Maadi memories

David Tresilian , Tuesday 7 Dec 2021

A new book provides a rich picture of the Cairo suburb of Maadi from its foundation to nationalisation, writes David Tresilian


Best known today for its high standard of living and leafy streets, the Cairo suburb of Maadi was originally a private-sector colonial development designed to provide housing for mostly European professionals working for the Egyptian government or companies contributing to Egypt’s late 19th-century economic boom.

Like its grander competitor Heliopolis, dating from the same time, Maadi offered fresh air, space, and more and better amenities than central Cairo. However, while there were similarities between the two developments, there were also important differences, illustrating the types of private-sector development taking place in Egypt at the time.

Heliopolis has been extensively researched, notably by French author Robert Ilbert in his book Héliopolis, génèse d’une ville, but Maadi has received less attention. US researcher Annalise DeVries has now made up for this in her very welcome Maadi, the Making and Unmaking of a Cairo Suburb 1878-1962, which follows the suburb’s history from its foundation to nationalisation.

She has drawn upon multiple primary and secondary sources, allowing her to build up a rich picture of Maadi’s development, and interviewed many surviving early residents, even tracking down former Maadi-ites to recondite places abroad. She has been through the available documentary material, much of it in British archives, and has drawn on perhaps the only previous full-length study of Maadi, Samir Raafat’s Maadi, 1904-1962 published in 1994.

Heliopolis was built as a self-contained district in a Moresque style by the Belgian industrialist Edouard Empain’s Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company. It was zoned according to the socio-economic standing of its residents, and there was a mix of building types, typically apartment buildings disguised behind elaborate facades and arcaded streets sheltering ground-floor retail units leading to public squares. It not only had one of the largest hotels in the world when it was built, today the Al-Ittihadiya Presidential Palace, but also an amusement park and race track.

Maadi was not on the same scale, and its inspiration was the English middle-class dormitory suburb, or possibly garden city, though it was never a city in any real sense of the word. Unlike in Heliopolis, where stylistic uniformity was the norm, in Maadi residents could build houses in whatever style they pleased as long as they observed certain spatial rules.

As a result, Maadi soon filled up with eclectic villas built in English vernacular styles featuring half-timbering, walls made of brick, and imposing roofs and gables. There were flower beds and herbaceous borders, kitchen gardens, and French windows opening onto croquet lawns. Whereas Heliopolis was designed to give the impression that residents were living in a kind of updating of the Arabian Nights, Maadi chose a different tack, aiming for an Egyptian iteration of the English garden suburb.

While subsequent development has diluted the original character of both suburbs, extending them far beyond their original footprints, infilling with new construction, and, more controversially, allowing the demolition of low-rise buildings and the construction of high-rise blocks in contemporary styles, there is enough of them left for even casual visitors to want to find out more about their history.

Ilbert’s book on Heliopolis is a marvelous resource for French-speaking readers, though unfortunately Raafat’s book on Maadi has long been unavailable or out of print. DeVries’s new account of this originally most English of Egyptian suburbs thus comes very much at the right time, and it is to be hoped that it will lead to many further books on the history of Cairo’s built environment.


HISTORY: In December 1904, the Egyptian Delta Light Railways Company, domiciled in London, purchased the Cairo-Helwan light railway line along with 700 feddans of land (726 acres) in and around the village of Maadi al-Khabiri between the Muqattam Hills and the Nile.

Three years later, it purchased land belonging to the Suarès Frères Company in the same area, making this investment, DeVries says, the largest in Egypt by what had now renamed itself the Egyptian Delta Land & Investment Company. The idea was to develop the land, conveniently situated on a main transport line into Cairo, for residential purposes.

It was divided according to a numbered grid of residential roads, with Road 9 in the middle hosting the railway station. Larger intersecting roads and roundabouts were given often English names like Colvin and Palmer Avenues after Company board members. Plots of land were sold off for house construction, as long as building heights and footprints obeyed a set of regulations called the cahier des charges.

“The stipulations in the cahier des charges established that Delta Land sold all the plots of land as residential space, and purchasers could not use the land for any commercial reason,” DeVries writes. “When constructing a villa, it could not exceed 15 metres in height or take up more than half of the plot’s total area. Residents had to dedicate the remaining space to cultivating a garden with a lawn, and the whole property had to be bordered by a green hedge.”

While early residents of Maadi tended to be British, this was not necessarily the case, DeVries reporting that “between 1907 and 1913, Delta Land sold 41 lots in Maadi to people with names like Angelo, de Cramer, Crawford, Whitman, MacDonald, Pilavachi, Bondi, Joanovitch, and Veloudakis.” All of these were “resident foreigners” in Egypt, often but not always Europeans, who were protected by the system of “capitulations” that made them subject to the legal regimes of their respective countries and sheltered from Egyptian law.

“According to the 1907 census,” DeVries writes, “the Egyptian capital was home to 74,221 resident foreigners who hailed from 28 different countries. The largest single foreign nationality resident in Egypt were the Greeks… More than 5,000 of these resident foreigners originally came from the British Isles. These larger contingents were accompanied by smaller French, German, Russian, Austrian, and Armenian communities.”

Such people flocked to Maadi, and it gained a reputation as an exclusive foreign enclave. This began to change after the First World War, when the suburb hosted a contingent of Australian troops, and by the early 1920s Maadi was attracting Egyptian residents. Following the disruptions of the War and subsequent political changes in Egypt, the aim of the Maadi Company was to “maintain adherence to the cahier des charges” while making the suburb “into an upper middle-class space that elite Cairenes and European and Egyptian elites might come to see as home.”

Egyptian nationals began to play a larger role on the Company board, and perhaps just as importantly they could now gain admission to the Maadi Club. “Over the course of the 1920s limitations on admission became less stringent, and the Club developed into a shared, multinational space,” DeVries comments. Political and other changes in the 1930s meant that the number of foreign residents went into a sharp decline, even as increasing local population growth and rural-to-urban migration meant that the Cairo population grew by 5.9 per cent per year.

Such developments, along with wider political and economic changes in Egypt, meant that the Company would have to plan carefully if it wanted the Maadi model of upper middle-class English suburban life to survive.


END OF THE COMPANY: DeVries takes the reader through the 1930s and 1940s, pausing to describe Maadi’s fortunes during and after the Second World War before reconstructing the last decade of the Maadi Company before its nationalisation in 1962.

The suburb enjoyed an Indian summer in the years leading up to the 1948 War, but many of its foreign, particularly British, residents were leaving, and pillars of Maadi society like Henriette Devonshire, leading tours of Islamic Cairo well into her eighties, and Faris Nimr Pasha, the Syrian-born founder of the Al-Muqattam newspaper, were passing on.

New areas like Hada’iq al-Maadi and Maadi Digla were developed in the 1940s and 1950s, in which the Company abandoned its original cahier des charges. The 1952 Revolution and the end of the ancien régime in Egypt, at first welcomed by many Maadi residents, brought fresh changes, including the determination of the new government to pursue the Egyptianisation of the economy and to oblige private businesses to think more about collective ends.

The Maadi Company reacted to these changes by building apartment buildings in Hada’iq al-Maadi and Maadi Digla in response to the developing demand for modern housing among the new class of managers and others being created by the development policies of the new regime.

However, after the 1956 Tripartite Aggression remaining French and British residents were obliged to leave, and French and British interests were sequestrated. Together with the increasingly collectivist direction of government policies, this meant that the Company, its ability to control Maadi already undermined, must have seen the writing on the wall.

In his book on Maadi, Samir Raafat, a long-term resident, is nostalgic for the old Maadi of the Company, describing it as a “dream world” vulnerable to the political and economic changes going on around it that finally made it unviable in its original form. DeVries agrees that “changing demographics paired with a national identity rooted in Pan-Arabism and socialism set the context for Maadi’s decline” and that “in this new social and economic climate, Maadi garden city became unsustainable.”

She says that “the social divisions that made Maadi possible also proved to be the community’s weakness,” dissolving “under the pressure of waves of [domestic] mass migration that transformed not only Maadi but also the rest of the Egyptian capital.” The model that Maadi relied on, “needing a great deal of [private] wealth to support,” could never be scaled up to provide housing for anything more than a tiny minority and was unable to meet wider social needs.

In this, it was probably very like the English garden cities movement that DeVries says Maadi was modelled on, which, hoping to clear urban slums, recommended the building of low-density housing on greenfield land. The problem here was also one of scale, since housing of the type originally recommended would have been prohibitively expensive, while generating new expanses of urban sprawl.

Annalise J.K. DeVries, Maadi, the Making and Unmaking of a Cairo Suburb 1878-1962, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2021, pp254.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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