A walk through the history of a square that made history.
Two hundred years ago, anyone strolling around Tahrir (Liberation) Square would probably have become quite bored and really rather annoyed with all the mud and mosquitoes. Prince Qawsoon’s pen, as it was called at the time (“zereebet Qawsson” after a Mameluke prince), was quite unremarkable. After all, it was merely a space of dried-up earth, left after the Nile had receded to the east, only used for growing corn and raising horses. What was to become prime real estate a few decades later was not of the slightest interest to Mohamed Ali Pasha in the early 1800s. He did not pay attention to it apart from building his daughter Nazli a palace (kasr) on the Nile there. Kasr al-Nil was indeed a beauty, although its lady was one bizarre character. But that’s another story.
The muddy earth was soon drained and levelled by Ibrahim Pasha, but still remained largely unused. Said Pasha later bought Kasr al-Nil from Nazli and demolished it to build a barracks and a smaller palace. Much like the rest of this part of Cairo, it wasn’t until Khedive Ismail visited the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867 that things started to become more interesting and the era of Cairo’s Belle Époque architecture began, just a little north of Tahrir Square, at the Ezbekkeyya. An opera house, surrounded by large squares, wide boulevards, and buildings and palaces of art nouveau, neo-Islamic, neoclassical, and neo-baroque style glittered at the nucleus of Ismail’s ‘Paris on the Nile’. As for the land of Prince Qawsoon, further south, there was little development apart from another palace built around 1871. Ismailia Palace, as it would be known, was built roughly on the spot where the monolithic Mogama’ complex is right now, on the southern side of the square. Slowly, the area that would become one of the world’s most famous squares began to take shape.
The 1870s – Midan al-Kobri
The story of this square really began with a bridge. In 1872, a ten-metre-wide steel bridge was constructed to connect al-Gezira (the island of Zamalek), to the expanding Ismailia quarter. On the eastern side of the square, an Islamic-style palace belonging to Ahmed Khairy Pasha (Minister of Education during Khedive Ismail’s reign) stood across from Ismailia Palace, while a little Nile-side mosque, which had been built to bury a Sheikh Mohamed al-‘Abit, was enveloped by the Ismailia palace gardens when they were expanded to the river bank.
In 1881, the bridge received a gift that would make it one of the city’s most significant landmarks. Four lions, made by French sculptor Henri Jacquemart, were brought from Alexandria and placed in pairs at each end of the bridge. Four slimmer versions were supposed to guard Mohamed Ali Pasha’s statue in the Mediterranean port city, but no such luck. Yet, only a year after these lions had been put in place, the occupying British army took over the barracks of Kasr al-Nil and created a great deal of tension that would taint the square for decades to come.
The 1880s – Midan Kasr al-Nil
Cairo’s memory lives largely in the names of its streets and squares. Although by 1856 Nazli’s original Kasr al-Nil Palace had been destroyed and replaced with a barracks, the name survived and still does to this day. A new name was bestowed on the square in not long after the bridge’s construction: it became Kasr al-Nil Square.
The 1890s – Midan al-Ismailia
The new city of Ismail, designed by the Haussman-inﬂuenced Pierre Grand Bek and executed by Ali Pasha Mubarak (Egyptian minister of public works), started taking shape by the late nineteenth century, and the square was renamed again – this time to Ismailia Square. Some of Egypt’s most prominent personalities went to live nearby, most notably feminist Hoda Shaarawi, who built a lovely Andalusian-style villa.
Not far east, the Neo-Islamic Palace of Ahmed Pasha Khairy was purchased by Greek cigarette magnate Nestor Gianaclis, and turned (mostly) into a cigarette factory. Slovenian architect Antonio Lasiac had also built a beautiful palace for Princess Nematallah (sister of Khedive Abbass Hilmi II), while further north, by the Nile, was the neo-Gothic villa of minister Ya’akoub Bey Cattaoui (later to be purchased by the famed literary salon doyenne, Qut al-Qulub al-Demirdasheya)
The 1930s – Midan al-Khedive Ismail
Before the close of the nineteenth century, Khedive Abbas Hilmi II broke ground for a new museum at the square under the directorship of Egyptologist Auguste Mariette. The museum, built by French architect Marcel Dourgnon, was inaugurated in 1902. Although the name Ismailia Square remained in use for a longer time, in 1933 King Fuad changed the square’s name to Khedive Ismail Square, after his father. By then, Nestor Gianaclis had left his palace. The Egyptian University (later to become Cairo University) settled there for a short period, and ultimately the American University in Cairo (AUC) took over the building in 1920 and maintains offices there to this day, thus making the AUC building the oldest structure remaining on the square.
Towards the end of King Fuad’s reign, a roundabout with a garden was built at the centre of the square. Later, during Farouk’s reign, a pedestal was placed at its centre, with the intention of placing a statue of Khedive Ismail upon it. This statue was commissioned, but it was never put in place. The fate of Khedive Ismail’s statue has always been a mystery. Historian Max Karkegi recalls seeing photographs of the unfinished statue, in the atelier of sculptor Mahmoud al-Wakil (brother of Zeinab al-Wakil, prime minister Nahhas’s wife). The photos, shown to him by the sculptor’s widow, were of the disassembled parts of a large bronze statue of Khedive Ismail on a horse. This indicates that it was perhaps meant to look like Ibrahim Pacha’s statue at Opera Square and Mohamed Ali’s statue in Alexandria. Al-Wakil’s widow also mentioned that the atelier was in Cairo (as opposed to Paris, where many of Cairo’s statues were made), and added that the project financially ruined her husband.
Work on the statue ceased after the 1952 coup d’état, and al-Wakil, who had almost fnished his large bronze oeuvre, was never paid. Another statue of Khedive Ismail wielding a sword, said to be stored at some government warehouse (though its location remains a mystery), is also believed to be the one intended for the pedestal.
It is said that decades after the pedestal was installed, after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, a plan was hatched to erect a statue of the late president upon it, but again the plan never materialized. The pedestal was eventually removed in 1987 for the construction of the metro line and it has vanished ever since.
The 1950s – Midan al-Horreya/Tahrir
Mass protests became a feature of the square as it grew in significance over the decades. One of the most notable demonstrations was in 1951 against British occupation. The British army barracks of Kasr al-Nil were demolished eventually and the square was renamed Horreya (Liberty) in 1952, then renamed al-Tahrir (Liberation) in 1953. By then, Ismailia Palace was long gone and the enormous Mogama’ was built in its place, designed by architect Kamal Ismail. The mosque of Sheikh Mohamed al-‘Abit, within the garden of Ismailia palace, was demolished in 1954 and replaced with the Omar Makram mosque, built by Italian architect Mario Rossi in the same location. Princess Nematallah’s palace became the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hoda Shaarawi’s villa was destroyed and became a parking lot at the entrance to Champollion Street, and the neo-Gothic villa of Qut al-Qulub al-Demirdasheya was demolished to make way for a ramp connecting Garden City to Kasr al-Nil bridge.
The 1980s – Today – Midan Anwar al-Sadat?
President Anwar al-Sadat’s assassination in 1981 sent shockwaves across Egypt. To honour the late president, Cairo’s biggest and most significant square was named after him. Yet, thirty years later, the name remains unused and is completely unfamiliar to Egyptians.
The events brought about by the 25th of January revolution catapulted Tahrir Square to international fame. The square was on live feeds of news channels across the globe for weeks. Regardless of how events unfolded after the toppling of the Mubarak regime, the square has now become one of the most famous in the world. Maybe this time the name will stick.
The streets of Garden City have some peculiar names. Whether it is the Archery Arena, the Sugar Refinery, or the Milk Pool, every street was given its name for a reason, and each name has a story, sometimes centuries old.
Cairo’s al-Hilmiyyah neighbourhood has been shaped by extravagant palaces and powerful personalities, which,
although now long gone, still find their echo in the area’s modern street names. None, however, made as
strong an impact as Abbas Pasha’s al-Hilmiyyah Palace.
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.
Yasmine El Dorghamy holds an MA in international education policy from Stockholm University and manages an educational foundation in addition to teaching visual culture at the American University in Cairo. She also publishes RAWI - Egypt’s Heritage Review, a bilingual (Eng/Ar) publication dedicated to Egyptian history and heritage.