Abandoning the van in favor of foot, I set out with the CNN crew to scout downtown filming locations. We darted in and out of the Nekhaily, Borsa and Behlar passageways, making our way through neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings, some of which were vacant. Despite our haste, I could see the beautiful bones—what the quarter was and what it could be again. The Arabic signs reminded me that I was in a completely foreign place, but the detailed stone edifices, intricate iron staircases and ornate lamps felt familiar.
For centuries, the area that is now downtown Cairo was annually submerged by the overflowing Nile. However, the metamorphosis of downtown Cairo from swampland to cosmopolitan quarter came during the mid-1800s, with the help of Baron Haussmann, the famed city planner who also transformed Paris. Indeed, downtown Cairo is reminiscent of my adopted hometown, with its wide boulevards, squares, passageways, public parks, roundabouts and Belle Époque architecture.
During its heyday in the early 20th century, elegant and educated Egyptians and Europeans called downtown home. Peppered with chic cafes, stylish department stores and ritzy restaurants, downtown was the place to be for artists, intellectuals and aristocrats. Until it wasn’t. After the Free Officers Revolution in 1952, which helped establish Egypt as a republic, the government began taking over or tearing down buildings. Following the 2011 revolution, downtown Cairo again began to morph.