Bab Al-Khalq: Stories of a Canal, a Street, a Museum and a National Library

Ola R. Seif, Thursday 27 Feb 2014

The histories of both the Islamic Museum and Dar Al-Kutub, which were hit by a bomb blast on 25 January, are closely tied to several major events that shaped the urban and social history of Cairo

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The histories of the Islamic Museum and Dar Al-Kutub, which were damaged in a bomb attack on 25 January, are closely tied to several major events that shaped the urban and social history of Cairo. At the very heart of Bab Al-Khalq, the blasted building designed by Italian architect and chief engineer of the Egyptian government Alfredo Manescalo, is on Port Said Street which was originally a canal known as Al-Khalig Al-Masry. That name changed in 1958 to Sharia Port Said.

Geographically, it separated historic Cairo on its east from the green and fertile land that extended from its west all the way to the Nile River. Due to the stagnancy of the canal’s waters and for sanitary reasons the decision to fill it in was taken in 1897 and works were completed in 1899 during the reign of Khedive Abbas Hilmy II. Although with the consent of the government, the real financier and executor of the canal-filling project was the Belgian Tramway du Caire company founded in 1894, which ran a line on the newly filled Sharia Al-Khaliq Al-Masry.

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Both the Islamic Museum and Dar Al-Kutub had recent histories and earlier names before they were accommodated in the building that was bombed on 25 January. In 1901, the concept crystallised of having a dedicated museum, then to be named Dar Al-Athar Al-Arabiya, to hold the Islamic antiquities collected from collapsed monuments.

Attention was thus drawn by the Tanzim, the institution in charge of the urban planning of Cairo since the 1870s, to Sharia Al-Khalig Al-Masry. In the meantime, the gathering process of the Islamic artefacts was initiated by the Comité de Conservation de l’art Arabe, the predecessor of the current Ministry of Antiquities, which indefatigably amassed an incredible number of Islamic artefacts from mosques and dilapidated houses in the east corner of Al-Hakim mosque.

In 1904 Egypt’s second museum was inaugurated by Khedive Abbas Hilmy II who had also inaugurated in 1901 the Egyptian Museum in Ismailiya Square (now Tahrir Square) and designed by the French architect Drougnon. And its very first director was Franz Pacha. He was followed by the Austro-Hungarian Max Herz Pacha. The first Egyptian director of the Dar Al-Athar Al-Arabiya was Ahmad Bahgat, the archeologist to whom the credit of the Fustat excavations goes.

Those excavations have vastly enriched the acquisitions of the museum with items of pottery, lustreware, shards, icons and ivory carvings from the various Islamic periods. A collection of carpets and textiles were added by Ali Pacha Ibrahim.

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While Dar Al-Athar Al-Arabiya was located on the first floor and had two main entrances on Sharia Al-Khalig it was topped by Egypt’s national library, then known as Al-Kutubkhana Al-Khidiwiya which was accessed by a monumental entrance and a majestic staircase on Sharia Muhammad Ali, the eastern side of the building. Its history spans three decades before its move to that building.

In 1870, Aly Pasha Mubarak, then Minister of Education, issued a decree to start a national library modeled after the Bibliotheque National de France which he had visited in one of his trips accompanying Khedive Ismail.

Short of space, the collection was formed in the palace of Mustafa Fadil Pasha, the brother of Khedive Ismail, on Darb Al-Gamamiz Street located within walking distance of the Kutubkhana and Dar Al-Athar Al-Arabiya.The Kutubkhana was then renamed Dar Al-Kutub but remained in its current location until the 1960s when the exponential growth of the collection necessitated a bigger building at Bulaq.

One of the most prominent directors of Dar Al-Kutub was the poet Ahmad Ramy who was trained at the Sorbonne and remained the director of the library for more than twenty years.

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Manescalo’s dual-function building, which was inaugurated in 1904, adopted an explicit Neo-Mamluk theme which was a fashion and trend that expressed Egypt’s search of identity and its new-found affinity for the revival of Islamic architecture.

Although postcards of the turn of the century show a staircase before the southern side of the museum, there is no reference in any historical documents that this entrance was ever used or opened to the public.

Ironically, all postcards of the turn of the century emphasise the facade of the museum which they confusingly mislabel Al-Kutubkhana Al-Khedwiya. Manescalo’s building had become by the early twentieth century an icon of modernity featured on postcards that convey and further emphasis that message.

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Photos courtesy of Ola R. Seif


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