Paris on the Nile

Paris on the Nile

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Jim Fox

Night View of Cairo

Cairo is, from the first moment that I set eyes upon her, a city that I loved. That was long ago, and on my first night in the city, holed up in an Arabic business class hotel, I wrote some verse about the room I was given. I was told that I could have one in the back of the hotel, where it was much quieter, or a much noisier one in the front facing the Nile. I chose the Nile view, and what I wrote that night still reflects my feelings about this grand city:

The Continental-Savoy is no longer

Hotel Cairo

Their concern was the noise,
of car horns and voices raised in laughter,
of prayer and greeting,
of barter and the calls for cabs,
a child's cry, a mother's scorn.

It faced the river Nile,
where boats race,
and life began to flourish,
dream, struggle, mature,
and sometimes war,
a girl's love, a nation's birth.

I spoke to all of them,

so they smiled and spoke to me,
in German, Arabic, Russian, French, German,
but we understood,
Just people, only people.

Their concern was the noise
for my sleep,
and for my peace,
but I sleep to a lullaby
from this Song of Life.

The Khedive Building in Downtwon Cairo from Imad al-Din Street

The fascinations of this city are many. It was a city built originally on the faith of Islam, but it grew into so much more. It became a city where slaves ruled an empire, sometimes a battleground where first the French and then the British attempted to weld their colonial aspirations, and even a retreat for colorful officers from the American Confederate Army. It was the birth place of modern tourism where names such as Thomas Cook sprang up like the grand hotels of the Europe's Victorian elite. It did become the Paris along the Nile, and today continues to be a focal point as one of the world's great cities.

Not so long ago, both Europeans and Americans came to glamorous Cairo to escape their dreary northern cities, and a new book by Cynthia Myntti portrays the way that they built up Egypt in the style of Paris, later adding their own flair. The book, named Paris Along the Nile, is almost an informal guide to the older city where electric trams once needled three lined boulevards linking splendid mansions, hotels, arcades, brightly lit theaters and pleasant parks. She tells us of a time when the silky cotton of Egypt and the money that it generated brought merchants, speculators, artisans, adventures and even landless, Italian peasants to a city where the corner grocer was Greek, the mechanic Italian, the confectioner Austrian, the pharmacist English, the Hotelier Swiss and the department store owner Jewish.

Sakakini Palace in al-Daher

This is not the Cairo of today, but the headiest days parties and social magic, and many of the buildings and houses built during this period remain. It is these that Cynthia offers us in her new book. She tells us that the photographs that comprise this book are not a systematical coverage, but rather more of a work of love defining the charming, the likable, the grand or even the amusing. They cover some, but by no means anywhere near all, of the architecture of Cairo between 1870 and 1930, with a mixture of baroque, art deco and expressionism, including well known landmarks of downtown Cairo, but also the less familiar landscapes of Garden City and Zamalek.

The Khedive Ismail

Some Background

This is, perhaps most of all, a story of the city that Khedive Ismail built, with the help of his mater builder and Minister of Public Works, Ali Mubarak, with the European money that would eventually steal the common Egyptian's freedom and give it to the great banking empires of the west. They were built during a time that ruthless European powers vied for Egypt and won her from her people, but in the course of things, a grand city was laid out

Ismail ruled Egypt from 1863 until 1879. It was his predecessors who had actually licensed Britain to build a modern railway system in Egypt, linking Cairo with the the port city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean sea and the Red Sea town of Suez. Robert Stephenson had built the British railway between Alexandria and Cairo in 1852, against bitter French opposition, and now, it allowed thousands of Europeans to descend upon the old city. This railway was to provide, perhaps, the practical path to Cairo's future, but it was Ferdinand de Lesseps and the French who won the concession to built the Suez Canal, and it was this that would, at least symbolically, change Cairo forever.

In Zamalek, the Greater Cairo Library on Muhammad Mazhar Street

Zamalek, Muhammad Mazhar Street, the gate of the Greater Cairo Library

Left: In Zamalek, the Greater Cairo Library on Muhammad Mazhar
Right: Zamalek, Muhammad Mazhar Street, the gate of the Greater Cairo Library

When Ismail inherited the throne of what was considered a part of the Ottoman Empire, he also inherited a grand, though deceptive economy. The British needed an adequate supply of cotton for their textile factories in Manchester and Leeds. However, the Americans were at war amongst themselves over the issue of slavery, and could not supply it, so Britain looked anxiously to Egypt for that raw material. With the increase in the demand of Egyptian cotton, so too its price rose, so that the export value rose from 16 million dollars in 1862 to 56 million in 1864.

Along Imad al-Din street at Suliman al-Halabi in Downtown Cario

Now, the store of European affluence began to do its best and its worst for Cairo. Ismail had been educated in France and had traveled extensively in Europe, but it was perhaps his visit to Paris in 1867, as a special guest of Emperor Napoleon III, that most influenced the future of Cairo. This was upon the event of the Paris Exposition, and Egypt itself went to great lengths to create a spectacular national exhibit. It featured a pharaonic temple, an oriental bazaar and a Bedouin tent, revealing at least to the Europeans what they expected Egypt to be. However, it was the city of Paris itself that won the attention of the fair's visitors, for it was newly laid out on a plan of wide boulevards, formal gardens, grand departments stores and covered shopping arcades. And it was Baron Haussmann, who had created this new Paris, that personally received and entertained the khedive and his entourage.

In Zamalek, 5 al-Kamil Muhammad Street, Resident of the Canadian Ambassador

Ismail hungered to be a part of the civilized Europe, and upon his return to Cairo, he set about to fulfill this dream with the short-lived money from his cotton bonanza. He would build his Paris along the Nile, but rather than simply pull down old districts as Haussmann did in Paris, Ismail decided to build an entirely new city just west of the old one.

The European Hand

When the Khedive Ismail and Ali Mubarak drew up the plans for modern Cairo, there was no doubt that they would have to rely on foreigners to implement their ideas, at least in the beginning. Nevertheless, Ismail founded the School of Irrigation and Architecture in Abbasiya, which became what is today, the Cairo University's Faculty of Engineering. He also reestablished the School of Arts and Crafts in Bulaq that would later become the Faculty of Engineering at Ain Shams University. However, it would take considerable time to train Egyptians for his immediate task.

The Egyptian Antiquities Museum

Hence, Europeans played a central role in building the new Cairo, and particularly at first, the Italians. Cairo became a boom town, and both professionals and common laborers crossed the Mediterranean to become a part of Ismail's plan. Italian architects and technicians were employed in Egypt's Ministry of Public Works, and also in private practice. They made considerable contributions to Ismail's palaces, public buildings and the private residences that would spring up about the new district. Names such as Francesco Battigelli, Carlo Prampolini, Pietro Avoscani, Carlo Virgilio Silvagni, Luigi Gavasi, Augusto Cesari and Giuseppe Garozzo began to be engraved on the buildings of this new Cairo. Perhaps notable, among these, was the Sicilian Giuseppe Garozzo, and later his sons, who were involved with many of Cairo's major buildings, including the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, the Abdeen (Abdin) Palace, the famous Shepheard's Hotel and the Cairo Fire Brigade Station in Ataba Square.

Abdeen Palace

Many of the buildings that the Italians built during this period drew upon the Renaissance buildings of Italy, with ground floors of heavy stone facing, or its equivalent in plaster, and an upper story with Tuscan columns or Ionic pilasters and pedimented windows. Others, such as Ernesto Vercucci Bey and Mario Rossi used the Italian Gothic style in buildings such as Villa Tawfik in Zamalek, which is now a Helwan University building.

However, it should be noted that the Italians were also responsible for many renovations of great Islamic monuments in Cairo, and in doing so, they also drew from Islamic motifs in some of their later building projects. Antonio Lasciac, who came from Trieste, was responsible for many of downtown Cairo's most beautiful buildings. These include the Suares and Khedival Buildings that were designed during his early career in Egypt. They follow classical and baroque lines, but his later works, such as the Trieste Insurance Building and Bank Misr, show clear Islamic or neo-Moorish influences. Still others followed Lasciac's lead and as this movement grew, some designers also began using Arabesque motifs in their furniture creations.

Downtown at Abd al-Khaliq Sarwat Street

Considerable use of the French baroque style was also applied to building projects in downtown Cairo, and later Garden City and al-Daher. These often had delicate balconies with extensive wrought iron work and ornate cantilevers, marble steps and entrances, molded windows and door surrounds with distinctive French touches. Later still, French architects such as Georges Parcq built grand buildings in Cairo during the early twentieth century, including the Mubarak Library and the French Embassy. The French influence was also felt at the hands of those such as Alexan Marcel, Leo Nafiliyan, Raoul Brandon, Antoine Backh, Edward Matasek who was Austrian, and the the Ottoman Armenian, Garo Balian.

31 Beirut Street in Heliopols, designed by Antoine Backh

In Zamalek, Shagarat al-Durr Street, the Villa Tawfiq, now Helwan University Faculty of Music

Left: In Zamalek, Shagarat al-Durr Street, the Villa Tawfiq, now Helwan University Faculty of Music;
Right: 31 Beirut Street in Heliopols, designed by Antoine Backh

Cairo Under Construction

Ismail built Ezbekiya into a centerpiece of his new scheme, opening up two new boulevards into the old city which cut straight through the Citadel neighborhood, but the new city to the west was planned to be quite separate from the old city. All of these plans, he decided, should culminate in his own world's Fair to mark the opening of the Suez Canal. This gave him only two years in which to transform Cairo.

A window from Muhammad Farid and Bank Msr Street in Downtown Cario

The new quarter to the west was laid out to a French plan with straight streets and roundabouts that defined what today is modern Cairo, though the European old guard in Cairo who loved the old Ottoman and medieval city complained that it was being "Haussmannized, which in fact it was. Land was subdivided for villas and apartments and the Khedive gave a new section of the city fee to anyone who would build upon it within eighteen months a house or building worth at least thirty thousand francs. Hence, even the European old guard signed on, instantly obliging Ismail, first constructing residences along the straight new streets and later commercial buildings. Barillet-Deschamps, who designed the Bois de Boulogne and the Champs de Mars in Paris, along with the French horticulturist, Delchevalerie, to create a typical French pleasure garden at Azbakiya. When finished, the garden held a large collection of exotic trees and plants, a small lake with pedal pedal boats and bridges, together with European and oriental tea rooms and restaurants, a photography studio, a Chinese pavilion, a fencing school, theater and shops.

An Iron gate in Munira on Dar al-Ulum Street

An Iron gate at 24 Saray al-Gazira in Zamalek

Above Left: An Iron gate in Munira on Dar al-Ulum Street
Above Right: An Iron gate at 24 Saray al-Gazira in Zamalek
Below Left: 7 Salah al-Din Street in Heliopolis
Below Right: Fuad Sirag al-Din Palace on the corner of Nabata and Ahmad Pasha Streets in Garden City

7 Salah al-Din Street in Heliopolis

Fuad Sirag al-Din Palace on the corner of Nabata and Ahmad Pasha Streets in Garden City

Ismail's personal contribution to the European look was the nearby wooden Opera House on the Model of La Scala of Milan located on Ezbekiya, built by the Italian, Pietro Avoscani, and symbolically facing the western side of the city, and the Theatre National de Comedie. The Opera House was put up in five months in 1868 by gangs of forced labor, so that it could be ready for the Verdi opera, created with the aid of Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion, that he commissioned called Aida, but alas, the costumes for the opera were not ready for the opening of the Suez Canal, so Riogoletto was instead performed. Though this old Opera House is gone, its Lebanese wood burnt away, towards its end it was hardly useful, for it had almost no wings and little dressing room space, and the orchestra and it conductor had to walk down the main aisle to reach the pit. Yet it was indeed plush, with its harem boxes fronted with silken screens, loges scrolled in gilt, and hangings of crimson and gold brocade.

The Great Entrance Hall of Abdeen Palace

Soon, Cairo was recognized as a delightful city with amenities that often surpassed many of those in America and Europe. Ali Mubarak's master plan for the new western part of the city created wide streets and squares similar to Haussmann's Paris. Clot Bey Street, named after Dr. Antoine Clot, Napoleon's physician and founder of Egypt's first medical school, linked the new Cairo train station at Bab al-Hadid to the main commercial square, al-Ataba al-Ahadra. Ataba eventually contained Cairo's post office, fire stations, several elegant hotels, arcaded commercial buildings and the city's central food market. When trams were introduced to the city, Ataba Square became the hub of Cairo's modern public transportation system. Ataba backed into the Ezbekiya gardens and Opera Square, and was linked by a grand boulevard southward to the khedive's main palace at Abdeen.

15 Kamil Sidqi Street in Al-Daher

12 Rushdi Street, Helopolis

Left: 15 Kamil Sidqi Street in Al-Daher
Right: 12 Rushdi Street, Helopolis

Ismail had also turned one of his own palaces, which later became the Continental-Savoy, but at that time was called the New Hotel, into lodging for distinguished guests, refurbishing it for the "Exposition" visitors. It was, at first the rival, and then the ally of Shepeard's Hotel, which had and continued to be the heart and soul of visiting English society in Cairo. They now could easily travel along an elevated road adorned with shade trees to the Giza Pyramids, where he built a hunting lodge for their comfort that later became the Oberoi Mena House Hotel.

The Mena House Hotel around the turn of the 20th century

Ismail also had another palace built to house many of his royal guests who came especially to Cairo for the opening of the canal. It was just across the river on Gezira Island (in a location better known to day as Zamalek), and it was here that the Empress Eugenie of the French, the crown Prince of Prussia, Henry of the Netherlands, Prince Louis of Hesse and their large entourages were put up for the Suez Canal celebrations. This palace was eventually taken over by a European company that immediately used most of the land for speculative building. A rich pasha bought the palace itself, which was finally turned into a hotel after the 1952 revolution. Then it was called the Omar Khayyam, but today is the Cairo Marriott.

Inside the Marriott Cairo

At this time, the acacia and sycamore lined avenue to Shubra was the most important street in Cairo, because the Cairo elite had followed the khedive and built their finest houses along the road. It was along this stretch of road that the elite showed off their wealth and finery. Greek and German brasseries and French cafes sprang up like spring flowers on all the new streets, and many of them had orchestras or bands. On some free land overlooking the Ezbekiya Gardens, the Duke of Sutherland built the new Khedive Club, a copy it was said of the best London clubs of its day. It was under local royal patronage and its chairman was the British consul, who was then the highest British diplomatic official in Egypt.

Another important development in Egypt, was that the British began to base their expansion into Africa in Cairo, mostly at Egypt's expense. In 1869, Samuel Baker spent four months in Cairo while preparing his campaign to the White Nile, supposedly to put down the slave trade, though that seems not to have been his real intent. He did leave Cairo with black troops, together with English trade goods and British ships, most of which was paid for by the Egyptians, but as J. C. MacCoan pointed out, considerable new territory was acquired, but the slave trade seems not to have been affected at all.

A doorway at Bishara al-Kafun Street in al-Daher

In 1869, the canal was ready to open and it was an astonishing year for Cairo. For those of wealth, that year was as one big festival of balls, banquets, theaters, operas and horse races. Even the common populace could somewhat enjoy the packed streets, the gay lights, the hundreds of kiosks and booths, the street performers and the traditional Muslim Mulids (festivals). After a quick trip to Europe, Ismail was ready for the formal opening celebrations of the Suez Canal to begin. It was attended by the rich and noble of Europe, as well as an army of others who managed to procure invitations, and together with the newsman covering the event, all were housed and fed in Cairo, and later moved to Port Said in November of that year. While the canal company was French, the first ship through was British, and the celebrations surrounding this event were so spectacular that they could occupy an entire book, and afterwards, Cairo had a very difficult time returning to any sort of normalcy.

Downtown Cairo, Corner of Abd al-Aziz and Rushdi Pasha Streets

Downtown at 14 Adli Street

Downtown Cairo, Corner of Abd al-Aziz and Rushdi Pasha Streets
Right: Downtown at 14 Adli Street

Downtown on the Italia-Adriatica Insurance Company building, Sharif Street at Muhammad Mazlum Pasha

In fact, Europeans simply continued to pour into the city and Ismail went on attempting to build a copy of Paris. In 1870, Ismail brought gas to the city, and it was replaced by electricity in 1898, making Cairo one of the earliest cities in the world to use electricity. Though running water would come later, Ismail also put down a number of well paved carriage roads throughout the city, and in 1872, he had a new iron bridge built over the Nile from Kasr el Nil to Gezira Island by a French firm. This bridge would open to river traffic, but the River on the other side of the island was deliberately blocked so that Gezira effectively became a part of Giza. Eventually Gezira, and specifically the residential neighborhood of Zamalek, would become one of the city's wealthiest quarters.

The Beginning of the End

Windows in Garden City at Midan Gamal al-Din Abu al-Mahasin

Unfortunately, the cotton boom of the 1860s was short lived, though Ismail lavishly went about his business and sometimes it seemed that the money he spent on his beloved city came from a bottomless pit, but in fact it came from the blood of Egypt's populous, paid for by high taxation of everyone and everything. In the end, he and the Egyptian people would lose it to the banking houses of Europe. He was apparently lacking in his knowledge of finance, and the European bankers would lavish upon him huge loans, but with stiff terms. For example, in one instance, the Rothchilds loaned Ismail, through the state, 8.5 million pounds sterling against some 435,000 acres of the richest agricultural land in the world, but the proceeds he received after various deductions amounted to only 4.36 million pounds. During the eleven year period surrounding Ismail's efforts to turn Cairo into a Paris on the Nile, he was loaned some 68 million pounds sterling, from various European bankers, of which only 48 million actually reached his hands, and in the end, he was forced to sell his share in the Suez Canal to the British for four million pounds. In a very short time, that would be the annual revenue of the canal in shipping tolls.

Eventually, even Ismail could see that he would never escape the financial grip held by his European bankers, and due to his hard and oppressive policies towards Egypt's peasants, he had little support at home. He attempted to turn to the Americans, and after the American Civil War, he hired a number of that war's officers, mostly confederate officers, in order to distance himself from his British occupiers. However, while they were indeed some of the most colorful characters in this point of Egypt's history, they did little to stave off the coming foreclosure on Egypt. In 1876, self appointed Europeans, sitting in judgement on his financial situation, told him that he owed them 91 million pounds sterling and by 1879, that sum had reached 100 million.

Downtown Cario at 41 Sharif Street

Ismail probably actually saw little of this money himself, and in fact a large amount of it was used to finance various European projects in Egypt. In 1879, Britain and France did what they had been waiting to do for some time, taking over Egypt's finances with two comptroller generals, one British and one Frenchman. Then, on June 19th, 1879, the Europeans took another extraordinary step, when the British and French consuls generals called on him at Abdin Palace and instructed the khedive to abdicate. He had little other choice but to do so, for he could not even call on popular support, since the people were now so burdened by the misery of his taxes that they hated him and were glad to see him go. Ismail left for Europe where he died in exile in 1895, leaving behind his son, Tawfik, who then inherited what was left of Egypt. Egypt was taken by the European powers of the day and in 1882, Britain occupied Egypt without any shot being fired, ruling it virtually as a colony. Though Egypt was still considered a part of the Ottoman empire and continued to have its own hereditary rulers descended from Muhammad Ali, the country was actually run by the Europeans.

Kamal al-Din Husayn Street, off Midan Qasr al-Dubara in Garden City

Of course, this did not stop the building in Egypt, for certainly now even more Europeans came, and more than ever took over the city as their own. In fact, the cotton markets recovered and Cairo grew much as Khedive Ismail and his minister, Ali Mubarak had planned. Between Ataba Square and the Nile, a European city sprang up, while the Egyptian middle class spread northward to Faggala and Abbasiya. In the European district, rising demand for commercial, financial consular and residential quarters led to an increasing density of building and soon villas and gardens were replaced by multistoried Parisian style commercial and residential buildings. One could walk about these streets and find French and English bookshops, tea rooms and sidewalk cafes, fashionable department stores and art galleries that were no less grand than Printemps, the Galeries Lafayette or Au Bon Marche in Paris. One could even fill the afternoon at a roller skating rink.

With the addition of modern public transportation in the early twentieth Century, suburban residential areas also sprang to life, with new developments in Garden City along the Nile, Heliopolis to the north of the city that was planned by Baron Empain and designed by Ernest Jaspar, both Belgain and Maadi near the hot springs resort of Helwan to the south, where many foreigners continue to live.

Muhammad Shawarbi Pasha Building Ramsis at 26th of July built in 1925

Many years would follow, and conditions would even grow much worst for the native Egyptians, before they slowly gained back their country. Finally in 1952, they could once again call it their own, but in the interval, parts of Cairo certainly became more European then oriental. By the 1920s, art deco and expressionist buildings began to appear, designed by Egyptian and expatriate architects. Their names included Fahmi Riad, Edouard Luledjian, Nubar Kevorkian, Giuseppe Mazza, and Galligopoulo. Frenchmen, such as Leon Azema, Max Edrei and Jacque Hardy also contributed to Cairo's style, and in the 1930s, a rather eclectic fashion grew to incorporate sphinxes, scarabs, cobras and other pharaonic motifs. While this period was a curse upon the populous, it did shape Cairo into much of the wonderful, diverse city that we see today.

Last Updated:
August 21st, 2011






Reference Number

Al Qahira

Sassi, Dino


Al Ahram/Elsevier

None Stated

Cairo (Biography of a City)

Aldridge, James


Little, Brown and Company

ISBN 72-79364

Cairo (Giza-Sakkarah-Memphis

El-Mallakh, Kamal



ISBN 88-7009-231-3

Paris Along the Nile: Architecture in Cairo from the Belle Epoque

Myntti, Cynthia


American University in Cairo Press

ISBN 977 424 5105