When most people think of Egypt, they think of the Pyramids of Giza, the Royal mummies in the Cairo Museum or Tutankhamun’s fabulous treasures from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Yet Egypt is so much more than this rich pharaonic heritage.
In fact, it has been stated by many that its riches are almost impossible to count and that their breadth and scale are simply overwhelming. But that should not stop us trying to uncover as many of Egypt’s secrets as we can.
A lot of us are aware of the magnificently preserved monuments of the pharaohs, the splendours of Islamic Cairo, and the beautiful Red Sea corals, but how many of us are aware that Egypt has one of the largest collections of Art Deco buildings in the world, right in the heart of Cairo?
If you take the time, you will discover that every epoch of history is represented somewhere in Egypt.
It is the rich 20th century architectural heritage of Downtown Cairo that I wish to introduce to you here. The phase Art Deco comes from a design fair named the “Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs industriels et Modernes held in Paris in 1925 which, many years later, was to become synonymous with the modern movement. However, the term would eventually be used to describe all things modern of that era, including architecture, fashions, interior design and even automobiles.
Recognized instantly by its sleek geometric designs and shapes, Art Deco would spread across the world and coincided with the discovery in 1922 by Howard Carter of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. This was to place Ancient Egyptian art and design firmly at the center of the Art Deco movement.
The question of how much influence the discovery of Tutankhamun’s treasures had on the modern movement has been debated for generations, however what can be defiantly said is in the 1920s, the world went Tutankhamun crazy. In fact, it has been labelled by some as “Tut Mania.
Footage was shot of the excavation in the Valley of the Kings and played to cinema audiences around the globe by the news reel companies. It seemed everyone wanted a piece of Tut, fashions mimicked ancient Egypt, jewellery carried ancient Egyptian motifs and cinemas and office buildings began to appear in the Art Deco style with sphinx’s adorning their facades.
Many of you will have seen buildings of this style throughout the world and you can find classic examples of Art Deco in Egypt today. Just a few bustling streets away from the Cairo Museum lies an area that has been christened by many as ‘Paris on the Nile’ due to its rich architectural heritage. The Downtown area is a relatively small quarter of Cairo that forms a triangle on the map with its three points being Tahrir Square, Bab El-Hadid and Abdeen.
The dream of a Cairo modeled on European cities began with a former ruler of Egypt the Viceroy Mohamed Ali, referred to by many as the founder of Modern Egypt. During his rule from 1805-1849, links with Europe were established which would eventually bring architects, planners and designers from England, France, Germany and Italy to the country, resulting in a massive building spree.
Public works were commissioned as well as grand villas for the growing upper classes, palaces for the pachas and impressive hotels for visiting merchants and tourists.
However, the downtown area’s re-development would only really take off around 1863, led by Khedive Ismail who ruled Egypt from 1863-1879. He carried the vision of a Paris on the Nile through to its construction.
In fact, the downtown area was known as Ismailia until the 1950s. However, the construction work would take decades to complete, and even through there was a spurt of building around 1871, development would continue right through to the 1930s.
Art Deco was all the rage in Europe and North America, and quickly caught on in Egypt. It could be said that Art Deco was coming home at last. Many techniques of construction and styles of architecture were imported from Europe. The area would see not just buildings in the Art Deco style but many from the schools of Art Nouveau, Baroque and Neo-Islamic architecture.
Art Deco also found its way into Zamalek, Maadi and Shoubra in parts of Alexandria.
The area became famous for its European residents and the architects they commissioned reflected this, coming from all over Europe to build elegant apartment blocks and office complexes. However with the coming of the suburbs such as Maadi, Heliopolis and Dokki, many rich Europeans built villas away from the heart of Cairo to escape the noise and pollution.
Nevertheless, the area was until the 1950s an elegant commercial center but with fewer affluent families living there. The shops were the toast of Europe and Egypt, and professional services opened fashionable offices here.
The big move to the suburbs and the loss of downtown’s fashionable status would begin in earnest in the late 1950s as Cairo’s elite left the city. This move to the suburbs would be mirrored throughout Europe as the ruling elites became smaller and fashions changed.
So what now for this once fashionable area? Well after a long period of apathy many in Cairo are now beginning to take an interest in the downtown area and recognize its rich architectural heritage. In fact, there are now even architectural tours of the area.
Many have called for better preservation and recognition for this period of Egypt’s modern history. The English archaeologist William Flinders Petrie said back in 1879 that Egypt was like a house on fire, when faced with such a choice, what do you save first?
With Egypt’s rich cultural and natural heritage under threat from the demands of a growing population and increasing urbanization, it might seem petty to say we should save Cairo’s Art Deco buildings. However, they are an important part of the city’s expansive history and deserve to be recognized as such.
Nigel J. Hetheringtonis founder and owner of Past Preservers, a heritage consultancy operating out of Cairo, London and the United States.