Book review: Tracing Zamalek’s heritage

Amira Noshokaty , Sunday 19 Jul 2020

A new book from the National Organization of Urban Harmony looks at the history of the district

Zamalek Island
Photo credits: (the book titled: Zamalek Island the value and heritage)

The National Organization of Urban Harmony is set to release a new book this month, Zamalek Island’s Value and Heritage, the first in a new book series titled The Memory of The City.The book is a valuable documentation of the tangible and intangible heritage of the precious island of Zamalek. With the efforts of five renowned Egyptian researchers, it creates a rich experience for the reader, taking them on a walk down every street of this cherished island.There will be a virtual discussion of the book on Sunday 27 July, and following that session, the book will be accessible on the NOUH website.

What’s in a name

The book is divided into seven sections, each highlighting an aspect of the heritage of Zamalek. Zamalek Island first surfaced in the heart of the Nile in the Mamluk era, during the reign of Sultan al-Kamel Shaaban be Al-Nasser Mohammed Ben Qalawon (1345-1346 AD).

It was first known as Orwa island, or the middle island, because it was tucked between Roda island and Boulaq. Known for its vast gardens and parks, the island was soon a social hub for the elite, full of luxurious homes. Among them, the daughter of Al-Zaher Baibars built a mosque there.

“Sometimes when the Nile water overflows, sail boats are able to sail down the island’s alleys,” reads the book.The name Zamalek itself means “the cottages” in Albanian, in reference to the residence of the army of either Muhammad Ali and/or Khedive Ismail.

The cultural hub

During the reign of Khedive Tawfiq, in 1883, the khedive’s sports club, currently Gezira club, opened on Zamalek.That was followed by the Andalus garden and the Gezira casino, theatre and music hall.

Zamalek hosted the first agricultural exhibition in 1900. Zamalek also hosted Zeinab Sedqi, an Egyptian theatre actress of Turkish origin, who used to hold weekly cultural salons and was even referred to as Zamalek’s Shakespeare.

Zamalek Island

A rare photograph of the premises of the Royal Agricultural Association

Architectural gems

Zamalek Island

A rare photograph of the palace

As a favourite location of Egypt’s royal family, the island has always had its share of beautiful architecture. Most of the older buildings are built in styles including or blending classic styles, revivalism, mannerism, eclecticism or modernism.Some of the architects who worked on the island include Italian Domenico Limongelli (1880), Egyptian/Lebanese Albert Zananiri (1908-1998) and Egyptian Ramsis Wissa Wasef (1911-1974)

Perhaps the most famous landmark of Zamalek is Saray El Gezira. Built during the reign of Khedive Ismail in 1863 by the German architect Juliuz Franz Pasha, who adopted the Andalusian style, it was opened in 1869 during the celebrations of the opening of Suez Canal and it was the residence of Eugenie, empress of France.

Today it is the Marriott Hotel.

Zamalek Island

Rare photograph of Oum Kalthoum’s villa, now demolished.

The book also includes blue prints and rare photos of the interior of villas of famous cultural and arts figures such Oum Kalthoum, known to her fans as “the star of the Orient.” It also contains information on the first modern-style building to be built with bricks in Egypt, the Ayrout building.

The book also explains the beauty of another kind of building that is scattered around the island -- tall and all metal instead of glass and shutters.It all started with 17 Aziz Abaza Street, a building owned by the prime minister at that time, Ismail Pasha Sedki, during the first half of the 20th century. Built by Lebanese-Egyptian architect Albert Zananiri, the new building was the first to have central heating and hot water pipes.

The final chapter of the book highlights the documentation efforts implemented in Zamalek by the National Organization of Urban Harmony. The organisation has put up three types of signs with QR codes that reveal information about the places they mark.

The first group of signs give the dates and types of architecture of buildings. The second type mark places where famous cultural figures lived and gives information on their biographies. The third group are called “the story of a street” and reveal the history of the name of a particular street.



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