fRiday mornings are the best time for walks in Cairo. The traffic is calm and the streets are relatively empty, with weekday commuters at home with their families. The mood is more relaxed. And in the summer, it is one of the times of day in which it is cool enough to make walking a pleasurable adventure.
Taking this idea to heart, I recently explored the neighborhood outside my doorstep: Garden City. It is not the busiest or most engaging part of Cairo, surely. But the architectural gems and oddities of the neighborhoods are enough to draw you back.
Designed in the late 19th and early 20th century, the name speaks volumes of its purpose and design. According to writings by Hisham Mostafa Khalil, Member of Parliament representing the Qasr El-Nil constituency, the area was intended to be a green, leafy respite from the downtown. The British came to officially occupy Egypt in 1882. With its governmental offices in Garden City, it was only natural to expand into the surrounding area, offering parks and housing to workers.
Unlike the first British to settle in Egypt who learned Arabic and integrated into Egyptian society, British administrators and colonial employees arriving in the 20th century lived in greater isolation – rarely interacting with Egyptians.
Large tracts of land were purchased by European and Egyptian bankers and businessmen at the turn of the past century. European architects were granted contracts to design and construct villas, apartments and offices in the area.
Pashas, businessmen, doctors and politicians of all stripes, backgrounds, religions and ethnicities took up residence in Garden City. Its proximity to the downtown and centers of business and banking was appealing to many. On El-Tolombat Street, a building which would come to be known as “Gray Pillars functioned as the British Ministry of State for Middle Eastern Affairs. The Ministry hosted myriad meetings, delegations and treaty signings as the modern Middle East was being engineered.
Because of its development as a foreign, multi-denominational enclave, there are no mosques from Garden City’s early history. Also absent are markets and retail space. Presumably food was delivered and prepared by others for the upper-middle class residents.
It has retained its English name and the green, but much has changed. Today it is largely residential and the embassies and businesses remain. It is bound by the Nile, with its hotels to the west, and the busy, four-lane El-Qasr Al-Ainy Street to the east.
Many buildings were torn down to make way for large high-rise apartments during the latter half of the 20th century. Most of the schools now lay vacant as well. Parks, cricket and rugby grounds were also developed to make way for more property.
But French, British and Italian architects have all left their mark on Garden City. Look closely on the sides of buildings and you will find plaques bearing the name of the architect and date of construction. In combinations of English, French and Arabic, these signs are a bibliography to all that remains of Garden City today.
Some of the grand old villas and apartments have fallen into disrepair. But the charms of these buildings have not escaped them. Brightly-painted yellow shudders, lush little garden courtyards and ornate fences have withstood the test of time.
One can start out at Midan Simon Bolivar, once known as Midan Qasr Al-Dubara. A large, weathered statue of the late Venezuelan leader stands in the center, looking out over traffic. The mood is decidedly foreign. Pass him and walk south onto Kamal El-Din Saleh, which is home to the US Embassy and further down the road, the British Embassy. Closed to traffic, walking right down the center of the tree-lined street is rather liberating.
Turn left onto Mohamed Fahmy El-Said Street, an unremarkable street with long, squat offices. Bear right and then turn right around the Canadian Embassy. Immediately encountered is one of Garden City’s many wide, multi-pronged intersections. These many junctions increase the likelihood of getting lost. One need only look at maps of Garden City to realize this. One planning map from 1907 roughly resembles that of a globular cell-diagram. With rounded triangles and squares and v-shaped crossroads, Garden City actively ignores grid patterns. A quick look at Google Maps today confirms the district’s divergence from downtown–an enclave of swirling streets beside the Nile. Embassies and ministries are often the best landmarks here, and opposite the Canadian Embassy is Dr Mahmoud Fawzy Street. This street is home to some of the best fuul in Cairo. Don’t let Al-Mahrous’ cart and sidewalk set-up deceive you; it’s delicious. At the end of the road, keep straight and cross the intersection, onto Modereyat El Tahrir Street. The quiet road is home to an antiques shop and a few old hotels. The trees form a green canopy across the road, enforced by six-story buildings with elaborate wrought-iron gates on each side.
Havana might have a reputation for the 1950s’ Cadillacs that rumble through its streets, but Cairo’s selection of antique cars is nothing to be ashamed of. And Garden City seems to possess an unusual number of these mobile antiques. Mercedes Benz sedans from the 1960s rest on the street like aged guardians of the neighborhood, with their wide, imposing bodies and round headlights.
At any time on Modereyat El Tahrir one may loop back into Garden City. It is rather like a maze.
Alternatively, one may find themselves on one of the many eastern side-streets of Garden City which sync back into the buzz of downtown, connecting to El-Qasr Al-Ainy. On the other side are countless ministries. Some are lavish, situated on rolling green lawns. Others feature Soviet architecture and bronze reliefs of workers. It is a mighty contrast indeed. One might continue forth into the downtown, or meander back down any given street, to a different time.