Abbasiya: Protest venue...historical district

Amira Noshokaty , Sunday 13 May 2012

Amid the criss-cross of streets and endless crowds in Abbasiya Square, which was the site of recent deadly attacks on protesters, lie architectural gems that witnessed the rise and fall of a district and its societies

 The sabil in abbasiya at the corner of modern day al abbasiya and al sarayat street

Amid the endless crowds in Abbasiya Square that spreads out into numerous, equally busy streets lie architectural gems that witnessed the rise and fall of a district and all the social history in-between.

This historic neighbourhood was named after its founder, Abbas Helmi I (1848-1854). The first and cornerstone building was the desert Saray of Abbasiya (Abbasiya Palace), which he surrounded with military schools. The palace was described as grand, with 2,000 window facades. The palace today, however, is tucked away in a barely breachable military area behind the present-day ministry of electricity in Abbasiya.

According to Nihal Tamraz's book, Nineteenth Century Cairene Houses and Palaces, Abbasiya case study, the district was built in three phases: western Abbasiya of upper-class mansions and villas, eastern Abbasiya filled with bourgeois and middle-class residences with four-storey building residences and, later on, Abbasiya Al-Qebliya, where workshops and markets boomed and dominated the rest of the neighbourhood.

Pedestrians must ditch into the side streets in order to appreciate the architectural gems that are quite scarce nowadays. Most of the villas and mansions have been demolished, unfortunately, and what survived are a handful of four-storey buildings that accommodate two apartments on each floor.

Years of dust and pollution have transformed their colour from beige to soft grey. But the beauty of art deco, art nouveau, baroque and Islamic architecture still captures attention.

It was the custom that each building had its front yard and a back garden, giving each building some space and privacy.

Nowadays, and for a few years, a well-known Abbasiya contractor seems keen on demolishing such beauty and turning the district into 12-storey housing with dozens of apartments, nearly flourescent colour facades, disregarding garden and yard areas and reflect nothing but poor taste.

With a simple glance at the streets it's not difficult to spot the huge contrast between the modern-day pigeon halls mistaken for buildings and the spacious houses that greeted the eyes and gave the eye room to breathe.

Many celebrities lived in this special district of Cairo. Renowned Nobel Prize winner novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, was inspired by the tranquility and beauty of his neighbourhood; something that is reflected in his writings. Another among the many celebrities who lived there, was comedian icon, Fouad El-Mohandes and his long-time friend and neighbour movie star, Salah Zulficar. In fact, street where the star lived (Yashbak Street) is now named after him: Salah Zulficar Street.

Abbasiya also had many hospitals, including the Italian and Greek hospitals in the early 20th century.

According to Tamraz's book, part of the Saraya Safra (Yellow Palace) was transformed into the Abbasiya Mental Hospital during the reign of Khedive Tawfiq, Abbas Helmi's better-known successor, after which it became a British hospital (1930-1940) before turning irrevocably into the mental hospital.

Interestingly, horse races were run in Abbasiya during Kedive Ismail's reign in 1867, according to the book.

Abbasiya also touts a unique collection of historic monuments.

The Mamluk Dome, known as El-Qubba El-Fidawiya, located off Abbasiya Street was built by Prince Yashbak during the last quarter of the 15th century. It is said to have acquired its name from the term Fedayeen, in 1880 during the struggle between Urabi against the British occupation. The Dome of Al-Adil was built in 1500 and is believed to be part of a larger complex of Sultan Al-Adil Tumanbay.

There is also the Sabil of Umm Al-Muhsinin, built by Khedive Tawfiq’s wife and Abbas’ granddaughter in the 1880's, located at Abdu Pasha Square.

Levi Shalom Synagogue is located in Midan Ispitalia El-Ferensiya, built for the Jewish community.

Like most of our ancient neighbourhoods, despite all the demographic and social transformations, somewhere between the crowded years and busy streets, a stained-coloured window or a shade of a blooming tree would reveal all the authentic beauty and tranquility that Egyptians used to enjoy and cherish. Abbasiya is no exception.

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