Tahrir Square before it was iconic worldwide

Ola R Seif, Saturday 25 Jan 2014

Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Egypt's January 25 Revolution, was once but another city square with little charm

Tahrir square in the 1940

When the French architect and urban designer Grand Bey planned modern Cairo in the late 19th century, he envisioned Opera Square as the heart of Cairo. Tahrir, which was then called Ismailia Square, was at the far west of the capital. Marginal, it lacked what made for the charm of Opera Square, such as grand hotels like the Shepheard's and the Savoy Continental, the greenery of Azbakieh Park, and the commerce of Attaba Square.

It was certainly not on the list of locations that were going to be embellished by any of French sculptor Jaquemard’s bronze statues. Despite its prime Nile location, the square remained semi-developed untill the 1920s, due to its remoteness from the city. As a result, the Belgian tramlines that were launched in 1895 did not include Place Ismailia in their earliest four lines, nor in the three consecutive lines opened a year later.

Another consequence was that the square fell out of the repertoire of 19th century photographers who bypassed it in favour of its nearby attractions, such as the new Kasr El-Nil bridge, the Gezira Palace, and occasionally the barracks of the English occupying army, for its architectural value.

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The earliest photos of Midan Al-Ismailia started to be taken in the early 1940s. The view from a top floor in the modern 10-storey Aziz Bahary Building designed by architect Antoine Selim Nahas in 1939 enabled a rare upper-panoramic view of the square and its quieter life then. 

The left portion currently occupied by the massive administrative complex known locally as Mugama3 Al-Tahrir appears as a vacant plot surrounded by a fence used for advertising movies projected in the famous Metro Cinema on Soliman Pacha Street (now Talaat Harb). Equally deserted is the triangle in the central portion of the photo, which is now occupied by Omar Makram Mosque and the esplanade in front of it.

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While the rightmost portion of the photo captures a rare view of the back entrance leading to the British barracks, now replaced by the Arab League and Egypt’s first multinational hotel, being the Nile Hilton, which itself is now replaced by the Nile Ritz Carlton, soon to be opened. But as life was starting to gain momentum in Midan Al-Ismailia, a tram line connecting it to the rest of the city crossed it on its way to the more populated Ghamra district. The only royal accent in the vicinity of Midan Al-Ismailia was the palace of Prince Kamal El-Din Hussein, who refused to ascend the throne of Egypt after his father, Sultan Hussein, passed away. The palace and its garden, which both appear in the background of the photo, were designed by the Austro Hungarian architect Antonio Lasciac. It is now property of the state and serves as administrative buildings for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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Forty years later, a tourist postcard from the 1980s reveals that the urban plan of Midan Al-Ismailia remained the same, but everything above its surface — except Kamal El-Din Hussein’s palace — changed. For starters, its name. After the 1952 Revolution, it was renamed Midan Al-Tahrir as a constant reminder of Egypt’s everlasting "liberation." Not only greener, after the barracks were gotten rid of in the early 1950s, it looked and felt fresher with a fountain that was long a rendezvous for friends and lovers and often featured in Egyptian movies of the 1970s and 1980s.

Its central circular garden was replete with a pedestal stand for a statue to commemorate Khedive Ismail, after whom the downtown quarter was named. This was removed when the underground metro project began digging in the heart of Tahrir Square in the 1980s. But perhaps the most striking contrast is the growth in traffic. Not only were the cars driving in Midan Al-Tahrir multiplied in the 1940s, but the pedestrian traffic too. In accordance, a circular flyover for pedestrians surrounded the central island, linking different parts of Midan Al-Tahrir to each other.

This function is now substituted by the less aesthetic tunnels of the metro underground.

Like most of Cairo, Tahrir Square has changed drastically throughout the decades. However, it remains the icon of the January 25 Revolution and 30 June. And for that, it's the perfect place for a museum to preserve such memories.

Photos courtesy of Ola R Seif.

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