Before being nationalized under President Nasser, the Sednaoui Khazindar department store held a special place in the hearts of generations of Cairenes. This is the story of the family that created that legacy.
Part I: THE FAMILY
There was a strange disruption in the store. A loud murmur among the salespeople. A scandal of some sort seemed about to break out in the elegant Sednaoui Khazindar department store. One of the salespeople runs to Mr. Sednaoui, ‘Samaan bey, we caught a thief!’ Apparently, a young lady had tried to hide a piece of fabric under her coat. The store’s proprietor promptly walked over to the culprit and found a young woman standing, scared, next to an older woman who appeared to be her mother. He guessed she was a poor bride-to-be who could not afford her trousseau. Sednaoui held the piece of fabric and looked at the nervous girl. ‘Are you a ‘arousa (bride-to-be)?’ ‘Yes’, she replied, avoiding eye contact. ‘You really like this fabric?’ ‘Yes, I was hoping to make a nice dress with it.’ ‘Well, here you go’, and he hands it over to her, ‘take it as a gift from ‘amek (your uncle) Sednaoui. You can also pick one more item for your trousseau from each department, on me, as a wedding gift.’
It was gestures such as these, along with great business acumen, that helped create the Sednaoui name.
More than half a century earlier, in 1878 to be specific, Samaan had ﬂed the small Greek-Catholic village of Sednaya (meaning ‘Our Lady’ in Syriac, an eastern dialect of Aramaic, still spoken there to this day) to Egypt to escape the persecution of Christians in Ottoman Syria. As a salesman in Cairo, Samaan was particularly talented, and soon started his own business, inviting his brother Selim, a tailor by profession, to join him. At first, Selim opened a dressmaking studio with a friend named Mitri Salhani, but the unlucky pair were soon out of business when their shop caught fire and burned to the ground. Samaan consoled his devastated brother and suggested that he join him in setting up a store by the name of ‘Selim and Samaan Sednaoui’ in the Hamzawy district. This small haberdashery store would be the beginning of the Sednaoui business empire.
At their Hamzawy store, sales started slow until one day, a group of ladies-in-waiting from the khedivial court came to shop; without realizing, they overpaid for their purchases and left the store. Weeks later, one of the ladies returned to the shop and immediately found the shop owner running over to her – he’d come as soon as he’d seen her to return her money. The woman, impressed with the Levantine man’s honesty ensured that everyone she met heard this story. Quickly, the name Sednaoui became synonymous with quality and reliability so that many women would not buy goods from the dalalat (female peddlers) unless they were wrapped in paper labeled ‘Sednaoui’.
The workaholic brothers finally inaugurated the Grand Sednaoui department store on Khazindar Square on 2 November 1913. The building, designed by architect George Parq and inspired by Gallerie Lafayette and Printemps in Paris, was the family’s magnum opus. The goods on sale were no less impressive than the building; the fashions and the merchandise were at the highest end of the market, second only to the very posh Cicurel. Soon, their store had branches in Alexandria, Mansoura, Tanta, Fayoum and Assiut, with a shipping company based between Paris and Manchester.
Selim died young in 1908, leaving his son, Elias (Elie), to take his place. The store management was divided between Samaan and his sons Georges and Youssef, along with Elias, so that one was in charge of the ready-made clothes department, another in charge of textiles, furniture, and so on. The family’s business reached its peak during World War II. Business was good as foreign soldiers crossed through Egypt and spent money everywhere. Business continued to prosper steadily until everything came to a screeching halt in 1961.
After Egypt’s 1952 coup d’état, President Nasser’s policies scared many foreigners, and indeed, many foreign businesses were sequestrated. Department stores were particular targets, being mostly owned by Jews in an environment of rising tension and political Zionism. The Sednaouis however, being Greek Catholic, were not too worried about their business, and did not expect to be affected by nationalization.
Perhaps they were saved from the wave of antagonism against Egyptian Jews, but they were still Syrian, and that wasn’t a popular nationality at the time either. The union between Egypt and Syria, which brought them together as ‘The United Arab Republic’ had fallen apart. The dissatisfied Syrians staged a coup d’état in Damascus and unceremoniously ended the whole affair. Syrians had definitely fallen out of favour in Egypt for the time being.
It was a sunny morning in 1961 when the Sednaouis discovered that their time was up. Elias Sednaoui was sitting in his Garden City villa’s balcony sipping his morning coffee before work, recalls his son Selim (who was a young man at the time, also working for the family businesses). As he opened the newspaper, his blood must have run cold. The government had nationalized 700 private properties and businesses. Their cousin Georges then rang to say that their name was among the nationalized companies, and they had to quickly run to the store at Khazindar Square. They arrived to find it surrounded by army officers and government representatives, who calmly told them that they were the new owners and would select a new store manager. The Sednaoui family members stood in the middle of Khazindar Square completely aghast, their only consolation being that Samaan Sednaoui was gone and did not live to see this fateful day.
The board of directors at the Sednaoui company was promptly dissolved, replaced, and business ran ‘as usual’. In actual fact, nothing was ever the same again. Not even close. As writer Samir Raafat put it in his 1997 article, ‘the age of drab counters and khaki-coloured cooperatives was about to begin’.
Suddenly, the Sednaouis, who had become Egyptian by this time (they carried no other passport) were vilified by the press along with the rest of Egypt’s business community. It was as if they had made their money overnight and no one remembered their struggles anymore. The family eventually left Egypt one by one. Elias left for Switzerland to undergo medical treatment, his son Selim to Germany to study music. Georges and Youssef, Samaan’s sons, left for Beirut.
Today, the Sednaouis are scattered across the globe. Selim Jr., a pianist and music critic, lives between Paris and Cairo, and is working on preserving his family’s name and legacy (he has passed away since this article was first published). Other Sednaouis have risen to international fame, such as the Paris-based photographer/director Stéphane Sednaoui, and fashion model and philanthropist Elisa Sednaoui.
As for the legacy created by the family, one can say that it has survived in spite of all the blows it has been dealt. The Sednaoui name remains on the signs of department stores and hospitals all over Egypt, something that brings bittersweet feelings to the hearts of Sednaouis visiting Egypt today.
PART II: THE KHAZINDAR DEPARTMENT STORE
It is hard to speak about the Sednaoui Khazindar Department Store or Khazindar Square without shedding some light on the historic, cultural, geographic, economic and social factors that have woven, affected, shaped and developed the site through time up to the present day.
The Cadastral map of Cairo, created by the French Napoleonic expedition in 1798 and documented in Description de l’Egypte, shows that in the late eighteenth century the Ezbekiyya area was nothing but a huge body of water known as the Ezbekiyya Lake. Napoleon’s hundred savants, led by Monge and Denon, established themselves on the banks of the Ezbekiyya Lake, while Napoleon himself took over a palace with excellent vineyards, which had been owned by the Mameluke Mohamed Bey el-Alfi on the site that would later host the Shepheard’s Hotel.
In 1837, the Wali ordered the Ezbekiyya Lake to be drained and transformed into Ezbekiyya Park. At this time, the architectural fabric around the park remained largely Islamic, even with the blossoming presence of the European communities. There, L’Hotel d’Orient hosted Ferdinand de Lesseps and his team working on the Suez Canal project; the famous Hotel Bristol would be constructed later on its grounds at Khazindar Square. The British Hotel at Wassa Street is another example of growing European presence.
Ezbekiyya Gardens, as it was known in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to the north of Opera and Ataba squares, was laid out in the 1870s by the former chief gardener of Paris, M. Barillet, forming a twenty-acre French-style symmetrical park. Khazindar Square was then called Place de la Bourse, or al-Bawaki (meaning the arcades), after the old stock exchange building facing the square; this helped to brand the area as a commercial district for centuries to follow. From 1863 to 1877, Ismail’s master plan was applied, in which Western urban and architectural styles were transferred without consideration for the existing Islamic urban vernacular. The new Italianate Neo-Baroque was soon to clash violently with the monumental buildings of the Mamelukes and Ottomans, mouldings and Italian-style stonework, with their traditional yellow stucco, replacing elegant carved doorways. The prevalence of European architecture increased dramatically around the park and in the entire area, washing away the traditional fabric and making way for the newly planned Ismailia Quarter in Downtown Cairo. With the increase of European inﬂuence, a European-style landscape – including wide avenues starting and ending in squares or piazzas probably with a statue of an important figure in the centre – was introduced, such as Opera Square, where the statue of Ibrahim Pasha, erected by Charles Cordier in 1872, still stands as testament to the belle époque. There is also Place de la Bourse (later Khazindar Square) and al-Ataba al-Khadra Square. New buildings were also designed to fulfill the needs of the European community, such as the Opera House, the post office, the different European hotels, theatres, etc, many of which were completely alien in function, design and size to the locals.
Inaugurated by the Sednaouis in November 1913, the Khazindar department store was nationalized in July 1961, along with the rest of the branches and almost all of Egypt’s major department stores. Mr. Elias Sednaoui, the then-director, was given an indefinite leave of absence. For decades to follow, the urban and architectural patterns of the area, in addition to other socio-economic factors, gradually succumbed to change.
The current decline of urban conditions and the site’s deteriorating social and economic levels were the trigger for the Holding Company for Tourism, Hotels and Cinema and the National Organization for Urban Harmony to team up in 2010
in an attempt to return the Sednaoui Khazindar department store and Khazindar Square to their former glamour. Together, they announced a competition to reuse the building as a cultural commercial centre, and to consider the urban harmony of the square and its surrounding context. The study of the area’s current situation revealed three main problems: the cluster of street vendors, traffic congestion, including the lack of parking, and the building’s deteriorating physical condition.
ON THE WINNING PROPOSAL
Following the competition to rehabilitate Sednaoui Khazindar Department Store and Khazindar Square, the first prize went to May El Tabbakh Architects, in collaboration with Dr. Ebtissam Farid and her team from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Alexandria University. An underground parking lot has been designed to clear the site for human activities and to achieve order at street level. Pedestrian and public transport facilities will also be introduced. Inspired by the Viaduc des Arts in Paris and the historical branding of the site as ‘al-Bawaki’, a new set of arcades has been proposed to house the street vendors and to provide a roofed promenade for shoppers. The additions to the original fabric at the rear of the Sednaoui building will be revamped to house a cinema complex. On the external level, building height and façade order will be respected using modern building materials.
The authenticity of the building, with regard to its façade design, the inner steel atrium, and all timber joinery, will be salvaged. The roof will be used for environmental and social purposes. In addition, the roof of the adjacent historic building (another neglected listed building) will be turned into an open-air restaurant. The two historic, massive and static buildings will be linked with a modern, light and dynamic pathway. A number of museums and cultural areas have also been proposed, both inside and outside the building to help communicate the history of the site. Finally, a piazza will be created, replacing the square, to invite people to come together and share their cultural experiences.
Unfortunately, this ambitious project has now been suspended, waiting to be re-adopted by the ministry of investment, the building’s new owner. The new Sednaoui may have to wait a little longer.
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Yasmine El Dorghamy holds an MA in international education policy from Stockholm University and works in the field of education. She also publishes RAWI Egypt’s Heritage Review and is currently conducting research on traditional Egyptian jewellery and amulets in addition to researching the history of art writing/critiquing in Egypt.
May El Tabbakh May El Tabbakh, principal architect at May El Tabbakh Architects obtained her MSc in Sustainable Heritage from the Bartlett, UCL. Her professional experience as conservation architect in Egypt and in the UK granted her the credentials to participate in international meetings, such as the UNESCO expert meeting on the Urban and Architectural Heritage in the Arab World. She won First Prize in the international competition ‘The Rehabilitation of Sednaoui al-Khazindar Department Store’.