It is common to hear people nag about the damage being done to the architectural fabric of downtown, the disfigurement of ground floor facades, the gaudy advertising and the random renovation of the exteriors. These are all good arguments and perhaps not too different from the nagging we would have had a century or so ago had we been around when downtown was changing at breakneck speed.
The downtown we often long for, the one enshrined in the black-and-white films of the 1940s and 1950s, is not what Khedive Ismail would have had in mind when he started his grandiose urban renewal scheme in the mid 1860s. What the Khedive expected, perhaps, was a calm and relaxing, completely sanitised, European-inspired quarter to the west of Abdeen Palace.
But the forces of change that later followed brought on more energy and people than the Khedive may have bargained for.
“There have been three phases to the development of downtown, and what is left today belongs mostly to the third phase,” says Mercedes Volait, director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and author of several books on Egypt's urban history.
In the first phase, Khedive Ismail promised land for free to those wanting to build something prestigious in the new quarter, Ismailia, which he named after himself. As a result, numerous villas appeared from the late 1860s onwards, all standing elegantly in the midst of ample gardens. The downtown that resulted from the new plan was a leafy neighbourhood, perhaps similar to the older parts of today's Maadi.
Twenty to thirty years later, the second phase began. By 1900, the increasing demand on residential and commercial space led to an all-too-familiar encroachment on the green areas in downtown. One of the first green areas to disappear was the hippodrome, or horserace grounds, which used to occupy the space bordered by Sherif St to the west, Emaddeddin St to the east, Qasr El-Nil St to the south and Tharwat St to the north.
In the 1930s, a more tumultuous wave of construction hit the downtown, in which low-rise residential residences gave way to the now familiar elevator-equipped, high-rise blocks.
By 1940, an elderly man living downtown would have wondered where all the familiar surroundings he grew up with had gone. He would, for example, have looked at the glamorous Sednaoui Department Store in Ataba Square, and recall visiting the location when something totally different was in its place.
We are luckier than he, in a way. If Sednaoui were to disappear today, we would still have a good idea of what it looked like, for it was featured in a dozen black-and-white films from the 1950s. But the building that preceded it is practically lost to our collective memory. It was a Moorish, three-story residence built in 1864 by then Foreign Secretary Nubar Pasha.
There are only few extant photos of the palace. The one Volait showed me, unfortunately restricted by copyrights, shows a building with symmetrical windows surrounding its four sides. It is believed to have been the first modern residence built in Cairo.
Until the mid 1860s, the idea of a free standing house with windows confronting the streets on four sides was nothing short of revolutionary in this part of the world. Most of the houses at the time were either inward looking or covered with mashrabiya work on one or two sides. The outward looking house with no barrier to the street, either by high walls or mashrabiyas, was unheard of. And it must have pleased the Khedive to see one of his assistants so embrace the modern times.
Nubar hired the same architectural team which was working on the Gezira Palace (now the main building of the Mariott Hotel) to build his home which also doubled as government offices.
A couple of decades later, the house turned into the New Oriental Hotel. The hotel, having changed names several times, was knocked down in the 1920s, to be replaced by yet another revolutionary building, the glass-and-metal Sednaoui store.
To appreciate the world in which Nubar lived, you'll need to stand in front of the Sednaoui building, looking west, and imagine the scene minus the Central (the telephone exchange) building ahead. Then imagine the extensive grounds of the Azbakeya gardens, prior to the elaborate French landscaping it was later to assume. The garden is still informal, just a lawn intersected by a few orchards and pedestrian paths.
Mohammad Ali St on your right-hand side would have been a busy site full of workers demolishing old buildings and replacing them with Egypt's longest yet thoroughfare. European contemporaries of Nubar, many working for the various utilities of the new city, snatched some of the handcrafted wooden engravings from the demolished houses. Their findings would later make it into Islamic art collections around the world.
At the time, the small core of European elite settling downtown would have been young, energetic and mostly French-speaking. All around them, the city is abuzz with optimism. More contracts would have been donated while as government reform got underway. It was an exciting time as job openings in government services, construction and trade were easily accessible to anyone with language skills and a half-way decent formal education.
At night, Nubar would drive in a horse-drawn coach to the nearby Intercontinental Hotel, the austere symmetrical building that was very much to the taste of the modern times, as envisioned by the Khedive. He would meet a friend or a visiting dignitary. At some point, someone might mention the terrible horse-and-buggy traffic jam caused by the construction of Abdeen Palace a mile away, and Nubar would shake his head in sympathy as the conversation drifted to the price of cotton and the new shipping facilities on the Mediterranean.