In the middle of the 19th century, the slavishly Francophile khedive Isma’il laid out this district on a Parisian plan across the old canal from Islamic Cairo, which until then had been the heart of the city. It quickly became the most fashionable commercial and residential district, lined with cafés and jewelers and settled by all the major department stores. In time, as new residential districts such as Garden City and Zamalek opened up, Downtown lost favor as a place to live. But it was, above all else, a colonial city—standing in proximity to traditional Cairo but self-consciously apart from it.
With the rise of Egyptian nationalism in the early 20th century, that could not last. Much of Downtown was systematically torched in antiforeign riots on Black Saturday in January 1952, in a spasm of violence that demonstrated how closely architecture was associated with colonial rule. The riots marked the beginning of the end for the foreign presence in Egypt: the revolution that overthrew the British-backed monarchy followed Black Saturday within months, and with it all the street names changed to reflect the new heroes. But it was the wave of nationalizations in the early 1960s that finally closed the colonial chapter Downtown, as those foreigners who had stayed on past the revolution lost their businesses, their way of life, and their place in a city that had never really belonged to them.
Downtown—called Wist al-Balad in Arabic—is still loved today. Its boundary begins at Tahrir Square, which became famous worldwide as the epicenter of massive protests that led to the ouster of the president in 2011. The uprising reinvigorated not only the country’s stale politics but also Downtown Cairo, which had long fallen in disrepair. While the district’s dusty watering holes and cheap cafés were long favorites of artists, vagabonds, and foreigners, most Egyptians were unfamiliar with its tiny alleys and Belle Époque architecture until the 2011 protests. The thriving political culture in cafés would not last long, however. In 2015–2016 state security services raided apartments and shut down cafés in Downtown as part of an ongoing campaign to restore the dictatorship.
Quite apart from the experience of Downtown Cairo, the Egyptian Antiquities Museum is a lens through which to see the ancient world. And it is essential to any trip to Egypt. Its vast stores of treasures from ancient Egypt are as astonishing as they are daunting to take in. Tour the museum in conjunction with a day in Giza, or before you head upriver to Luxor, Aswan, and beyond for the Nile Valley monuments.
POINTS OF INTEREST
OLD RED-LIGHT DISTRICT
Although the area around Shar’a Clot Bey is now rather conservative, at one time in the 20th century it was lined with brothels and bars, and you can still see the arched walkways and hidden nooks that once sheltered unspeakable vices. Prostitution was not made illegal in Cairo until 1949, but the trade had one last great boom period during World War II, when the nearby Shepheard’s was commandeered as the British officers’ base and the Ezbekiyya teemed with young men less interested in the Pyramids than in more carnal pursuits. To them, this area was known simply as the Birka, after one of the adjoining alleys, and it offered them comforts of all sorts for just 10 piastres. The shuttered second-floor rooms see less traffic these days, reborn as cheap if largely respectable pensions, and the nearby Saint Mark’s Cathedral, once a source of succor for guilt-ridden consciences, now serves a more prosaic function for the local Christian community. Every once in a while the local newspapers run interviews with elderly women professing to have been madams in their youth, although few other Egyptians lament the passing of the trade.
On the western edge of Maydan Tala’at Harb, recognizable by the gorgeous mosaic decorating the entrance, Groppi was once the chocolatier to royalty. Founded in the 1930s by a Swiss native, this café and dance hall (along with its older branch on nearby Shar’a Adly) was the favorite meeting place for everyone from celebrities and the local aristocracy to political activists and British soldiers. Ravaged by four decades of socialism and several tasteless renovations, Groppi now serves passable coffee and not bad pastries and ice cream, but it’s the atmosphere that makes it worth going.
Colonial Cairo emulated the French, was run by the British, and was built largely by Italians. Yet for all that colonial layering, its profoundly Middle Eastern cultural origins always won out in the end. Nothing symbolizes this strange synthesis better than the buildings of the Italian architect Antoine Lasciac, who worked in Cairo from 1882 to 1936 and served as the chief architect of the khedivial palaces. Lasciac set out to reflect Egypt’s emergent nationalism in a new architectural style by updating the Mamluk decorative work so typical of Islamic Cairo and grafting it onto the technical innovations of his era. The result can be seen in this, his best-preserved building, which dates from 1927. Its mosaics, sculptural work, and decorations all draw on a range of Middle Eastern influences, while the core of the building, in plan and scale, is distinctly Western.
Designed by the architect of the Banque Misr but even more intriguing, this 1910 building is rich in Islamic sculptural elements. Long neglected, the Trieste was finally renovated as part of the Stock Exchange neighborhood renewal plan and is now disconcertingly tarted up in off-white and salmon. In compensation, the gorgeous mosaic work is easier to see now.
This unusual concrete block with a subtle art nouveau floral motif is easily overlooked from the outside. This is one of Cairo’s great treasures, the interior of exquisite stained-glass windows and light fixtures rumored to be from Tiffany. Erected in 1899 by the Mosseri family, the synagogue is seldom used because there are too few remaining Jewish men to hold a service. This possible end masks a long and prosperous history for the Jewish community in Egypt. Over the past 500 years, whenever Europe went through its regular waves of persecution and expulsion, Jews sought refuge in Muslim lands such as Egypt, where they were protected as People of the Book. Only in the 20th century, with colonialism and the emergence of Israel, did local sentiment turn against them. Have your hotel call to make an appointment for you to visit; bring your passport.
THE EGYPTIAN ANTIQUITIES MUSEUM
On the north end of Maydan Tahrir, this huge neoclassical building is home to the world’s largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. With more than 100,000 items in total, it is said that if you were to spend just one minute on each item, it would take more than nine months to complete the tour. You need to be selective here, and it’s a good idea to buy a museum guidebook or hire a museum guide. You can purchase a map of the museum (£E35), helpful in getting your bearings, but it doesn’t include much in the way of historical description. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo: Official Catalogue (£E100, available in the museum) is a far more comprehensive and practical guide. Official museum guides are available and you can bargain on the rate. The museum’s breadth is staggering; more than half a day would cover a fair amount, but it can be hot inside.
Some of the museum’s finest pieces are in the center of the ground floor, below the atrium and rotunda. The area makes a good place to start, acting as a preview for the rest of the museum. Among the prized possessions here are three colossi of the legendary New Kingdom pharaoh Ramses II (1290–1224 BC); a limestone statue of Djoser (around 2600 BC), the 2nd Dynasty pharaoh who built the Step Pyramid in Saqqara; several sarcophagi; and a floor from the destroyed palace of Akhenaton (1353–1335 BC), the heretic monotheist king. The Narmer Palette, a piece from about 3000 BC, is thought to document the first unification of northern and southern Egypt.
Rooms around the atrium are arranged chronologically, clockwise from the left (west) of the entrance: the Old Kingdom (2575–2134 BC) in rooms 31, 32, 36, 37, 41, 42, 46, and 47; the Middle Kingdom (2040–1640 BC) in rooms 11, 12, 16, 17, 21, 22, 26, and 27; the New Kingdom (1550–1070 BC) in rooms 1–10, 14, 15, 19, and 20; Greco-Roman Egypt (332 BC–c. AD 395) in rooms 34, 35, 39, and 40; and Nubian Exhibits in rooms 44 and 45.
Among the most important Old Kingdom items are a superbly crafted statue of Khafre (2551–2528 BC), builder of the second Great Pyramid at Giza (Room 42), and the delightful, lifelike dual statues of Rahotep and Nofret (2500 BC, Room 42). The Middle Kingdom display includes several statues of Senwosret I (1971–1926 BC), responsible for the first major temple to Amun at Karnak (Room 22). The rich collection of New Kingdom artifacts includes an exquisite statue of Thutmose III (1479–1425 BC), Egypt’s greatest empire builder, suckling at the teat of the cow-goddess (Room 12); artwork from Akhenaton’s reign, the realistic style of which is markedly different from anything that came before or after it (Room 3); and several statues and parts of colossi from the time of Ramses II (Room 20). The works in the Greco-Roman exhibit are not as impressive as those on display in the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, but they are interesting nonetheless in their attempts to weld Hellenistic and pharaonic cultures. Pieces in the Nubian section include saddles, weapons, and a mummified horse skeleton (Room 42)—again, of lesser quality than the Nubian Museum in Aswan but still of interest.
On the museum’s upper floor is the famous Tutankhamun collection. Look for its beautiful gold funerary mask and sarcophagus (Room 3), ancient trumpet (Room 30), thrones (rooms 20 and 25), the four huge gilded boxes that fit one inside the other (exhibits 7 and 8, located in the hallway just outside Room 30), and a royal toilet seat to boot (outside Room 30); it is one of the few air-conditioned rooms in the museum. (The collection is scheduled to be relocated to the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, but, at the time of writing, construction is not yet complete.) Also upstairs is the royal Mummy Room, which houses 11 pharaonic dignitaries, including the body of Ramses II (Room 52). If you are discouraged by the Mummy Room’s steep entrance fee, don’t miss the assortment of mummified animals and birds in the adjacent room (Room 53), which has no additional charge. Also on the upper floor is a series of specialized exhibits, including a collection of papyri and Middle Kingdom wooden models of daily life (rooms 24 and 27).
The “Hidden Treasures of the Egyptian Museum” exhibit has more than 150 of the best objects that form part of the museum’s vast stock of artifacts kept in storage. Fittingly, the galleries sit in the museum basement, where the cataloged items used to lie on dark dusty shelves. The Children’s Museum, aimed specifically at younger visitors, combines authentic artifacts with Lego models (donated by the Danish State) to explain aspects of life and customs in ancient Egypt. Children are free to use Lego bricks to construct their own models.