Cairo: Busy threading their way in the Egyptian capital’s traffic-clogged streets, many locals and visitors fail to feast their eyes on the architectural splendour of the city’s heart, once dubbed the “Paris of the East”.
Historic buildings in central Cairo stretching from iconic Tahrir Square to the area of Abdeen in the south have suffered under decades of neglect and high traffic pollution.
A government-supported project is now underway to regain the glory of central Cairo, also known as Khedival Cairo, after Egypt’s 19th century ruler Khedive Ismail, who commissioned the development of the area that was largely a swamp land.
Renovation of Khedivial Cairo was first envisaged by Egyptian authorities in 2009. However, the project was suspended due to the unrest that followed the 2011 uprising, which forced long-time president Hosni Mubarak to step down.
Tahrir Square, originally named after Ismail, was the centerpiece of the anti-Mubarak revolt and later of protests against his Islamist successor Mohammad Mursi.
As security was largely restored to Egypt, the project to restore Khedival Cairo was revived in 2014. It has since picked pace with support from civil society groups and private entrepreneurs. One of them is Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment, a firm that owns 23 historic buildings in central Cairo.
“Al Ismaelia has been established with a clear vision for the district ‘A Downtown for all’. Such a view means that we envision a Downtown that is diversified, that is welcoming to various socio-economic segments,” said Moushira Adel, the company’s marketing director. “To realize such a vision, Al Ismaelia is working on two key levels: to make the space available; and to revive the district through encouraging arts and culture,” she told Gulf News.
“In order to revive Downtown Cairo, we had to raise awareness among the new generation and renew the interest in the area. We had to remind them of the incredible heritage and create a dialogue through the new social media platforms. We launched ‘Downtown Cairo’ Facebook and Instagram accounts two years ago and now the account boasts more than 100,000 followers,” Adel added.
In March, Downtown Cairo organizes an artistic festival featuring dances and music. They also organize weekly tours led by guides of recently renovated places.
“We have also a project called Dakhly West El Balad based on encouraging makers of films, TV dramas and advertisements in order to promote awareness of central Cairo,” Adel said.
With around 420 historic buildings on an area of around 2 million square metres, the task to give a new lease of life to the neighbourhood is not easy.
“Downtown Cairo is a multi-layered neighborhood” Adel explained. “Every stakeholder has different expectations thus it’s important to take into consideration the needs of every single beneficiary before and during the process because at the end of the day Al Ismaelia trusts in the great importance of communication and believes that Downtown Cairo’s development is a shared responsibility.”
The scheme features giving a facelift to the buildings, preserving their ornate ornaments and providing pedestrian-friendly streets.
Over the past three years, the government has removed an army of unlicensed hawkers from central Cairo and banned car parking in the area in a bid to curb high pollution levels. The ongoing renovation plan is estimated to cost around 400 million Egyptian pounds (about Dh 83 million), according to government officials.
Imposing buildings of more than 100 years old are still standing in the area. They include Groppi, an ice cream shop, which was founded by the Swiss family Groppi in 1909 in the Talaat Harb Square near Tahrir.
A few metres away is Riche café, a favourite haunt for intellectuals and politicians from across the Arab world for decades. Since its establishment in 1908 inside a European-style building, the ownership of Riche has changed hands. The café was set up by an Austrian, who sold it in 1914 it to a Frenchman, who was later succeeded by a series of Greek nationals in owning the place. In 1960, an Egyptian man, called Abdul Malak Mikhail, bought Riche and has since been a family business.
Also situated in Talaat Harb is the Yaqubian building, an Art Deco-apartment block that was constructed in 1937. The building has inspired a best-selling novel of the same name by Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswani.
Central Cairo was also famed for its opera house that was commissioned by Khedive Ismail in 1869 to celebrate opening the Suez Canal. But in 1971, the historic opera was gutted by a fire and later a multi-store garage was built in its place.
Central Cairo was the brainchild of Ismail, who ruled Egypt for 16 years starting from 1863. He envisioned a vibrant city to be modelled after European cities, mainly Paris. To this end, he sought expertise of Baron Haussman, a prominent Parisian planner. In a few years, the city’s notorious swamps were filled in and replaced with exquisitely decorated buildings.
Boulevards with pavements for pedestrians and major squares emerged in central Cairo, making it a magnet for the elite, intellectuals and merchants.
In 1952, some of the buildings suffered as a result of a massive fire that mysteriously hit central Cairo.
“Khedival Cairo is among Egypt’s treasure troves teeming with precious architectural gems,” said Soheir Hawas, an architecture professor, who oversees the renovation project for the area.
“Before the emergence of Khedival Cairo, the area was exposed to the Nile flooding,” she added at a recent seminar marking the 150th anniversary of central Cairo.
“Thanks to Ismail’s urban scheme, Cairo has come to know squares of the present shape and distinct facades of buildings that have aesthetic harmony,” said Hawas.
A bust of Ismail is planned to be erected in Abdeen Square near a major royal palace from his era that is still standing there.
Part of the renovation scheme is also to relocate government agencies from historic buildings in central Cairo to a new capital under construction outside the age-old city.
“We aim to turn downtown into an attractive area for the classes of people, who have deserted and left it for suburban areas,” Tareq Attia, a spokesman for a national committee in charge of the project, said in media remarks this week.
“We also aim at generating revenues for owners of the historic buildings, preserving them and restoring their old splendour,” he added.