Sunday, November 1, 2009

El Tahrir Square: A Multi Layered History Urban Space

The story of downtown Cairo's transformation is complex. From the origins of the modern city district to its ongoing transformations, downtown has reflected the city's social cultural and economic shifts. These transformations came in many forms including the general urban expansion of highways through the center, the use and reuse of early twentieth century buildings, the moving in and out of institutions such as Hilton hotel, the American university and the Egyptian museum and finally the redefinition of the public space in the general Cairene context. In this paper I have listed and analyzed these moments to transition and their effect on the urban landscape of el Tahrir square and its cultural, social and historical significance in the making of a nostalgically driven architectural image today.

Along through the history of Cairo, squares and urban open spaces played a very important role in gathering the inhabitants for events, ceremonies and protests. "The Tahrir Square" is one of the most important squares in Cairo that played that role very well till today, and as el Ahram weekly once wrote about el Tahrir Square: "Tahrir Square is not only the hub of Cairo, it is home to some of the city's most important buildings and a constant headline-maker in the local press. Whatever happens in Tahrir immediately becomes a national concern." And as Samir Raafat said in the Cairo times "Midan al-Tahrir cannot sit still. Whether reflecting the city's moods or the leadership's political agenda, the nation's most important plaza has gone from faux Champs de Mars to Stalinesque esplanade. Whenever a new regime feels the nation's capital needs a new look, the Midan has been the place to start."

Ismailiya square (el Tahrir square now) was and still is the center of central Cairo. From it the first bridge crossed the Nile and the palace housing the British headquarter stood. Samir Raafat has referred to is as a "faux champ de mars." a forced analogy to continue the "tradition" of linking Ismail's Cairo with Paris in anyway possible. In fact the square was not a faux of anything; it was a very real Ismailiyya square. The square acted as a southern gateway to downtown and a pivotal point in the transition westward across the Kasr el Nil bridge to Cairo's future development and expansions. The abundance of things named Ismail in and around the square made it an easy target for change that would announce the arrival of a new era.

El Tahrir early establishment and planning

I. Islamic Era

Once, the highly developed square was a patch of silt, part of the Nile's bed. In the 16th and 17th centuries the Nile shrank eastwards, uncovering land which was to become the Qasr Al-Aini area, Munira, Garden City, and Tahrir Square. In those days, however, the area was known as Al-Louq. The first developments on the new land were far from glamorous. At the beginning of the last century, the Cairo tanneries were moved from Hawsh Al-Sharqawi (south of Midan Bab Al-Khalq) to the Louq area because of their bad smell. In 1865, they were moved to an area near Fustat, where they have remained ever since. (Center of the centers, el Ahram weekly, sept 1999 issue 445). Fig 1.1

Until the time of Al-Nasser Mohamed Ibn Qalawun, who developed the area into a garden reputed to have included all sorts of fruits and flowers, many of which were brought in from the Levant. Meanwhile, a certain Emir Tussun became an important political figure, prompting the sultan to give him a part of this garden. Tussun established a stable there, on the banks of the Nile. The stables won the place its name: Zaribat Tussun. After thriving for a time under Al-Nasser, the area became a quagmire of swamps and lakes interspersed with gardens.

II. Khedive Era

The next saviour of the site was Ali Mubarak under Ismail Pasha (1863-1879). Ismail was the patron of a comprehensive project to develop the city of Cairo and Mubarak was his right-hand man in the task. The latter earmarked an area of 359 feddans for major development and rehabilitation -- an area originally known as the Ismailia quarter, today the downtown area. (Where the Streets Have No Name, Egypt today magazine, april 2005)

The khedive wanted to make Cairo a piece of Paris. These photos shows the relation between el Tahrir square in Cairo and Charles de Gaulle etoil square in Paris

Streets were planned in straight lines at right angles in most cases and squares were made. (fig 1.2). On both sides of the streets were pedestrian walkways, and the middle of the street was for cars and animals. So it was inhabited by princes and great people. It became -- and remains -- the navel of the city and is the site of the most important services whether they be government, companies, banks or commercial stores. Although Ismail is always credited with the creation of Midan Al-Ismailia, Said Pasha before him oversaw developments that fed into the creation of the square. In fact, the first landmark in the history of what is known today as Tahrir began with the Qasr Al-Nil Barracks (which stood where the Nile Hilton stands today) set up in the reign of Khedive Said (1854-1863). The barracks also served as the Ministry of War and drew people's attention to the area west of Cairo, setting the pattern for developments that were introduced by Ismail Pasha later on. The British took over the barracks when they took over Egypt, and the red buildings were to become a hated symbol of occupation. Eventually Egypt was to rid itself of the British and in the place of the barracks; the Arab League and the Nile Hilton hotel were built. (Streets and Midans by el Sayed Mohammed)

The Modern Transformation

"once the rather exclusive domain of the colonial foreigners and franc phonic Egyptian elite, this zone has obviously undergone a dramatic transformation since the revolution of 1952" Janet abo Lughod
And in the novel by Alaa el Aswany "The Yacoubian Building" it is centered on a building which stands as a symbol of beautiful times, a piece of urban iconography, whose cultural contect has shifted to the in bearable present. It sees the present as having lost something which was alive in the past, making the past more attractive.
The modern transformations of el Tahrir square viewed two major turning points; the Nasser's era and the notion of modernity, and the Sadat era and the notion of infitah:

I. The First Turning Point (Nasser 1952)

Nasser's first set of alterations for Cairo included the remaining of downtown streets and squares, this included Ismail square where the barracks and the museum were located. The new square would be called Midan el Tahrir (liberation square) and Kasr el Nil barracks building was torn down in 1952 to figuratively liberate the square of its occupation (el Musawwar magazine 1947). The building could have remained and been reused as was the fate of many downtown buildings, however the choice to remove the building was a necessary symbolic act (Maria Golia, city of sand, 2004). And Ismail once quickly built his modern city, Nasser quickly constructed concrete blocks his new ministries, national enterprise and civil servants. The fact of these buildings would soon showcase an alliance with the east, the USSR whose notorious soviet modernist architecture was spread as far as its economics arm reached. The Ussr's willingness to fund Nasser's large scale project as the Aswan high dam would mark the new beginning for the facades of Cairo. Prior to this alliance downtown was already blessed with soviet inspired block, The Mogamma. (Facades of modernity, Mohamed el Shahed, 2005)

The Mogamma

The notorious fifteen-story Mogamma was part of a plan to redevelop Ismailiyya sq under king Farouk. Although the building is associated in the Egyptian collective memory as a vestige of Nasser era bureaucracy. It was actually opened in 1951 immediately before the revolution. The building was described by its architect Kamal Ismail to be a "simplified form of the Islamic style" and was designed to house "a large number of bureaucratic functions… under one roof, including many carried out ministries of interior and education, as well as the new Cairo municipality itself." (Fatma Farrag,

The Nile Hilton

Nasser opened the zone of Tahrir square for modern hotels to develop along the east bank of the Nile. The proximity to the museum and the famed downtown made the southern tip of the district a prime location for tourist accommodations. The Semiramis, le meridian, Sheraton and Hilton quickly took advantage of the opportunity to establish new business in the center of the world's oldest tourist destination and birth place of western civilization. The Hilton on Tahrir square was Nasser's attempt at attracting foreign currency, tourism and advertising an interest in capitalism. The hotel opened in February 1959 and "the modern form of the structure was the materialization of the modern social practices that it housed. The building rendered public certain aspects of Nasser's new Egypt. It monumentalized Egypt's ambition to acquire international political status through modernization" (Wharton. Cited in "facades of modernity by Mohamed el Shahed, 2005). The architecture of the hotel and its white façade is a twelve-story high blank billboard on Tahrir showcasing Nasser's vision for the city.

The Nile Hilton was a new façade associated with a new era' however, what was behind the façade was a familiar institution: a social space for the rich and powerful in Cairo akin to the old shepherd's hotel. The functional façade of the hotel with its equally sized room balconies and the exposed stairs, three on each side of the slab. Zigzagging up its side appears to be a new departure from the classical architecture of the museum next door or even the recently opened Mogamma. Although the building was a private enterprise accessible to a few, its symbolism on the site of the old barracks and its modern contemporary image was seen by all Egyptians who flood the square. The building thus as a double-edged tool for Nasser, signifying a degree of openness to the west marking a new beginning to locals with a clear architectural symbol, finally wradicating to ghost of British occupation on the site.

The Results of the First Turning Point

After the revolution was fully effected, the cosmopolitan ethnically non Egyptians population of downtown along 4000 wealthy Egyptian families began their exodus from the city. Nasser would officially rid the city of its outsiders residents and confiscate their property in the name of revolution. In the immediate months after the revolution, the once prestigious but now abandoned downtown flates, buildings and shops were quickly taken over by the government companies, revolutionary military personnel anf their families, a significant transformation in the socio-cultural make up of the district. (Beattie, cited in "facades of modernity by Mohamed el Shahed, 2005 Besides the shifting demographic of the area and the transformation of downtown roofs into squatter settelemnts for the poor, the core of downtown will be replaced by taller apartment blocks. The southern end of downtown around the ismailiyya suare is where dramatic Nasser era change will take place in this part of the city. (Facades of modernity, Mohamed el Shahed, 2005)

Another vision by Andre Raymond in his book Cairo which is not too far from Mohamed el Shahed's vision, where he stated that "The view of downtown as a distinctly different district from its surrounding has been dissolved and blurred as it deteriorated and its surroundings modernized in up-dated style. Most importantly, the previously European associated customs and behaviors have been so absorbed into the popular psyche of the Egyptian middle class which inhabits the city in all directions around downtown. Downtown no longer was the stage of certain behaviors or codes of dress, for better or worst, it has lost any signs of alienation and it has been fully integrated. Greater Cairo has lost its center, and in the coming decades as the city expands into the desert in government planned cities such as Nasr city, Cairo will be multi-center fragmented city with zones catering to three economically divided social groups: lower strata, intermediate strata of Cairo's social space. By the second half of the twentieth century downtown's density was slightly declining sa residents left it and it increasingly was becoming lower class. Cairo new modern, luxury quarters in the 1960s were diffused in Zamalek or Dokky while the primary streets of downtown falling into disrepair are more active then ever before with ordinary goods replacing luxury items in stores" (Andre Raymond. Cairo, Harvard university press 2000).

I. The Second Turning Point (Sadat 1970)

In the 1970s with Sadat's Infitah policy, downtown buildings witnessed their worst deterioration. By the mid-1970s development has ceased to exist in downtown for over thirty years with major catastrophic events such as Black Saturday and the migration of residents by 1956, the central district grew increasingly popular with bargain shoppers and professionals establishing more businesses in the upper floors of downtown buildings transforming the area into a fully commercial zone that is swarming with activity during the day and abandoned by night. Except for the occasional news about razing of belle époque buildings to be replaced by multi-level garage structures or high-rise office blocks, the area was for the greater part of the 70s, 80s and 90s forgotten by the general public. The recent revival of interest in the old central so-called-European district of downtown is due to a new phase of Cairene identity-making, the search for a counter balance to the present fragmented city with its multiple manifestations serving diverse social and economic segments of the population that do not share a city center.

The Results of the Second Turning Point

Downtown Cairo is contested space, between the rich and the poor, government agencies and private interests, pedestrians and motor traffic, streets vendors and shopkeepers and most importantly between promoters of visual rehabilitation and promoters of tactile rehabilitation. Downtown is thus in the middle of multi faceted conflict between competing interests all of whom aim at optimizing their advantages. The larger trend of commercial and economic decentralization that Cairo is witnessing has shifted the primary node of commercial activity to scattered points in the city. Downtown is also loosing its role as a cultural node for the city with the moving of the Egyptian museum. the American university in Cairo also left its urban campus in the contested space of downtown Cairo for a garden campus on the periphery. The American university expansion is another missed opportunity that could have transformed downtown Cairo into vibrant, expansive urban injecting money and resources into the center.
Downtown thus transformed from an urban space conveying aesthetic beauty to merely a domain for circulation. (Krampen, 1979. cited in "facades of modernity by Mohamed el Shahed, 2005) the belle époque facades of downtown were embellished with multi-story signs and billboards the respond to the scale of the speedway.

El Tahrir physical urban development

El Tahrir square as previously stated Witnessed several historical changes, it also witnessed a lot of urban changes, especially in the garden next to it. After the Egyptian Museum was built by August Mariette, the streets weren't paved and the ground was just made of dust. Then after it was paved, a Granite base was placed in the middle of the circular square and it was suppose to hold a statue for Ismail Pasha, where it was going to act as a major landmark in the center of Cairo. Another landmark was built in the late 60s which is a huge circular pedestrian bridge around the square, where it changed the perception to the urban space; this bridge was removed in the late 70s

The square itself was designed to be a huge round about, where the garden next to it was a recreational area where lots of people used it very well around the fountain and modern structures. What was so unique about this garden is that the urban space is not enclosed well, but in this huge space the garden gave the chance to let the user perceive all the surrounding buildings very well. And also environmentally it used to balance with the smoke coming from the traffic around it. A change of use occurred in the garden in the mid 80s where it turned into a huge parking lot for the tourists buses in front of the museum. Now days the government is working on changing this place to an underground parking and revive the garden again over the parking to revitalize this space one more time.

El Tahrir Life and People

I. The Relation between the Naming "Leberation" and the Behavior

El Tahrir square is known till now as the political square in Cairo, still demonstrations are held there, but the problem is that there is no place for demonstrations so its always a huge traffic jam especially that el Tahrir is one of the main traffic round about in Cairo and affects on other areas when it is crowded. But does the name still affect? And is it really where people go there to practice their liberty?

II. Billboards on over the Buildings

Billboards above the buildings surrounding the square, where it's the most expensive spot in Cairo. But the problem here is that these advertisements became more dominant then the buildings where the buildings are one of the most obvious features around the square because of their unique Architecture. So do el Tahrir's Users perceive the building or the billboard?

III. El Tahrir as a Cosmopolitan square

A very important feature which is the vitality of the space as in el Tahrir square contains a lot of functions and uses. This vitality results different users, where el Tahrir square contains all levels of people from every where and different cultures, where that's because of the Mogamma that serves Egyptians coming from other cities to finish their governmental papers. The museum and the Nile Hilton affects as well the vitality where the tourists and foreign people appear, and in a result of that lots of bazaars are opened to serve them. The American University where the neo liberalism community as stated in Diane Singerman "Cairo Cosmopolitan" where it's a mixed between Egyptians and foreign attitudes.
So will it still have these users after the moving of the Mogamma the museum and the university?

While doing a research in el Darb el Ahmar, we were able to sit with people and have a long chat and interviews, while in the Tahrir square, it was so hard because everyone is running and trying to catch something, but luckily one of the passers (Mr. Mahmud Hafez, a lawyer) gave me a minute to ask him "what do you think about el Tahrir Square now days and old ones??" and he answered: " it's beginning to be a pass by space, nobody's doing anything in the square itself, everybody is coming from Abd el Moneim square going to el Kasr el Einy street or from Zamalek to downtown… they are all passing by el Tahrir square… but it's not really because they want to come here… it doesn't belong to anyone…"


- - The case of Cairo, Egypt by David Sim Contribution by Marion Sejoume and Monika El Shorbagi
- - Center of the centers, el Ahram weekly, sept. 1999 issue 445
- - Streets and Midans by el Sayed Mohammed
- - Where the Streets Have No Name, Egypt today magazine, april 2005
- - The expanding Metropolis Copying with the Urban Growth of Cairo, Agha Khan conference
- - Cairo Cosmopolitan by Diane Singer man
- - Facades of modernity, Mohamed el Shahed, 2005
- - City of the Sand by Maria Golia 2004
- - Cairo by Andre Raymond 2000
- - 1001 years of city victorious by Janet abo Lughd 1971
- - Fatma Farrag,


  1. very well .. many thanx .. i believe now it will be re-vitalized.