Cairo University: Meet Egypt's first National University

Amira Noshokaty , Sunday 14 Aug 2022

Education has always been a cornerstone in Egyptian history. From the ancient Egyptians down to university halls, however, education took many forms back in the day according to the history of Cairo University book written by professor Raaouf Abbas Ahmed.

File photo: A general view of Cairo University. Photo: Al Ahram Weekly


The modernisation of Egypt under the reign of Mohammed Ali, was best manifested in the modernisation of the education system that leaned toward the French educational approach. Prior to the modern schooling system, Al-Azhar was the main pillar of higher education, however, since the Ottoman reign of Egypt, the educational system of Al-Azhar deteriorated and an alternative was needed. Hence the modern education system was launched in 1836 providing elementary, middle school, and higher education.

The higher education schools were affiliated with the socio-political need of the government. There was the school of architecture, medicine, law, and agriculture. In the early 1900s, requests for a national university in Egypt increased. Renowned national leader Mostapha Kamel was the first to call for it in a published news article on September 30, 1906. In his article, Kamel pledged to start funding the establishment of a university by donating 500 Egyptian pounds himself. Saad Zaghloul and Sheikh Ali Youssef backed the idea and collaborated with Qassem Amin and others to lobby for the national cause.

A national university meant a sustainable financial plan and a large piece of land that would accommodate the dream. Many Egyptians donated. The biggest donation was that of, Princess Fatma Ismail, daughter of Khedive Ismail, who intervened, providing a waqf (endowment) of 661 feddans to cover the costs of establishing the Egyptian University.

She donated 6 feddans of the royal land in Giza's Dokki area to expand the university's grounds and EGP 18,000 (a significant sum at the time) for its construction. The princess ensured that two of the era's most enlightened sheikhs, as well as the country's supreme judge, would sit on the university's founding board.

According to Ahram Newspaper, on 21 December 1908 the Egyptian University, currently named Cairo University, opened its gates for the first time. The metal gates on the main entrance of the university still have the name 'Egyptian University' to this day.

Construction of the Cairo University took stages and years to be completed. Phase 2 was completed in 1914 and witnessed the first founding stone put by the hands of Khedive Abbas in the presence of Princess Fatma. The Khedive scattered Egyptian coins and newspapers before adding the foundation marble stone that had the name of the Egyptian University and Princess Fatma Ismail engraved. At the end of the ceremony, Princess Fatma was offered silver tools that were used to put the founding stone into a velvet box as a souvenir.

The first person to allocate endowments for Cairo University was Hassan Pasha Zayed, who allocated the revenues of 100 feddans in Menoufiya for the running costs and establishment of the university's buildings.

754 students including 22 women enrolled in the first school year of the university. Part of the university was built on the historical Orman Garden after Princess Fatma donated the land. Her name was carved on the building allocated to the faculty of arts as a sign of appreciation and remembrance.

In 1928, the Egyptian University was renamed after King Fouad, who resumed the building process of the planned faculties and chose the ancient Egyptian deity Thoth, the ancient Egyptian lord of divine words and inventor of the hieroglyphs, symbolised by Baboons and Ibis, as the logo of the University.

The Famous Striking Clock

Cairo University's famous Striking Clock appears in many classic Egyptian movies. Known to be the biggest and oldest striking clock in Egypt and the second of its kind in the world after London's Big Ben. The clock was built in 1936-1937 on a 35 metres tower with bells attached to electric clocks in various faculties to denote time as well as the duration of classes back then.

The Famous Dome theatre

It was built in 1935 to serve as the grand hall for Cairo University. The hall hosted many festivities and even concerts by legendary singer Om Kalthoum.

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