Introduction to Modern Cairo


1) Muhammad Ali and his successors extended Cairo from the Fatimid royal city to the banks of the Nile, and built the new section to resemble a European city with public squares, wide streets, and apartment buildings.

After completing the unit on Historic Cairo, you might think that Cairo is a city of monuments, living in the past. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today, Cairo is a bustling city, full of life, one of the most important cities in the Islamic world, and a major center for business, trade, education, and culture.

Hopefully, you have gained a greater appreciation for the historical forces that have created modern Egyptian society. Although many tourists come to Cairo to see the pyramids and the ruins from the days of the Pharaohs, much has happened in the last two thousand years that is much more relevant to today's Cairo.

Let us briefly review the latest developments in the development of the city. You will remember that the Fatimids founded Cairo as a royal city, for their elite, not to be used and entered by the average Egyptians. Under the Ayyubids and Mamluks, Cairo was opened to everyone. However, the city remained centered around the Fatimid-era core throughout the Ayyubid, Mamluk, and Ottoman eras.

Since 1805, when Muhammad Ali took over, Cairo has undergone a number of physical changes that have dramatically transformed the city. At that time, the city was situated about one mile east of the Nile River, but the space between the city and the river was swampland, and no one wanted to build on it.


2) Heliopolis, seen here from the air, was designed as a European city for wealthy inhabitants who would live in villas with large lawns, and a tram system that connected to downtown Cairo.

Qasr al Baron

3) Qasr al-Baron was the personal home of the Belgian baron who built Heliopolis, and was an extravagant blend of Hindu architecture and Greco-Roman statuary. It is now supposedly haunted.

Muhammad Ali and his successors figured out how to drain the swamp, using technology that was introduced by the French that they improved on themselves. They drained the Nile Delta, turning it into farmland, and they drained the land west of the medieval city of Cairo.

Mohammed Ali built a new city along the Nile that would serve as a business center, with factories and warehouses and ports so that the new Egypt would be able to manufacture its own products. He named the city Bulaq.

Mohammed Ali's successor, Ismail drained the area to the south of Bulaq. The new land was turned into a European style city with wide boulevards and public squares and parks and gardens. They also figured out how to fix the borders of the Nile by reinforcing the riverbed, and they built floodgates to keep the city from flooding every year. They built two vast squares in the new city: Midan Sulayman Pasha, or Sulayman Pasha Square, which was the center the new residential area, and Midan Ismailiya, or "Ismail's Square" that was the center of the new business area. Just south of Midan Ismailiya and the Nile, the Egyptians built a great army barracks called the Qasr el-Nil (Palace of the Nile). Some of the administrative offices of these barracks are now the main buildings of the American University in Cairo.


4) The city of Helwan was originally built as a spa for Europeans to escape the heat and crowds of Cairo.


5) The center piece of Helwan was this park, complete with a Japanese style garden featuring pink Buddhas.

In the late 1800s more squares were added throughout the city to reflect the new "European-ness" of the city. And in the early 1900s, Cairo jumped the river to two small islands in the Nile. Two upper class neighborhoods were built - Manial on Roda, and Zamalek on Gezira - so that the wealthy of Cairo could escape the crowded city. Also in the early 1900s, Europeans built the first satellite city around Cairo - called Heliopolis. Also built for the wealthy citizens of Cairo, Heliopolis was built in the desert to the northeast of the city, and connected to Cairo by tram. A spa was built at the springs of Helwan to the south of the city, also connected by tram to the city center.

It was after the revolution of 1952 that Cairo's population and development exploded. At the time of the revolution, Cairo's population was about two million people. Today, it is impossible to know for certain how many people live in Cairo, but it is estimated that between fourteen and twenty million people call Cairo home. The city has expanded to the west bank of the Nile, turning the sleepy village of Giza into a sister city, and has expanded from the desert in the east to the desert in the west, from Heliopolis and beyond to the pyramids. The village of Helwan, once an elegant spa nearly twenty miles distant from the city center, is now at the southern end of Cairo, and is one of the centers of heavy industry in Egypt.

In recent years, the Egyptian government has been trying to encourage people to move out of Cairo by building large satelite cities in the desert. This program has been largely unsuccessful because there are few jobs in the new cities, and so people who live there must often commute nearly one hundred miles back to Cairo to work.


6) Giza, once a sleepy village along the Nile, has expanded all the way out to the Pyramids, nearly seven miles away.

This sudden growth has led to a number of challenges for the future of Cairo that will be the focus of this second part of our look at the city. The city is plagued by problems of overcrowding, environmental crisis, unemployment, and limited natural resources. In the next lesson, we will look at these problems and see what is being done about them.

Photography Credits:
Photograph 6: Copyright by Thomas Hartwell
Photographs 3, 4, 5: Copyright 1995 by Christopher Rose
Photographs 1, 2: Copyright 1998 by Caroline Williams