One modern monument in the heart of Cairo that many people may pass by almost without thinking is the Borg Al-Gezira, or Cairo Tower, a building that some may never have visited.
This relatively modern building was built on the orders of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The construction work started in 1954 and stopped in 1956, being restarted in 1959. The tower has an extraordinary tale to tell.
The story goes that shortly after the July 1952 Revolution the CIA attempted to bribe Nasser by paying him LE6 million as “secret expenses” in an attempt to prevent his helping the Algerians then fighting for independence from French colonial rule and to ensure good US relations with Egypt.
Nasser surprised the Americans by announcing that the money they had given him would be used in building a communications tower in the heart of Cairo like those in other countries of the world.
Nasser thus built the Cairo Tower to remind Egyptians to maintain their pride even in the toughest times. It is no wonder that the tower is still a source of pride for many Egyptians today.
At first, the tower was meant to be a communications tower used by the intelligence services and the Foreign Ministry to communicate with embassies around the world.
Then it was decided that it would be a tourist destination instead, and today it is a place from whose top visitors can see the whole of Cairo.
The building’s shape, inspired by a lotus flower, was the idea of engineers Shamseddin Ashraf and Naoum Shoubeib who worked on the tower.
It is 180 metres high, which is 50 metres higher than the Great Pyramid. Its diameter is 15 metres.
The outside decoration of the building was made using 12 million pieces of ceramic in yellow brown and white to resemble a blossoming lotus flower.
The main entrance of the tower is decorated with red granite, and in the middle there is a copper statue of an eagle eight metres high and four metres wide that symbolises the renaissance of Egypt.
Inside the entrance hall, there are mosaics on the walls showing life in Egypt, together with a copy of the announcement made by late president Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat on the radio announcing the 1952 Revolution.
The mosaics are the work of professor of sculpture at the Faculty of Applied Arts at Alexandria University Ahmed Osman and professor of decorative arts at the same faculty Ahmed Mazhar with the help of 70 students.
The gardens around the tower contain galleries in which specimens of products made in national factories were once displayed. There were also once fountains in the gardens and a map of Egypt that was illuminated whenever a button was pressed.
The tower is composed of 62 floors, and it contains more than 2,000 steps to get to the top. The last two floors were built for tourists, with one serving as a rotating restaurant, enabling every person dining to have a full view of the capital.
The last floor is an observation deck with telescopes to help people see all around Cairo. All the raw materials used to build the tower were from Egypt, and the workers who built it were all Egyptians.
The building was opened to the public in 1961, and today there are plans to renovate it to meet the needs of contemporary visitors.
Manager of the Cairo Tower Clement Gargour said in a press conference on 29 July that renovation work had been carried out over the last year and a half, but there were still many future plans.
“We took charge of the Cairo Tower in February 2017 out of our love for it and the belief that we can make a great edifice out of it. The Cairo Tower was inaugurated in 1961. It has a couple of restaurants, the revolving restaurant, a coffee shop and a small canteen. We wanted to develop what was there and better it,” he said.
Development has taken place in steps. “First we transferred the ticket booth that was inside the front courtyard and put it outside the courtyard to make sure that everyone entering from there wants to see the tower or the restaurants. We have made a special place for queues, so people can receive good service. The most important point is that we have illuminated the tower lobby from the inside and air-conditioned it since it was not air-conditioned in 1961,” Gargour said, adding that a garage has also been built in the front courtyard.
“We have created a Lebanese restaurant and a shop. Most importantly, we have developed the performance of staff members through training courses on how to deal with guests, because if there are not good services we will be going nowhere,” he said.
Former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser during a visit to Cairo Tower
The overall idea, however, is to transform the tower into an international platform that will enable visitors to be acquainted with Egypt’s nature, heritage and civilisation from the Cairo Tower, the highest building in the capital, using virtual reality, augmented reality and hologram technology.
The development is intended to last for some 24 months and will cost about LE50 million, according to press releases.
“We were introduced to Tarek Said who had great ideas for developing the Cairo Tower out of his love for it and the need to develop this great edifice. We discussed the ideas with him and approved of most of them. We will be starting soon, first with the illumination, then with the virtual reality,” Gargour said.
“We previously lacked a platform from which we could launch a national project using the most advanced technologies available. For this reason, we chose the Cairo Tower after the approval of the concerned parties because the tower is a symbol of Egyptian dignity,” Said, CEO of the information technology company that is to develop the Cairo Tower, said.
“I believe that it is the most important tourist site from which we can kick off to globalism in Egypt. The Cairo Tower has many advantages, including that it was one of the first tourist sites established in the modern era and that it is the highest spot existing in Egypt. The idea of the development was not reconstruction, but how to employ the Cairo Tower to reach globalism. We intend to make the Cairo Tower in the coming two or three years the first intelligent tower in the world,” he said.
He explained the changes that are to occur in the tower. “Because we now live a virtual life more than a real life, we came up with the idea of blending reality with fiction,” he said.
For example, using digital technology it is possible to “transfer” the whole Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the US without moving one statue.
“Our idea is to let our guests see Cairo in the previous eras as well through this technology. We plan to revive the heritage of Cairo through the Cairo Tower using virtual reality techniques. The idea is to say that the Egyptian civilisation does not die and that it will be enlivened through the latest technology,” Said said.
For example, visitors will be able to see Cairo in the Pharaonic era, visit the Pyramids and take a tour of them, or even see the Citadel when it was being built and the battles of the conqueror Salaheddin (known as Saladin in the West).
The first phase of the work will be completed by the end of 2018. The second phase will be completed before the end of 2019 and the last will be finished by 2020.
Said listed the main features of the development project. “We found a solution to end the problem of long queues to enter the Tower through an electronic reception and reservation system.
A guest will now be able to get a ticket from anywhere in the world,” he said, adding that there will be a number and the time a customer is to enter the tower on each ticket.
“The second feature is a hologram gate. This is a virtual gate that will interact with visitors and make announcements of the events organised in the Cairo Tower or of advertisements. The third feature is the tower’s illumination that interacts with music and motion. It can reproduce advertisements, or even greetings on special occasions,” he said, adding that illuminating the tower was part of the first phase.
The second phase will apply 3D or video-mapping to the tower, making it possible to create shapes on the tower, or make it look like it is being built or a story is being screened on it. The idea is to turn the Cairo Tower into a huge 3D screen.
“The third feature is the Cairo Tower virtual museum. A visitor will find that each section of the tower narrates something about the history of Egypt. The museum will have different applications, including interactive screens or smoke boxes,” Said said. For example, each box could narrate the story of a particular Pharaoh. The same could be used for any product, however.”
“The fourth feature is the hologram glass gate, which is also interactive on both the tactile and vocal level. This will be at the entrance of the tower lobby where announcements of upcoming events will also be made. The fifth feature is the virtual lift,” transforming the floors of the lifts to make them into LED screens allowing guests to see images that give them a sense of adventure.
“The sixth feature are the virtual glasses, the most important. Through them, we intend to make the Cairo Tower global. We want to take visitors to places like the Pyramids through these glasses. They can go on trips and also see the Islamic or the Pharaonic eras,” he said. The walls of the tower will feature a Panorama of Eternal Egypt that will display the history of Egypt using virtual and interactive screens.
“The seventh feature is the virtual zoo, sending the message that the tower is for all family members. There will be a virtual zoo enabling children to see animals and even touch them for entertainment."
"The eighth feature is the hologram theatre, the first in the Middle East to use the technology. This will allow the singers of the past to perform concerts and interact with audiences today using hologram technology without any screens. There could even be an image of a classical singer and a modern one at the same time,” Said said, adding that this could help revive the traditional arts of singing or acting.
A shopping centre for Egyptian handicrafts will be opened, and there will be a section for electronic games and special applications for those with special needs so that they can use all the features of the project.
View for Cairo Tower at night
An African First
The press conference, organised by the company responsible for the technology, emphasised that the tower will be the first place in Africa and the Arab world where it has been used. After the conference, deputy chair for project development Tohami Mahmoud gave a demonstration of the proposed virtual zoo.
“These virtual animals can provide children with information about animals they may find it difficult to see in reality. Each animal has two million hairs that move as if they were natural. When a hand touches them, they are also affected by its touch,” Mahmoud said.
“We are working on developing the new collection of animals to enable children to feed them. In this way, a child will be able to learn about the nature of these creatures and what they eat.”
The company plans to introduce children to outer space or archaeological sites in faraway places using the same technology. “The technology was designed by Egyptians. We did not receive foreign assistance, and it can be used for educational purposes,” Mahmoud stressed.
However, today’s plans are not the only form of renovation the tower has witnessed. In 2002, cracks were found in the building and the stairs needed renovation.
From 2006 to 2008, the Arab Contractors, a government-run company, renovated the tower at a cost of LE15 million.
The work included the renovation of the concrete of the tower, the building of three storeys and an emergency staircase, and the construction of a VIP lift and a highly equipped conference room. The lighting was also replaced.
In February 2014, news of a strike by the staff of the tower that lasted for 25 days was heard, stating that the staff had called for a new tenant for the building.
However, one government official who chose to speak anonymously told Al-Ahram Weekly in a previous interview that the complaints were not true.
“It is because the Cairo Tower administration does not talk to the media that some newspapers and channels tend to make up such nonsense. The staff members of the Cairo Tower are not on strike, and they receive their full salaries,” he said.
On this occasion, the Weekly also took a tour of the tower, finding the first floor painted and the marble on the walls changed.
The lifts had been renovated and their speed increased. The VIP room had been painted, the wooden staircase polished, and the chairs and tables changed.
Two bathrooms were added to the conference rooms. The café walls on the 14th floor had also been painted and the carpets and furniture replaced.
The motor of the rotating restaurant had been renovated and the hall itself painted and the marble floor changed.
The balcony on the top floor had also had a makeover with new marble tiles and new paint on the iron railings. The tiles and ceramics of all the bathrooms had been changed and the marble steps replaced on the tower stairs.
These physical changes should provide an appropriate basis for the virtual ones to come.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Digitalising the Cairo Tower