by Lara Iskander
Cairo offers its visitors an incredible selection of attractions; it is a mix of ancient and modern as it encompasses many former cities and their monuments. In fact the site of the city can be traced back to 4225 BC.
Modern Cairo covers an area of over 282 sq km though it is hard to separate the city from some of its immediate suburbs. Bordered by the desert to the east and west, and the Nile delta to the north, the city is spread on both banks and along 40km north to south of the river Nile.
However, Cairo spreads farther onto the east bank of the Nile than the west, where the city centre or hub Tahrir Square is located. The city centre is filled with institutions, commercial establishments, governmental offices, universities, and countless hotels, creating a dense pattern of constant activity. The ever-busy Midan al-Tahrir is one of the main and largest public squares; the absolute centre of the city.
Northeast of Tahrir and centered on Talaat Harb Street is the bustling commercial downtown district. The city's main train station at Midan Ramses marks the city centers northern extent. Heading east, the city centre ends at Midan al-Ataba where medieval Islamic Cairo takes over. Opposite downtown area is the island of Gezirah linked to Tahrir Square by the famous lion guarded bridge, Kasr al-Nil, while al-Rodah Island - home of al-Manasterly Palace - lies just further to the south.
The heart of modern Cairo, Tahrir Square, is typical of the more modern, commercial centre of Cairo; it houses numerous important old and modern structures in addition to it being a public transport hub, all of which have turned the square into one of the most important and busiest areas in the city. However, Tahrir Square witnessed a series of past events and changes of regimes throughout the history of the country.
The site of Midan al-Tahrir only gained importance in the 19th century during the rule of Khedive Ismael and his obsession to create a Paris on the Nile, an urban plan encompassing long broad boulevards punctuated by squares and public gardens and royal palaces.
The Khedive was particularly interested in achieving this on the western bank where he started his series of palaces or Kasr such as Kasr al-Aini, Kasr al-Nil among many others. Thus, the site of Midan Tahrir became the main square of the palace districts or sometimes known as the citys European quarter and was at the time named, Midan al-Ismaileyya, and likewise the district was called al-Kahira al-Ismaileyya after the Khedive.
Views of Tahrir Square
One of the first constructions on the site was Al-Nil Palace which housed the army of the khedive and was later the headquarters of the British Army of Occupation in the late 1880s. However, the structure was torn down after the British army evacuated it in 1947, making way for new developments.
Ismaileyya Square was filled with people after the revolution in 1952 celebrating the birth of the republic. It was renamed Midan al-Tahrir or Liberation Square in 1954 in attempt to remove all traces of the old regime. A statue of the president Abd al-Nasser was to be placed in the middle of the Square, a plan which was halted due to the 1967 defeat. No statue has crowned Cairos broadest traffic circle until 2003 when a statue of Sheikh Omar Makram, slightly overlooking the square, was erected.
Perhaps the most prominent and old buildings of Midan Ismaileyya that has survived is the recently refurbished Egyptian Antiquities Museum located on the north edge of the Square. The building designed by a French architect named Marcel Dourgon was completed by an Italian firm and inaugurated in 1902 by Khedive Abbas Helmi. Today, the huge neoclassical building houses the world's premier and largest collection of Egyptian antiquities (said to be more than 130,000 exhibits) which include the famous Tutankhamun collection and the royal Mummy Room.
Another surviving structure fronting the square is the palace of Khedive Abbas Helmis sister. This fine palace was recently restored and it now houses part of the Ministry of Foreign Affair offices.
The site of Kasr al-Nil was replaced by the first Hilton Hotel in Africa in the late 1950s. Today, the Nile Hilton, one of Cairos major hotels occupies a remarkable spot between the Square and the Nile Corniche. River taxis traveling to local docks are found along the riverside walks while feluccas or sail boats are available for private rent, an exceptional way to enjoy the scenery away from the busy traffic. South of the Hilton Hotel stands the Arab League Headquarters, a building designed by Egyptian architect Mahmoud Riad.
To the south of the square is yet another miserable building, Mugamma al-Tahrir, perhaps due to its brutalist architectural style. The word mugamma meaning collection refers more accurately in this case to the large complex which houses many government administrative offices and around 18,000 employees. The 55-metre high edifice was designed in 1951 by an Egyptian architect named Kamal Ismail who described the design as a simplified form of the Islamic style.
Next to the Mugamma building is the small and attractive mosque of Omar Makram and slightly further to the south is the Intercontinental Hotel.
The campus of the American University of Cairo lies across from the Mugamma on the busy street of Kasr al-Ainy. Situated on the main campus is a converted palace originally constructed in the 1860s for the Minister of Education Khairy Pasha. It was later place of the Nestor Gianaclis cigarette factory. The palace now houses central administrative and faculty offices, classrooms, and the Ewart Memorial Hall, re-used as a cultural auditorium.
The eastern border of Tahrir Square, originally the site of large luxurious villas, was replaced over the years by large office buildings and stores, topped with neon signs and advertisements while found beneath the structures is a string of businesses, including international fast food chains in addition to the more popular local coffee shops and restaurants such as Felfela.
The main stations of the Cairo underground services constructed in 1908 are under Midan Tahrir while a great many buses and taxis make the square a key part of their services. One of the latest additions to the square was a much needed underground garage. Tahrir square is always busy, and crossing on foot is far from easy.
It is recommended to use the inter-connecting tunnels linking the metro stations which have exits to almost all sides of the plaza.
An urban feature that makes Cairo unique is that throughout history, each new ruler, rather than destroying what he had conquered, chose to build a new city upwind from the old one and even though one can follow the historic progression of the city and its continuous expansion, Midan al-Tahrir has remained a focal point at the heart of the city for many years. While Tahrir square might be considered as the political heart of the largest Arab country, an economic core and an epicenter of modern Cairo, it is also a huge attraction or more of a magnet for tourists, a popular evening outing for youngsters or young Cairene lovers and above all, it still remains the main public space where the population express their opinions regarding political changes and where protestations or demonstrations take place.
Rafaat, Samir, 2003. Cairo, the Glory Years: Who built what, why and for whom. Harpocrates Publishing - Alexandria , Egypt.