Among the many fascinating districts of Cairo is that of Bab al-Sha’ria. Once home to the city’s elite, it soon became home to a bustling community of craftsmen, traders and entertainers. Not only was it a hub for a diversity of trades, it was also a melting pot for people of many ethnicities.
I was born and bred in Cairo. While I visited many other cities, I always felt that ‘my city’ was unique and different from all the others. I started thinking about the reasons behind this difference. Is it the antiquity? Is it the buildings? Or maybe the people? The way of life perhaps? Or just my love for it? I started researching and reading old books to learn about the history of the districts of Cairo.
I began to visit them, and study more about each district, in an attempt to tie the past to the present, and … to tie both to the stories I heard from parents, grandparents, relatives and friends. And I came to have a series of stories about Cairo – each one specific to a particular district.
This is a brief story about Bab al-Sha’ria, one of the oldest districts of Cairo. The name Bab al-Sha’ria – according to al-Maqrizi – goes back to a sect of Berbers, known as Banu Al Sha’aria (sons of Sha’aria). Part of the district lies within the walls of Fatamid Cairo, and part of it lies beyond them.
The Egyptian Gulf used to run through Bab al-Sha’ria from the south to the north. Today it has been replaced by Port Said Street. The district was divided into two areas: the eastern area, adjacent to al-Gamaliyyah district, bordered by al-Husseiniyyah Street to the east; and the western area, adjacent to the districts of al-Mosky and al-Fagala.
The eastern area is not separated from the rest of Bab al-Sha’ria. When Cairo was built, a bridge was erected on the Gulf – where Bab al-Sha’ria Square stands today. From there, one could reach al-Maqsy Port, and one of the Old Cairo gates, known as Bab al-Qantara. In the early days ships passed under the bridge, but in the time of al-Maqrizi, the waters of the Gulf rose so high that ships could no longer pass.
Approximately where al-Daher police station stands today, another bridge was built, called Qantarat Bab al-Sha’ria, on the same level as Bab al-Fetouh, opening up passage to Ard al-Tabala in the north-west. During Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, this bridge was marked on the military maps as Qanater al-Kharouby. The existence of Bab al-Qantara and Bab al-Fetouh, and the bridges across the gulf, made it possible for Cairo to grow and spread outside the city walls to the west and to the north.
Time passed. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the French engineer Pascal Coste designed grand houses with spectacular views on the Egyptian Gulf. During the Ottoman period and at the time of the French campaign, some of the Mameluke princes owned these homes. The elites of society lived overlooking the Gulf or al-Ratly Lake, while the general public lived in the surrounding streets and alleys, closed off from the elite compounds at night. Many prominent families resided in Bab al-Sha’ria until the turn of the twentieth century, including the al-Arousy family, the Sheikh al- Kouisny family and the families of al-Hariry and al-Shoubry.
A large portion of Bab al-Sha’ria lay outside the city walls, housing many trades and crafts harmful to the environment. Bakeries, iron-mongers, slaughter houses, butcheries, and other industries that emit fumes and distasteful smells, as well as granaries, fruit markets, and industries requiring large lots of land; all were located outside the walls of the city of Cairo.
Bab al-Sha’ria has always been one of the most congested districts in Cairo, but compared to how it is today with not an inch to spare, the residents of Bab al-Sha’ria at the beginning of the twentieth century were spread out comfortably. The district is one of the poorest in Cairo, and up until the 1940s, when electricity was installed, lights in the alleys were lit daily by a man carrying a flaming torch, dubbed by the residents as ‘the spirit of the night’. Though it is a relatively small district, it is a beehive of activity serving the areas surrounding it. And apart from the large houses that lined the shores of the Gulf and the lakes, Bab al-Sha’ria has always been a hub for workmen. It is the district that never sleeps.
Currently it is split into three very similar areas: the eastern area, closest to al-Gamaliyyah – especially after al-Gaish Street was built, Port Said Street was widened and the Gulf was filled in; the north-eastern area, close to al-Daher; and al-Abbasiyyah, where you find schools, missions, hospitals, clinics and cinemas. The Ratly, Towaba and Hajeb Lakes have disappeared, but their names remain on the streets. As for the heart of Bab al-Sha’ria – the ‘beehive’ – it is a triangle, spreading from Bab al-Sha’ria Square to the east in the direction of Azbakiyyah and Mosky. Inter-tangling with the surrounding districts, the streets of the ‘beehive’ run right through them.
The Cooks and Butchers of Bab al-Sha’ria
Though the district of Bab al-Sha’ria is one of the smallest in Cairo, it has one of the highest populations. Past and present, the district has derived its strength from its residents: workmen of various different and interconnected crafts.
Many butcheries were located at Bab al-Sha’ria, outside the walls of Cairo, and butchers were a prominent segment of society there. The Friday Market was held at al-Husseiniyyah to sell livestock – cows, sheep and camels – and there was a daily slaughter market from afternoon until sunset. An off-shoot of the butchers were the cooks. In the first half of the twentieth century the number of cooks was estimated at three thousand. The cooks had their own coffee shops: On one side of the street, a café called ‘Senior’, and on the opposite side of the street, another café. Connected to the cooks were the makers of sweet delicacies, who still work there today – known for making sugar dolls for the girls and sugar horses for the boys during the Moulid al-Nabi festival.
The Baths and Bathers
Then there were the bathers. In one narrow alley of Bab al-Sha’ria there were three public baths, serving the residents of the district and surrounding areas. One of these baths – Bab al-Bahr bath – still exists today, but it has lost its historical touch; water is now heated using gas cylinders, the floors are plastic and ceramic and the baths are fitted with modern amenities.
Al-Kharateen bath has disappeared and, in its place, there is now a vegetable market. Al-Tanbaly bath, designed by the architect Pascal Coste in the nineteenth century, was handed over to the Supreme Council of Antiquities. It was subsequently closed down, much to the chagrin of the residents of the district, since the bath created a buzz of commercial activity around it. Food and coffee shops were constantly sending out orders to the bathers all day and night.
The baths had a very positive role in the life of the district. They ensured that people were clean and free from disease and rheumatic pains. The garbage of the entire district was burned in the burners of the baths, which meant the roads were clean. And what came out of the burning process was used to make material for building houses. Large pots of foul were also heated on the burners and distributed to all the shops of Cairo, ensuring a constant source of income.
Streets and Places of Special Interest
The Mosque of Sheikh Sha’arany contains the mausoleum of Sidi Abdel Wahab al-Sha’arany (no relation to the name of the district). The mosque was built by one of the Burji Mameluke princes, but the prince was not buried there, and the body of Sheikh Sha’arany was moved there. The lineage of Sheikh Sha’arany goes back to Mohamed Bin Ali Ibn Abi Taleb. The sheikh was born in 1492 in Kalkashanda, his mother’s village in the Egyptian governorate of Qalyoubia, but she moved with him to Saqiet Abi Sha’ara village in the governorate of Menoufia whence he got his name.
Darb al-Bayazra (the origin of the word ‘bazaar’) is one of the old alleys, mentioned by al-Maqrizi who wrote that it was originally an alley planned outside the city walls of Cairo. Al-Gaish Street (formerly known as Prince Farouk Street) was built in 1926, starting from al-Attaba al-Khadra Square, passing through Bab al-Sha’ria Square and reaching al-Husseiniyyah district and Abdou Pasha Square in Abbassiyyah (in the Waily district).
Some streets bear historical names, including Bustan Ibn Sayram, Sangar al-Saroury, Keshtamar, Qantarat al-Hajeb, al-Bikria, and Bab al-Bahr. Some of the very old names which remain are Souk al-Zalat, Souk al-Bakar, al-Beer al-Helwa, Shak al-Arsa, Darb al-Mahkama (meaning courthouse alley – although there is no courthouse standing).
With the passing of time, surrounded by the poverty of the district and new residential areas, with wider streets, compatible neighbours, running water and electricity, the financially capable and the owners of the few big houses left the district. These families sold their properties after the land increased in price. New multi-storey buildings appeared, and the prices of flats soared.
Time has taken its toll on the poorer houses. The earthquake of 1992 caused severe cracks and foundation damage. The residents have been moved to areas such as al-Salam City, al-Doweqa and other peripheral areas of Cairo.
The district is now considered a transit area. People come from southern Egypt or rural areas to find work, and once they become rich, they move on. In the past there were many foreign communities in the district: Greeks, Italians and Armenians, who lived in the district and worked in neighbouring ones; and a Jewish community, whose residents worked as gold merchants. When the foreigners left, new immigrants arrived, bought their shops and took over their homes.
Today, Bab al-Sha’ria still plays its historic role: serving the districts around it, welcoming immigrants to Cairo and teaching them to live in the city before they go on their way to other districts. The secret of its beauty lies in the warmth of its residents.
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Hoda El Kolaly is the managing director of Cairo City Key and has published the first detailed guidebook of maps of Greater Cairo in Arabic and English. She has also prepared five illustrated books on the Cairo districts of Bab al-Sha’reya, Ezbekkeyya, Moski, Sayeda Zeinab and Kasr al-Nil and is currently working on Abdeen and Boulaq. She holds a BSc from the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University.