After a huge blast ripped through Shubra in September, severely damaging the Muhammad Aly Palace and other landmarks, Egypt Today revisits the district's forgotten architectural heritage.
By Farah el-Akkad Photos by Mohsen Allam
In recent decades Egypt’s rich cultural heritage, its buildings and architectural sites in particular, has been overtaken by unchecked urban development. Case in point is Shubra, Egypt’s fourth-largest district, which is today heavily congested, populated and polluted, with many of its old palaces and historic buildings torn down to make room for housing blocks.
Yet Shubra has not always been this way. As recently as the 19th century Shubra was a small, picturesque and quiet neighborhood where many socialites and celebrities resided. Little do people know that Shubra was originally an island named Elephant Island — so called, as legend would have it, after a ship named The Elephant sank off its shores. As the waters changed their course, the island became part of the mainland, where today Rawd El Farag is still surrounded by the Nile from the west side. The upper middle class locale was home to people of different religious and cultural backgrounds, many of them enjoying a simple, easy lifestyle.
In his book Cairo’s Old Neighborhoods, author Tawfik Meklad describes Shubra, which derived its name from Šopro (the Coptic word for ‘small village’), as the gem of the Nile. In 1808 Muhammad Aly Pasha ordered that the agrarian town be extended, bringing in engineers and architects to modernize the area and building himself a magnificent palace overlooking it all. The fairytale-like edifice, completed in 1809, was also known as the Shubra Pavilion, comprising a number of buildings on its grounds. “In the district of Shubra, Ali chose a location which extends to more than 50 acres by the Nile, to build his palace, which was later established as Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Agriculture,” Meklad writes.
“After his death in 1849, Muhammad Aly’s son Halim Pasha ordered the construction of another palace in the royal gardens. This palace was later given as a gift to Tosson Pasha (the name of one Shubra’s most famous districts who was Ismail Pasha’s cousin),” Meklad narrates. But Tosson’s palace did last for long, particularly after the July 23 Revolution, when most palaces, such as the Abdeen Palace, were opened to the public and governmental authorities neglected their historical value. Unfortunately, by the mid-1960s, Tosson’s palace collapsed.
According to writer Samir Raafat, during its 180-year history, the Shubra Pavilion was restored several times, including in 1862 when some of the original murals were touched up or painted over by Felix Clement. Then, in 1870 the gardens of the palace were reorganized by French landscapers Barillet Deschamps and Gustave Delchevalerie. In the 1930s the Comite de Conservations des Monuments de l’Art Arabe (a predecessor of the Supreme Council for Antiquities) initiated slow, drawn-out renovations that cost millions, were never completed and ultimately led to the collapse of part of the palace after the July 23 Revolution. Sixty years later the palace was once more restored and regained some of its former splendor. The Waterwheel Tower, the Fasqiya (Fountain) Villa, the Gabalaya building and the Supplementary Halls of the Fountain Villa withstood the test of time.
Until late August, that is, when a bomb ripped through the Shubra homeland security building and wounded six police officers. The blast was so powerful that residents across the capital heard it, and glass from blown-out windows could be seen on the streets of blocks around the explosion site. Unfortunately the blast also damaged some of the city’s remaining architectural hallmarks. Most notably, several parts of the Muhammad Aly Palace were severely damaged, specifically the Fountain and Gabalaya buildings.
During an inspection tour, Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh el-Ddamaty told the press that a chandelier in the main hall of the Fountain building was completely destroyed after crashing down as a result of the blast. Decorations on the doors were heavily damaged and all 12 stained glass windows in the building’s dining room were shattered. The glasswork on the western and eastern entrances of the Gabalaya building were also destroyed and cracks spread all over the buildings’ walls and floors. Fortunately, however, an architectural and archaeological committee that was formed to determine the extent of the blast said the most of the damage was reversible and announced that the Waterwheel Tower was not damaged.
But even before the blast, Shubra’s architecture had seen decades of neglect. The transformation of the once beautiful city into what it is today is heart-breaking for many of its residents who have watched it decline before their eyes. Shubra’s landscape, which had consisted of mostly green fields, fruit gardens and an area where farmers came from afar to trade and sell their harvest, is now characterized by slabs of concrete and heavy pollution. Up to the late 1970s, buildings mostly consisted of villas and semidetached buildings that were no higher than three floors. Now, however, most of the villas and houses that dotted the city are long gone, having been replaced by high buildings and towers.[caption id="attachment_338740" align="alignnone" width="620"] Some of Shubra's architecture has survived, shown here, but many of the area's distinctive buildings have been torn down and replaced with high-rise blocks.[/caption]
While much of Shubra’s stately architecture no longer exists, a handful of palaces and old buildings have been saved and renovated, including the palace of Zainab Hanem (Muhammad Aly’s daughter) located on Shubra’s main street, and the Anga Hanem and Shekolany palaces, which date back to the 1890s and the early nineteenth century.
Another building still standing is the Salesian Don Bosko Institute located in El Sahel district of Shubra. Built in a peculiar mix of Italian and Roman design, the institute is an Italian school that was established in Alexandria in 1896 for the sons of Italian immigrants after many Italians came to Egypt looking to work in the Suez Canal. Up until the 1960s, the Salesian only accepted foreign students, such as Greeks and French, but after Nasser’s nationalization policies, many foreigners left Egypt and so the school decided to accept Egyptian students. After an agreement between the Italian and Egyptian governments in the 1970s, the institute became an established craftsmanship and industry institute which offers its student a certificate that is recognized by both the Italian and Egyptian governments.
Azza (who has asked that her family name be witheld) was born in the mid-1950’s and grew up in Shubra during the 1960s and 1970s. She reminisces about the days when Shubra still retained some of its splendor. Her grandfather, Sheikh Ibrahim M., lived in Shubra since he was a young boy and grew up to be a scholar and professor at Al Khazindar Mosque where the faculty of Islamic studies and Dawa’ was located before being moved to Al Azhar University in 1961. She recalls her childhood family home on Khamraway Street between Saint Theresa’s Church and Al Khazindar Mosque.[caption id="attachment_338741" align="alignnone" width="620"] Al Khazindar Mosque has retained its original features.[/caption]
“It was a five-storey house and the whole family lived there, the building’s owner and a family friend, Gerges Farag, was a very respectable Christian man. I remember he looked like King Farouk and always stood on his balcony smoking a cigar. A priest also lived in the same building, and all the neighbors gathered at 8 am each morning for breakfast on the roof,” she tells Egypt Today.
Azza remembers the neighbors gathering to make biscuits and kahk during both Muslim and Christian feasts. “If a girl was getting married, the men would sit together to discuss the street decoration and buffet arrangements and women would buy the cloth of the wedding dress and the bride’s home curtains; they would sit together for days to knit and sew and crochet,” she narrates.
She also vividly recalls her grandfather and the priest going down the stairs each morning and walking together talking and laughing on their way to the mosque and church, a symbol in her eyes of the city’s cosmopolitan nature. “My walk to school used to take 10 minutes and the streets were so quiet that I sometimes felt scared and would run quickly because I was all alone in the street. I still remember walking between the fields and the smell of the tall grass permeating the air. Every day, gardens were all I could see everywhere I looked,” she says.
The district also boasts a rich artistic heritage. Kholousy Street, one of Shubra’s most famous landmarks, was the home of celebrities such as Mary Monib, Ali El Kassar, Hussein Riad (the building he lived in still exists), Soad Hosny, Moharam Fouad and Dalida. In The Mahfouz Dialogs, Noble laureate Naguib Mahfouz describes Shubra “as a place with its own special features; it appears in a large number of my works. I remember that my father took me there with him. It had a lot of theaters where the whole season was repeated, meaning that you could find a theater imitating El Kassar and another imitating El Rihani. It was all mimics. We saw the old works of El Rihani done by other people. Of course, there were dance theaters there and troupes belonging to singers. Om Kalthoum, on the other hand, I didn’t hear her there. We heard her on the records in 1926.”
Another prominent street is Bahethat El Badeya Street, named after Malak Hefny Nassif, one of Egypt’s earliest and most popular feminists in the 20th century. Writing under the pen name Bahethat El Badeya (Desert Researcher), Nassif published many works about the status of women in Egypt. Yet another historic street is Shubra’s Main Street. In 1847 Muhammad Aly ordered the construction of the street to become one of the widest and longest in Cairo. He wanted a street where he could go for a walk away from the crowded capital. In the book Tawfik Plans by Ali Pasha Mubarak, it was described as a wide street shaded by palms and big fruits dangling from trees where big carriages drawn by Arabian horses trundled along.
Sadly, today’s Shubra, with its estimated 3 to 5 million residents, crowded streets and towering apartment blocks, couldn’t be further from the “gem” Muhammad Aly Pasha dreamed it would be.