face drawing from many influences and contemporary trends, both shaped by and shaping Egypt’s modern urban identity.
The initial stages of planning Downtown Cairo took place in the 1860’s. After the Nile’s banks were stabilized and the surrounding swampland solidified, boulevards were laid, trees planted and property lines formed. The following decades gave birth to prosperity, a boom in real estate and an influx of the world’s most prestigious visitors. Land was quickly purchased throughout Downtown by anyone eager to develop high-quality structures. Europeans and Levantines flooded the scene, joining Egyptians who studied architecture abroad and at home at the school of architecture established by Ali Mubarak in 1810. By the turn of the 20th century, a cosmopolitan district had begun to take form; one teeming with architecture so grand and diverse, that it rivaled the greatest cities around the world.
Because much of Downtown was developed by private interests over a number of decades and designed by architects of varied backgrounds, every street in the district displays a rich tapestry of architectural styles. According to the Center for Documentation for Cultural and natural Heritage, Cairo is home to 20 neo-baroque buildings; a style of architecture popular in cities such as London, Paris and Rio de Janeiro. The opulent curvature of these buildings is found on Sherif Pasha and Abdel Khaleq Tharwat Streets, as well as Taalat Harb Square. 228 neo-classical buildings remain in Cairo, many of which line Taalat Harb and Kasr el Nil Streets, as well as Gomhoureya Square and the area surrounding Abdeen Palace. The Greco-Roman inspired architectural style, typically featuring columns and lintels, was immensely popular from the late 19th century to the 1920’s, when elements of art nouveau had begun appearing on the district’s neo-classical edifices. The art nouveau trend had considerable influence on turn of the century architecture; although only 6 building remain that can truly be classified as such, the ironwork balconies and ornamented facades of the style can be seen on a number of buildings along 26th of July Street and Taalat Harb Square. The art deco trend of architecture was also popular, with 144 buildings remaining today. Unfortunately, only 18 neo-Islamic style buildings remain today. Recognizable by Mamluk and Ottoman era inspired minarets and masonry, these gems are scattered throughout Downtown on Tahrir, Sherif and Kasr el Nil Streets.
Dozens of architects were involved in designing Downtown Cairo’s belle époque structures. Among the most prominent is Marcel Dourgnon, the French architect who designed the neo-classical Egyptian museum near Tahrir Square. Italian Antonio Lasciac designed Khedivial Palaces, including the Palace of Princess Nimet Kamal al Din, currently under restoration and the long-abandoned Halim Palace. The famed architect left his mark throughout Downtown; the Banque Misr building on Mohamed Farid is yet another example of his work.
Syrio-Lebanese architect, Charles Ayrout, whose brother and father also designed a number of Cairo’s buildings, was the architect behind the Shawarby building on 26th of July Street, along with a number of buildings in Garden City, Zamalek and Heliopolis. Hungarian national, Max Herz, arrived to Egypt in 1881 and was commissioned to design the Department of Waqf, though the expert in Islamic architecture most notably contributed to Cairo’s urban framework through his dedicated restoration campaigns. Awarded the title of Bey for his work, Herz would likely be heartbroken at the dilapidated state of many of Cairo’s belle époque facades today.