A field, some arches, and two villas

I love aerial photos, especially from the past, and always try to see how many landmarks I can spot. Oftentimes these aren't buildings that others would consider important, but they have some kind of value to me: an old apartment building, a park, or a place where I like to walk. In Cairo's case, I'm especially interested in placing these landmarks within past contexts. I love looking at how a neighborhood where I visit, have lived, or frequent with friends was once an farm or occupied by a palace where now there is a shopping mall (I'm thinking here about Bostan Mall). I think this comes from the same instinct as looking out of an airplane window and following along with the in-flight map or going up a high building and trying to spot things from a different angle. But for me, as a person who loves the past, it's also about connecting with spaces. While we can't share the same time as those we study or read about, we can share the same physical space. Some of these spaces are supercharged with the past, both personally and historically. There's something eery and off-putting about walking into a room where some strong personal memory occurred and remembering the action of the space. It's the same sensation that comes with running your hand down the bannister of a stairwell and knowing that other people previously have done the same, especially when we know their identities or they are of some kind of significance. I think this attachment to attempting to occupy spaces of some historical or past value is why people often leave unchanged the rooms of a deceased person or why we work so hard to conserve heritage sites. Sometimes these sites are not physically built up as such. Instead, they are simply spaces. A place in which the action of an event occurred. Battlefields are a good example of this, but so are any publicly shared space. These are the places that we mark with an "on this spot..." sign. All of this is to say, I think a lot about spaces, how we occupy them now and in the past, and that an aerial photograph, a map, or an old photo distracts me for hours.


The photo that brought about a recent mental side-trip was of present-day, central Cairo in 1904. In it, nearly the entirety of the island of Gazirah and Zamalek are present. Bulaq is viewable from the Imbaba Bridge in the north to the former train tracks just above Egyptian Museum in the south. A little glimpse of modern-day Tahrir Square shows us the British military's barracks and the Egyptian Museum; at the very bottom of the barracks the Qasr al-Nil Bridge crosses the river from present-day Tahrir Square to Gazirah.

The photo in question, with added landmark names by me. A view of the river, Bulaq, Gazirah, and Tahrir Square from a balloon in 1904 by Swiss photographer Eduard Spelterini.

Looking at the photo, many landmarks are visible and easy to identify. Some of the key ones I have marked in the photo above. But when I zoomed in and started moving around the photo, there were three sites/buildings that I didn't know, which stood out, and which I thought might be important.

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A

An open field area that appears to be a park or construction site in Zamalek.

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B

A long arcaded structure that appeared, and perhaps still does to me, to be an aqueduct in Bulaq.

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C

Two villas or other structures  behind the Egyptian Museum.


After editing the photo to highlight the areas in question, I sent out the following tweet.

The first consequence of the tweet was shock at how much interest it raised. It's fun to know that many people, and especially those with whom I'm connected, love looking at old photos and identifying things like I  do. Then poured in the responses, questions, resource sharing, and cooperation that has led to the three sites being nearly fully identified. Along the way, however, I learned a lot of new information about places I knew nothing about. What follows, then, is that process. The labelling of the sites was maintained to match my original tweet. I'm discussing them in the following order (C, A, B), because this was the order in which they were "discovered."

Site C: Two Villas

One of the primary ways in which we (since this was a collaborative effort on the part of many) identified the unidentified sites was by looking through old maps of the city. We had to get as close to 1904 as possible. Going too early, the buildings would be missing; and because of rapid construction at the turn of the 20th century, going too late meant the sites may also have been transformed. The one site that both received the most immediate attention and which was most quickly resolved was Site C: the two buildings to the rear of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. With the immediate help of AUC's Rare Books Twitter team (I'd love to know who runs their account so superbly), we were able to get a first grasp on the identity of the buildings. 

This map is superb. One of its great assets is that it has topographical features. If someone is working on GIS mapping of 20th-century Cairo, this would be a great map to use. Secondly, it is the last map that I know of before the rapid changes that occurred in the urban landscape during the following decades. It is very easy to read and a lot of interesting buildings are present. One of the highlights for me was finding the Tomb of Awlad Ṭabataba, which is the last surviving Ikhshidid Monument in Cairo. Back to the Egyptian Museum, the buildings in the photo are clearly present.

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Unfortunately, while the buildings are present, they remain unmarked. This is the last map that I could find with them. So, as suggested in the tweet above, they were probably torn down in the process of building the 6th of October Bridge and the reorganization of 'Abd al-Muna'am Riyad Square; the loss of the All Saints Cathedral (now a bus stop and flyover) dates to that same time. If someone has an exact date, I'd love to know. This map, however, does not settle the issue of what the buildings were but only confirms their existence in 1958, almost exactly a half of a century after the Spelterini photograph of 1904. It took going through several other maps to find a label. 

Confounding the situation, this map from the Tanzim Department (1904) does not show the buildings. NY Public Library. Link

Again unmarked on this map: 1920 General Map of Cairo, Egyptian Survey Authority (مصلحة المساحة). Library of Congress. Link

These two maps, just a selection of the ones which were shared or that I looked at, either do not have the buildings at all or they remain unlabelled. The map on the left from the 1904 Tanzim (Planning) Department map, leaves them off. This map was based on a  1903 department report. As the buildings are missing in 1903 when the report was made but present in 1904  when the buildings are visible in Spelterini's photograph, I'm guessing they were built around that year. But what were they? A tweet and another map yielded the answer.

 Here they are marked as the Egyptian Antiquities Authority (مصلحة الآار المصرية). Map of the Muhammadan Monuments, 1948, Egyptian Survey Authority. Rare Books and Special Collections, AUC Library.   Link  . 

Here they are marked as the Egyptian Antiquities Authority (مصلحة الآار المصرية). Map of the Muhammadan Monuments, 1948, Egyptian Survey Authority. Rare Books and Special Collections, AUC Library. Link

Based on these two maps, it looks that the two buildings were part of the directorate of the museum and the Antiquities Ministry. The 1915 Cairo Town Series Map, shared by Neil Ketchley and currently being digitized as part of a GIS, clearly labels "Director's House." While the 1948 Muhammadan Monuments Map marks the buildings as the Egyptian Antiquities Authority. Perhaps the director no longer lived on the premises of the museum by 1948 and both had become part of the antiquities ministry, or perhaps they shared them. This much is not clear, but certainly one was built for the purpose of housing the director, and the other may have served some administrative purpose. A post by Cairobserver, describes the planning of the museum complex:

The project presented by Dourgnon for the competition in 1895 was a bit different from the one that was subsequently built. Two phases were scheduled: the first for the construction of the museum itself, and the second for further extensions located along the western and eastern sides of the building, which included extra exhibition rooms, the housing quarters of the Director, and the administration offices. The Director’s house and the administration were designed as independent 13 buildings placed at the western and eastern corners flanking the garden in front of the museum. However, these two buildings and the scheduled eastern and western extensions for additional display space were never built. - Cairobserver
- Link: Cairobserver 

If this is correct, then it does seem that at least some of these planned external buildings were eventually built, including the Director's House and the administrative offices. In some of the photographs and maps, it also looks like some external buildings were eventually built, but they are unlabelled. Thus, based on the maps and this description of the Egyptian Museum's planning, it's safe to say that Site C is definitely the Egyptian Museum's Director's House and Administrative Offices.

Site A: A Field

Looking at the large aerial photo, something about Site A stood out to me. I think because all of the other open spaces are easily identifiable, I wanted to know what was happening in this big open plot. On first instinct, the field appears to be nothing more than a construction site. It is easy enough to identify the location, wedged as it is between modern-day 26th of July Street and the Fish Gardens/Grotto. I thought it was possible that it was just the formation of the large residential neighborhood that currently occupies the plot. But, I still wanted to be sure. In the process of attempting to identify it, I learned even more about the neighborhood and the British occupation of Egypt. First to identify the location:

 Detail of Spelterini's 1904 Photograph. Red: Site A; Green: Parks and Clubs; Blue: Gazirah Palace/Present-Day Marriot Hotel; Yellow: Modern streets overlaying those present in photo.

Detail of Spelterini's 1904 Photograph. Red: Site A; Green: Parks and Clubs; Blue: Gazirah Palace/Present-Day Marriot Hotel; Yellow: Modern streets overlaying those present in photo.

 Roughly the same view of the modern site. Site A marked in red. Google Maps, 2018.

Roughly the same view of the modern site. Site A marked in red. Google Maps, 2018.

After several conversations in which we (Twitter friends and I) attempted to pinpoint the location, we came to a couple of conclusions: it wasn't the Fish Gardens, as those are visible; it probably wasn't related to the Gazirah Club; and it may have been a construction site, as maps very shortly thereafter show it being occupied. 

 By 1920, the modern neighborhood already was taking shape, albeit with many fewer apartment buildings. 1920 General Map of Cairo, Egyptian Survey Authority (مصلحة المساحة). Library of Congress.   Link  .

By 1920, the modern neighborhood already was taking shape, albeit with many fewer apartment buildings. 1920 General Map of Cairo, Egyptian Survey Authority (مصلحة المساحة). Library of Congress. Link.

 Here it is again, more developed, in a 1937 Residential Map of Gezira, Egyptian Survey Authority (مصلحة المساحة). Rare Books and Special Collections, AUC Library.   Link  .

Here it is again, more developed, in a 1937 Residential Map of Gezira, Egyptian Survey Authority (مصلحة المساحة). Rare Books and Special Collections, AUC Library. Link.

Other maps, from the time period, show the area occupied as a neighborhood as well. It seemed increasingly likely that in 1904 the area was nothing more than a construction site. Case closed. However, a particular Tweep called my attention to the building just across the modern 26th of July thoroughfare. At first, I wasn't really sure, and thought that it was a reference to the St. Joseph's School. Looking more closely at the 1920 map, the building is very clearly labelled. 

 1920 General Map of Cairo, Egyptian Survey Authority (مصلحة المساحة). Library of Congress.   Link  .

1920 General Map of Cairo, Egyptian Survey Authority (مصلحة المساحة). Library of Congress. Link.

The Sirdariyya was the headquarters and home of the British Sirdar. This officer was the head of the British military forces in Egypt and the Sudan. His home and headquarters occupied the entire space running from Brazil Street to Shagarat al-Durr Street. In 1936, following the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, the sirdar moved and the complex was divided into two parts: Anglo-Egyptian Union and the British Officers' Club. The Union became an important part of the elite Cairo scene and its bar and clubroom were important places for the Who's Who of Cairo during the period. By 1952, the political scene having dramatically changed again, the club was converted into the Egyptian Military's Officer Club, as it remains until today. Walking along the northern sidewalk of 26th of July Street now, this is the huge complex walled off from the street and fronted with some shops. (For more information on the Sirdariyya, see Samir Rafaat's popular site: LINK). Google Maps' satellite view shows that much of the property is still intact as it was in the 1920 map. Why is this important for our story beyond being an interesting historical note? One only has to look at what was across the street: Site A.

With this in mind, I continued to search the maps. Three maps, of those that I searched, confirm the relationship between the Sirdariyya and the open space of Site A. 

 Map from the Combonis. Coloring added in the original. Taken from Samir Raafat's Cairo History Page: http://www.egy.com/maps/ 

Map from the Combonis. Coloring added in the original. Taken from Samir Raafat's Cairo History Page: http://www.egy.com/maps/ 

 Map from the Combonis. Taken from Samir Raafat's Cairo History Page: http://www.egy.com/maps/ 

Map from the Combonis. Taken from Samir Raafat's Cairo History Page: http://www.egy.com/maps/ 

These two maps, produced by the Italian Catholic order the Combonis, who were originally located on the island, clearly show a camp at Site A. In the second map, the answer is more apparent still: "casernes" which is Italian for barracks. So, the connection between the Sirdariyya and the open space of Site A is clear. The British Military, in addition to having barracks along the Nile at the location of the present-day Ritz Carlton, also had barracks in Zamalek at Site A. The proximity in both cases was to the headquarters of Britain's representatives in Egypt: the Sirdar in Zamalek and the High Commissioner in Qasr al-Dubara (Garden City). With this knowledge, it became even easier to find the barracks in yet another map: the 1904 Tanzim Map, which I had seen but missed the labelling earlier.

Tanzim Department Map of 1904. NY Public Library. Link.

So, Site A is identified: the British Military Barracks in Zamalek. I don't know when exactly these barracks were removed. However, it would seem that soon after the 1904 photograph was taken, the neighborhood was transformed. Judging by the state of the site in the photo and the fact that maps almost immediately thereafter show the neighborhood developed, it would seem the process was already underway. 

Site B: Some Arches

Site B was and remains the most tricky to identify. When I saw the original photo, it looked immediately to me like an aqueduct. Because of a number of my academic interests, I was excited... beyond my current dissertation, I am very much interested in Cairo's food, agriculture, and urban history, which may become a part of a project starting in January 2019... fingers crossed for funding.

I knew of only two other aqueducts in city's past. One is the now-immensely-deteriorating aqueduct of Ibn Tulun, which is found in the Basatin neighborhood and can be seen from the Ring Road, if you know where to look. And two, is the very much visible and surviving aqueduct of Sultan al-Ghawri which runs from the present-day Corniche at Fumm al-Khalig (next to Qasr al-'Ayni hospital) all the way to the base of the Citadel near Sayyida Nafisa Square. Bulaq was an incredibly important neighborhood for Cairo from the 15th century. With a port, wharfs, granaries, workshops, trading houses (wakalas), and other commercial structures, it was a major commercial center. Additionally, it was full of gardens, orchards, and plantations. Knowing this, I thought and hoped (still do) that there was a possibility that some sort of aqueduct was built in order to support the neighborhood's residential, commercial, and agricultural activities. If so, maybe Site B was it.

 Site B: The arched structure running from left (at the river) to right (to the center of the photo.

Site B: The arched structure running from left (at the river) to right (to the center of the photo.

Unlike Sites A and C, there is nothing that I can find that confirms the existence of an aqueduct or points to the identity of this structure. By the time most of the mid-20th-century maps of the city were produced, this area was nearly completed built up. It is now, roughly, the area occupied by the Nile City Towers. Some people had suggested it was related to the Mosque of Sinan Pasha, but unfortunately that mosque is further south. The only thing that Site B may be identified by on a map are a set of workshops in the area. It is not clear to me if these workshops are just slightly more north and if the wall-like structure (indicated by the arrow) is part of the workshop structure. In any case, this does seem to be the structure in question. 

 Arrow indicating the wall or structure that seems to be the arches in question. 1920 General Map of Cairo, Egyptian Survey Authority (مصلحة المساحة). Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/g8304c.ct002478/?r=0.043,0.24,0.419,0.224,0

Arrow indicating the wall or structure that seems to be the arches in question. 1920 General Map of Cairo, Egyptian Survey Authority (مصلحة المساحة). Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/g8304c.ct002478/?r=0.043,0.24,0.419,0.224,0

The issue remains unsettled. However, in looking at other photos from Spelterini. It is clear that Cairo was full of arcaded structures, especially running along streets. Unfortunately, few of these survive, and so they are not part of the urban imagination (at least mine) of the city. 

 Arcades running along Muhammad Ali Street. Some sections of this still remain, especially near 'Attaba. This photo is from another of Spelterini's 1904 aerials.

Arcades running along Muhammad Ali Street. Some sections of this still remain, especially near 'Attaba. This photo is from another of Spelterini's 1904 aerials.

 Arcades running along al-Azhar Street. This photo is also from Spelterini's 1904 aerials.

Arcades running along al-Azhar Street. This photo is also from Spelterini's 1904 aerials.

I'm still holding out hope that Site B is an aqueduct. That would be a really fun side-project to pursue. If anyone knows of any references to a Bulaq aqueduct, please share. For now, however, I think it is safe to assume it is one of many long-façaded, arcaded structures that were part of the architectural vernacular of the city at the time. Let's say that Site B, then, is only partially and possibly identified.


This project was an accident: my curiosity mixed with the miracle of social media and the helpfulness of many people of various backgrounds sharing an interest in Cairo's past. It has been a fun way to learn collaboratively with people that wouldn't have been possible ten years ago. Beyond identifying three structures, I learned a bit more about the British colonial military presence, the evolution of the Zamalek neighborhood, the development of the Egyptian Museum, and the ubiquity of arches in a city that now has so few. I also became acquainted with the map resources that are so helpful in thinking about Cairo's past century and a half. These resources I put together in a Twitter thread, but I intend to make a section of my website dedicated to digitalized resources, maps and otherwise. 

If you've liked this post, be sure to look for more of these map and photo identification exercises in the future on Twitter, at: https://twitter.com/ATQuickel, leave a comment below, and share with friends.