Stepping out of the Eish&Malh café-bistro on Adly Street opposite Banque du Caire and crossing over to take Mohamed Farid Street, Ahmed ElBendary, a researcher on the architecture of downtown Cairo – or Khedival Cairo as many call it – stops before a large window-shop that displays Abayah-style dresses.
ElBendary points to a four-floor building whose dilapidated windows overlook the busy window-shop.
“You know, this used to be Hôtel d’anglettere … and this way on Mohamed Farid Street, next to A l’américaine, this used to be the building of Au Bon Marché, and right after on the same street, which all used to be Emadeddine Street, was the hub of commerce and entertainment in the early decades of the last century. This building with the scaffolding on its façade, this used to be the building of Out El-Kouloub El-Dmerdachiya.”
The house where Out elKoloub elDmerdachiya once lived (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
Out El-Kouloub was a late 19th century-born Egyptian who wrote novels in French in the early decades of the 20th century published by both Egyptian and French publishing houses.
Her family name, Demerdach, as ElBendary noted, could still be seen on the side of the building above a shoe-store that has kept the name used by the original owner; Chaussures Lob.
This is how a downtown walk started with ElBendary, who spent over 15 years, starting 2000, working for the Centre for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage to document as much as possible of the architectural wealth of Cairo and other cities.
Like many other buildings around the heart of downtown Cairo, Hotel d’Angletter was built in the late 19th century. Its proprietor was a Greek-Cypriot by the name of George Nungovich.
A l’americaine, which was meant to serve as the less expensive alternative to Groppi, is at the ground floor of an early 20th century building.
In 1891, the Swiss Giacomo Groppi founded the Groppi tearooms.
“It was a real salon de thé, and it was not at all an inexpensive place,” says ElBendary.
The first branch was at the heart of Souliman Pacha Street, and is currently closed for renovation.
The second branch – better known as the Groppi Garden – is situated closer to Attaba Square, with one entrance overlooking Adly Street and the other on Abdel-Khalik Tharwat Street.
Groppi: an entrance on AbdelKhalik Tharwat Street (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
This branch was established to be closer to the old Opera House, which burned down in the Cairo fire of 1952.
In the early 1920s, frequenting these and other tearooms in Cairo was very fashionable.
Equally fashionable destinations for the residents of this elegant part of the city, which is still a remainder of a beautiful past, were a number of large department stores.
These include Chalons at the intersection of Qasr El-Nil and Sherif and Cicurel at the heart of Souliman Pasha, now Talaat Harb Street.
On Mohamed Farid Street there is Au Bon Marche, which was one of the big four French department stores that came to Egypt at the time.
Ades was further down on Mohamed Farid, and Gattegno, also currently under renovation, was further up the street next to the building that now hosts Pension Roma, which is adequately described by many reviews as “a charming budget hotel.”
The intersection of Emadeddine and AlAlfy streets - with a view of Ades building
“But you see, this is not exactly Khedival Cairo," ElBendary says. "I mean, some tend to think that most of the buildings around this part of the city were constructed during the years of Khedive Ismail, but this is not true.”
He noted that the AlCharq Insurance Company building was once the Carleton Hotel, and that the building housing Groppi at the heart of Talaat Harb Street used to be the palace of Ali Pasha Mubarak.
ElBendary also says that the apartment building that now houses AlShorouk Bookstore and the adjacent buildings leading to Café Riche used to be the extended property of the palace of Prince Mohamed Ali Tawfik.
“It is very important to remember that many of the beautiful buildings we see today were actually built in the place of other, perhaps more or maybe less beautiful buildings when this part of the city was changing from its original residential nature to a more commercial zone of big department stores, entertainment areas, and so on,” ElBendary said.
“In the early decades of the 20th century, the heart of Cairo was changing, and some people were leaving for more comfortable areas away from the commercial hassle.”
“Starting 1925, as preparations were underway for the construction of the Savoy Hotel at the site of what was once the Palace of Prince Mohamed Tousson, Qattawi Pasha – whose villa was built at the site of the villa of Mohamed Sherif Pasha – decided to leave the neighbourhood. He felt that he would not be able to enjoy the garden of his villa, which he loved most, in the vicinity of a hotel. For him, the villa would mean nothing without a relaxing stay in its garden,” ElBEndary said.
The Savoy Hotel was fully constructed and operational by the late 1920s, but it was later demolished in favour of an apartment building owned by the legendary Swiss tourism entrepreneur Charles Behlar – whose name is still closely associated with downtown
Villa Qattawi was also later demolished and turned into the Sednaoui.
Qattawi had moved toGarden city, then a new extension of Cairo, and later the birthplace of ElBendary himself.
ElBendary was born in 1967 in the apartment building where his parents got married almost a decade earlier, and where he still lives today. This is the Belmont Building overlooking the Nile, opposite the now-neglected Le Merredin.
The name Belmont came from an ad for the American cigarette brand that once stood on the side of the building, which was originally called the Thabet-Thabet building after its owner.
The 31-floor building, considered a skyscraper by the standards of the time, was built at the site of what was once a large garden owned by the family of Mohamed Ali Pasha.
Opposite this building was a beautiful villa that was slated to be demolished when ElBendary was around 8 years old.
Having fallen in love with the villa, ElBendary wanted to keep a souvenir, so he and his elder brother photographed the villa with a Polaroid camera.
This later became a hobby for ElBendary, which he maintained for years before turning it into a profession when he embarked on his documentation mission in 2000.
ElBendary has worked on documenting no less than 600 buildings in downtown Cairo.
“Documentation here means taking pictures of building exteriors and obtaining a history of its construction and line of ownership from the Guerideh de l’impot sur la proprieté batie, which is kept at the Egyptian Archives and has records on the history of the city centre buildings from 1910 until 1949.
The area he focused on was around Tahrir Square through to Attaba Square, and from Abdine Square to Ramses Square.
This area includes buildings that have been in place since their construction in the early 20th century, and buildings that replaced some of the late 19th century buildings – including the very school that Elbendary attended in Bab ElLouq; the Lycée, which was originally the villa of Mazloum Pasha.
After he was finished with downtown, ElBendary wanted to go off the beaten track and give history a chance.
“People often think of Heliopolis or Zamalek or even Dokki [when thinking of the city’s history], but there are neighbourhoods that have lost all socio-economic status and have thus fallen out of interest,” ElBendary said.
A good example is Abbassiya, where ElBendary has documented over 100 buildings.
He then moved on to El-Fagallah, El-Daher and El-Sakkakini, where he covered over 300 buildings. He then stepped out of Cairo and went to Mansoura city, where he documented some 100 buildings.
ElBendary says that for the past three years, he has been walking the area from Mohamed Farid Street onto El-Alfi Street every Friday to do the Khedival Cairo walks on behalf of Al-Ismaelia Company, which has been buying and reconstructing some of the splendours of downtown Cairo and renting them out.
“I do these walks as part of the promotional activities for this company. When I started, I had a dozen people, but now I have an average of 30 to 40 people,” he said as he passed in front of a building carrying the name New Kursal Restaurant.
A balcony from the building of Pension Roma (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
He added that he was not sure if this was the exact place of the original Kursal. He then stopped for a chat with the owner of a kiosk where he bought a bottle of water. The kiosk’s owner, Badr Shaaban, agreed with ElBendary that this was not the original site of the Kursal.
“The Kursal was not a small restaurant; it was an entire entertainment zone with a restaurant, a bar and a roller skating course," Shaaban said.
"Next to these were the St James Restaurant and the original Shepherd’s Hotel. This part of the city has kept so many of the old buildings that I first saw when I came to Cairo as a child in the early 1950s, but it has lost much of what it once was,” Shaaban added.
The Windsor Hotel, whose entrance overlooks Madrassat Al-Alsun Street, is one of the places that have been kept almost intact.
Kursk Restaurant: keeping the name but not the original building (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
Marileez Doss, the daughter of the hotel’s owner, who bought it from its Swiss owner, says “we try very much to keep everything as it originally was – sometimes it is hard because of the complications of maintenance, and sometimes we just have to improve and upgrade, as with the bathrooms for example.”
The hotel’s previous owners, the Freys, had originally bought the place from a French family, who in turn had bought the place, which was a country club at the time, after the end of World War I and turned it into a hotel under the name La Maison Suisse.
Bata shoe store on Mohamed Farid Street
“Mr & Mrs Frey were both getting really old and needed to retire in Switzerland where their only daughter Maya had married. So they were willing to sell off this hotel, which was actually first constructed as the Hamamat Kheduiyah (bathrooms of the Khedival family) before it was upgraded into a country club for British officers,” Doss said as she chatted with ElBendary at the old bar of the Windsor.
The Dosses had bought the hotel as an investment after having lost their cotton threading houses to the nationalisation project under then-president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the early 1960s.
“You know, this city has gone through so much,” Doss said to a nodding ElBendary.
This is precisely what ElBendary himself had been stressing at the start of the walk-and-chat at Eish&Malh.
“There is a need to keep as much of the city’s architectural heritage as possible, but this has to be done away from the overly-nostalgic sentiments of an assumed ‘Paris on the Nile’,” he said.
“Let us be realistic, it is very costly to maintain these buildings, and at times it is inevitable to have some buildings change functions; moving from the residential into the commercial or the other way round,” ElBendary argued.
“It would not be possible to save the architectural heritage of Cairo, Alexandria, Mansoura, Minya or elsewhere through Facebook campaigns. There are financial considerations to take into account, both in terms of the cost of maintenance and the owners’ need for money at times,” he said.
One good example might be the house of Baron Delors De Gléon, which was built on Sherif Pasha Street in the 19th century in the Islamic style, as opposed to the predominant art-deco/art-nouveau architecture. The name of the first proprietorwas inscribed on the building’s façade.
The building, constructed by the Italian architect Augusto Cesari, was later turned into Club Artistico before being taken over by the AlexBank. It later ended up in the hands of a family that has been contesting the rights to the property with AlexBank.
The engraved name of Delors de Gléon is still there above a superimposed window shop of a mother of pearls store. However, the AlexBank sign has been removed from the structure, which is registered as a historical monument.
The building seems to be falling into poor condition, lacking the proper maintenance it received under the bank’s administration.
Building of Assicurazioni Generali di Triste (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
“Come, cat, eat your lunch. Come eat it while it is warm,” said Mounir as he fed some street cats in a little alleyway by the De Gléonbuilding.
Mounir, a retired electronics engineer who has been living all his life on Sherif Pasha Street, has been looking after these cats for five years.
Mounir says the cats help him break away from a loneliness he faces in the heart of a very busy city that is fast losing its human face, as it is practically turning into a large commercial zone with very little room for residential presence.
Mounir feeding his cats (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
This alleyway where Mounir spends his afternoons leads to El-Shawarbi Street, which overlooks a prominent building on Qasr El-Nil Street; the Assicurazioni Gnerali di Trieste, which was perhaps the largest Italian insurance company when it was set up in the late 19th century.
Today, the building is no longer a destination for insurance seekers in Egypt like it was a century ago.
“This is precisely the point; you cannot bring the city back to its glory days because things have changed; that is the way of life,” ElBendary argued.
“Even if you were to build a new Tiring [department store] in Attaba, you cannot re-introduce the social or economic realities of the time.”
Chic department stores like Tiring, which was built in the 1910s, have been replaced with workshops.
“This is the state of the city now. If we choose to take an elitist approach on the buildings and say we do not care about the workshops, we could actually lose the buildings entirely, as they would fall into disrepair and be demolished,” ElBendary says.
“Let us have the buildings reconstructed in a way that takes note of this new reality,” he says, adding that this is the only way to keep whatever is left of the belle époque of Cairo, the one that was first built under Mohamed Ali Pasha and was taken to further heights under Khedive Ismail and later transformed into a business hub under Abbas Helmy II.