All images from Cairo Inside Out (AUC Press)
As I remember it now, the first day I landed in Egypt to take up the role of Director of AUC Press, I was whisked off in the evening to celebrate the launch of a new book. Heavily jet lagged, much of that event is lost to me, but I do remember my impressions of walking into a curious little café on the corner of two very busy streets.
The dark wood of the furniture and walls contrasted harshly with the light and color outside, but, even though the walls on two sides were framed only in glass, somehow the noise coming from the streets was deadened, providing a little sanctuary from the assault on my weary senses.
It was only later that I fully understood the significance of where I had been that night, for the corner café was the semi-legendary Café Riche. It was here that revolutionaries planned their participation in the 1919 revolution. It was here that Umm Kulthum had sung when the café was a club. It was here that Gamal Abdel Nasser had, allegedly, quietly discussed the overthrow of King Farouk. It was here that Naguib Mahfouz had held court, and the café itself had contributed color and characters to his Karnak Cafe.
Despite its story, Café Riche is a place which most tourists would not know or enter. It is somewhere only discovered when you live in this most enthralling and infuriating city for some time.
That there are such secret places in Cairo—known only to those who make their home here—is the central theme of a new book by author Trevor Naylor and photographer Doriana Dimitrova: Cairo Inside Out.
There are many such urban oases—spiritual, architectural, and actual—described by the author, and beautifully captured by the photographer, from which one can gaze out in a state of relative calm to the loud, dusty, noisy, and chaotic life outside.
One of those oases is the one I am sitting in as I write this column, the Tahrir Square campus of the American University in Cairo. The principal buildings of the campus are fine examples of neo-Islamic architecture, and, indeed, the centerpiece, the Khairy Pasha Palace, has faced the square for nearly 150 years.
The palace was constructed in the 1870s by Khedive Ismail as a home for his friend and education minister Ahmed Khairy Pasha. After Khairy’s death, the palace was briefly used as a cigarette factory, but became the Egyptian University in 1908 (and, in quick succession, the King Fouad and Cairo universities shortly afterwards), before becoming the American University in Cairo (AUC) in 1919—downtown land prices having dropped sharply during the revolution of that year.
Robert McClenahan, one of the first deans at AUC wrote of the palace building soon after the university moved into its Tahrir Square home “The colors, and especially the subdued lights make it, I believe, the most beautiful place in Cairo.”
I have two windows in my office, which, looking from the inside out from this beautiful place, sum up Cairo rather well for me. From one window, I look out across the multiple lines of traffic towards the imposing edifice of the Egyptian Museum—as an archaeologist, my Cairene spiritual home; and, from the other window, I look out upon that 1940s modernist monument to ubiquitous, glacial, and impenetrable bureaucracy, the Mogamma. Contrary to legend, the building has no connection to Soviet Russia (or with Nasser) but, in truth, as Trevor Naylor puts it eloquently in the book, it is, regardless, a building that is “best viewed from as far away as possible.”
There are so many restful places described here that it is hard to choose just a selection, but I cannot leave out another of my favorite open air places in the city, al-Azhar Park.
Although well-enough known to Cairenes, I have seldom seen many tourists there, but it is a remarkable place with equally remarkable views across to the Citadel.
Before 1992, the area was simply composed of the accumulated trash of five centuries from the city, but, through a fund of 30 million dollars donated by the Aga Khan IV, a total of 80,000 truckloads of material were removed, and sand and topsoil added.
The park opened to the public in 2005, and is a fine blend of landscaping and building utilizing modern and traditional concepts.
Though the view over to the Citadel is splendid, for me the finest part is the Ayubbid wall—part of the eastern city defenses begun under Salah al-Din (Saladin) between 1176 and 1183—which emerged from the excavation of the trash. It is an exceptionally well-preserved 1.5 kilometer, 15 meter high, stretch, which includes a three-storey defensive tower, Burg al-Mahruq, and an ancient city gateway, Bab al-Barqiyya.
Almost at the other end of Cairo’s history, Manial Palace, on Roda Island, seldom sees tourists either. It was built at the turn of the 20th century for Prince Mohammed Ali Tewfik (1875-1955), the uncle of King Farouk, and, although I am no great lover of palaces or stately homes, I find it one of the most charming of the city’s hidden places.
The style within the collection of buildings, built between 1899 and 1929, is, to say the least, eclectic—mixing European rococo and art nouveau with Ottoman, mamluk, moorish, and Persian traditions.
The young prince Tewfik—who for much of his life was the heir presumptive to Egypt and the Sudan—had attended school in Europe and traveled widely. Upon his return to Cairo, he acquired 6 hectares of banyan-covered garden, and at the age of 26, began the construction of an island retreat.
Most probably, Prince Tewfik always intended that the palace and gardens would become a museum—a place that ordinary people could go, if they could not afford to travel, to see fine art from the Islamic world. He hired some of the greatest architectural talents in Cairo of the day, including the Egyptian Mohamed Afifi, and the Italian Antonio Lasciac to design and furnish the various chambers, and Cairo’s prestigious Ilhami School of Craftwork contributed many important Egyptian works.
After the 1952 overthrow of the monarchy, the palace was confiscated by the state, and, somewhat sadly, Prince Tewfik left his magnificent creation on the banks of the Nile for exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1955. The playful palace buildings and exotic gardens are under the care of the Ministry of Antiquities, and a wonderful place for a picnic within sight of the city center.
Finally, as for real ‘oases’ in the city, there are good tips in Cairo Inside Out too, including the fact, which some of us have been keeping to ourselves for years, that one of the finest views of the Giza pyramids and Great Sphinx is to be found from the upper windows and roof of Pizza Hut.
Perhaps, though, I can be forgiven for ending by saying that, personally, I will still prefer the view and lunch at the Mena House bar on the other side of the plateau.
This article was previously published in Egypt Today.