Shubra Archive: Documenting the rich history of a diverse Cairo neighbourhood

Amira Noshokaty , Friday 21 Oct 2022

Old tram tickets, images of old cinemas and theatres, origins of churches and palaces and other priceless stories from history of the district of Shubra in north Cairo are being documented and shared with the public, with a lot of passion and much love.



A year ago, Sard Shubra Archive, a non-governmental initiative, was launched by Mina Ibrahim, who is a anthropology researcher and a proud product of the populous old-middle-class district that was once a home of the upper classes in the 19th century and a cosmopolitan neighbourhood in the last century till the 1960s.

The idea of establishing an archive for his neighbourhood first came to Ibrahim when he visited several local museums for neighbourhoods in Rome during a visit to Italy.

Back in Egypt, Ibrahim decided to use his old family apartment in Shubra as the premises of the archive.

"The idea was to document the oral history of the neighbourhood before it all fades out due to fast transformations of the urban fabric of the ancient district. Keeping track of such changes and tracing back the origins of the district will help emphasise its value and share this among the younger generation that lives there but have no idea about the rich diverse roots of the district," explained Mina Ibrahim to Ahram Online.  

"Shubra Archive is a great opportunity to reflect on the socio-economic transformation in Egypt throughout the 20th century," he added.

Ibrahim's old family apartment serves as a local open museum that showcases different themes from the intangible cultural heritage of Shubra, which was once a home for famous singers and actors among many other iconic public and business figures and is still rich with historic churches and mosques in its multiple sub-districts.

Through the end of October, the museum is showcasing the history of the old Shubra Tramway  referred to as Turumwai or simply Turmai in Egyptian colloquial  which was first built in 1902 to connect the district in north Cairo to the east and the rest of the capital but was removed in the 1990s to make space for wider streets.

Items on exhibit are part of the documentation project  titled "Salam Tram"which was among projects that received funding from the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) Heritage at Risk Grants.

Why Shubra?

"The name Shubra is derived from the Coptic word Shubro, meaning village,'' Ibrahim noted.

"The area was originally agricultural land. It was developed as a residential district for members of the upper class in the 19th century after Mohamed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, built one of his palaces in an area called Shubra El-Kheima along a main street that was named Shubra Street," Ibramim explained.

"Other palaces and villas of other Khedive ruling families followed Mohamed Ali's," he said.

At the turn of the 20th century, other wealthy people built more luxurious villas and homes in the district," he added.

Shubra lost its upper-class status slowly after the tramway was built in the district.

The tramway transformed the posh neighborhood into a mixed working-class and merchant middle-class district. 

 "In the twenties of the last century, a dispute erupted between the tram workers and the upper class residents of Shubra during prayer time in Massarra Church after a poor woman was denied a chair to sit in favor of a rich worshipper," Ibrahim tells a story.

"So the tram workers built the second biggest church in Shubra on Khamraweyah Street," he said.

A cosmopolitan cultural hub in Cairo

In the first half of the 20th century, the district became one of the main cultural hubs in the capital with numerous cinemas and theatres, he noted.

It was a truly cosmopolitan district in a once cosmopolitan Cairo, he said.

In its heyday as a culturally-diverse neighborhood, Shubra was home to 30,000 Italians and thousands of others, including many Jewish and European residents of the capital.

It is said that Dalida, the late Shubra-born-and-raised Italian Diva, sold tickets at one of the cinemas in her youthful years before leaving for Europe.

With Egyptian Coptic Christians comprising a significant percentage among the residents, the historic district was – and still is – home to numerous famous Coptic churches and other churches for other smaller Christian denominations.

This cultural diversity defined and enriched social life in the district through the 1950s and 1960s.

However, the neighbourhood lost its cosmopolitan charm after Europeans and other foreigners left the country during the Nasser years.

As time went on, Shubra – like other historic neighbourhoods in the capital – lost many iconic cultural venues such as cinemas and theatres and work-of-art buildings.

The "old" was torn down along with the tram and its tracks in favor of the "modern."

History remains alive

Since the beginning of 2022, Shubra Archive held several events – sponsored by various organisations – to showcase the outputs of various projects that tell the intangible history of the district, including the outputs of the Cairo Tramway Lost Tracks project and the Leisurely Shubra Workshop that documents the social and entertainment life in Shubra and its Rod El-Faraj sub-district.

"We started collecting images of tram tickets and posters of films that were played as a second-run in Shubra cinemas."

"We also collected correspondence between the government and the Belgium company that established the tramway," Ibrahim added.

"We found legal complaints by the residents against the noise pollution from the tram and other complaints that it was not running on time. These complaints date back to 1915."

"We also tracked down all the black and white and newer movies that captured the tramway."

Ibrahim smiled as he said that tracking down documentation of the tramway helped him formulate a broader, unified narrative of all Shubra stories.

"We are currently compiling all of the research we did on Shubra in a book," he revealed.

Get there

The public can visit the exhibition in Shubra Open Museum at 3 El-Motanzah Street, El-sahel, Shubra. 

The exhibition runs till the 29th of October from 2-9pm.

It includes visual and photographic materials from Cairo's Tramway Lost Tracks Project and Leisurely Shubra Workshop.

These materials were photographed by journalist Hassan Emad Hassan and arranged by the archive's team.

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