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Another Golden Age for Downtown Cairo

Leah Walker, travel writer/blogger, travelled to Cairo, Egypt to witness the restoration of the downtown area


#thisisegypt

One mention of Cairo, Egypt, and I’m taken back sixteen years. Before Facebook and Instagram, I kept up with my globetrotting friend through the photos he periodically emailed. Working as a high school English teacher, I looked forward to reading his exotic exploits. I vividly remember one of his photos: with sunglasses, a half-smile and a red and white scarf around his head, he posed next to a camel draped in crimson and black blankets, with the Great Pyramid as the backdrop. Although cliché, this photo, along with his adventurous spirit, helped ignite a curiosity, one that led me to become a travel writer, an expat in Paris and ultimately, filming with CNN in Cairo.

Cairo,
we finally meet

As my driver deftly navigated downtown Cairo’s narrow side streets, I gripped the seat and made myself as small as possible, as if that would help us squeeze through. With my head on a swivel, I soaked up the sights, while the call for prayer and beeping of horns filled my ears. With eyes wide and pulse racing, this introduction to Cairo was a welcomed jolt to my senses, rivaled only by the strongest of Arabic coffees.

Thanks in part to history lessons, classic films starring Elizabeth Taylor and Harrison Ford, as well as books like 'Death on the Nile' and 'The English Patient', Cairo is a part of the collective consciousness. A city steeped in history, preconceived notions abound. But make no mistake; Cairo is more than an open-air museum and the stuff of postcards and popular culture. It’s a vibrant and dynamic city, with its historic downtown quarter undergoing a revival.

An auspicious
beginning

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.

Downtown Cairo's
rebirth

Restoring from the outside in is the strategy for revitalizing Cairo’s downtown quarter. Polish the existing edifices to their original glory, then transform the insides for modern commercial and residential purposes. Breathe life back into downtown with more cultural and arts offerings, making it again the place to be. Real estate investment company, Al Ismaelia, is an integral part of this movement dating to 2008.

Renew, rather than new, downtown Cairo is being injected with contemporary culture, while still respecting its historic roots. Beyond the buildings, this concept is also displayed in downtown’s art and music scenes. Mashrabeya Gallery, which dates to the 1970s, features works from young Egyptian artists. As an award-winning initiative known as Khotout West El-Balad, contemporary designers created new Arabic fonts for use in downtown’s signage. At Makan, the Mazaher ensemble keeps the powerful tradition of Zar music alive. Meanwhile at Zigzag, modern-day music pulsates at the hands of local DJs and bands.

Hotels are also following this mold. A fixture in downtown Cairo for decades, the renovation and 2015 reopening of the Nile Ritz-Carlton, Cairo transformed this iconic hotel into a luxury property. Keeping many of its historic components, such as the classic Alf Leila wa Leila Ballroom, the hotel is once again befitting of its prestigious location overlooking the Egyptian Museum, between the Nile and Talaat Harb Square.


Inaugurated in 1907, the original Semiramis Hotel was the first built on the Nile. For over half a century, this downtown Cairo hotel was the benchmark in hospitality, before making way for the Semiramis InterContinental in the 1980s. Home to Cairo’s first European-style nightclub, the grand, modern version of the Semiramis continues this musical tradition with live tunes from their popular Nile Terrace. From two international brand leaders in hospitality, both the Ritz-Carlton and InterContinental serve as luxurious and tranquil escapes in the heart of downtown Cairo.

In direct contrast is the Windsor Hotel. Dating to 1893, the Windsor was originally the baths for the Egyptian royal family and also served as a Colonial British officers’ club. Purchased in 1962 by an Egyptian family, the 55-room hotel is frozen in time. From the original phone system to Egypt’s oldest elevator, Wafik W. Doss and his 102-year old father have lovingly kept this part of downtown’s history alive and well.

Full-circle

Through the heart of downtown runs Talaat Harb, a shop-lined street named after the founder of Banque Misr, the first fully Egyptian-owned bank. Above the activity, I stood on a terrace overlooking Talaat Harb Square. As cars steadily funneled around Harb’s likeness, the French neoclassical buildings surrounding the square took on a golden glow. A poignant place, I felt humbled. In 2003, I was teaching Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, living vicariously through a friend’s Egyptian adventures. I’ve certainly evolved, and so has Cairo.

Perhaps I never laid eyes on the pyramids, but travel isn’t about ticking boxes. Instead, I witnessed a historic quarter on the verge of another golden age. I’ll certainly return to Cairo, and maybe on my next trip, I’ll get a photo in front of the Great Pyramid.