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Cairo Walking Tour
Excerpt from National Geographic Traveler: Egypt guidebook    
Text by Andrew Humphreys    Photo by Jethro Collins

Photo: Cairo
Cairo, Egypt's largest city, is framed by the pyramids in the distance.

Determined to modernize Egypt along European lines, Khedive Ismail (R.1863–1879) planned a new Paris-on-the-Nile on the swampy floodplain between the old medieval city and the river. His dream was realized in the creation of a quarter with wide, tree-lined boulevards, grand squares, and public gardens, capped by an Italianate opera house. This walk revisits the past of Ismail's belle epoque Cairo.
 
*Bolded names and numbers in the text below correspond with our map of this tour.
 
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(To download this PDF, you will need the free Adobe Reader.)
 
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Start at Tahrir Square and head north up Talaat Harb, the main street of al-balad, or downtown. If you have not yet eaten breakfast, you could drop in at the Café Riche (1) (17 Talaat Harb St., tel +2 02 392 9793), a haunt of artists and intellectuals since it opened in 1908. Allegedly Gamal Abdel Nasser and his co-plotters used to meet and talk revolution here. A little farther on, a portly statue presides over one of Ismail's Parisian-style places; the figure is Talaat Harb, a financier who gave money to the nationalist cause and his name to this square. Fittingly, the statue has its back to Groppi (Talaat Harb Sq., tel +2 02 574 3244), a Continental-style tearoom established in 1925 that was once a byword for glamour and excess. All that was extinguished by the nationalization that came as a consequence of Nasser's long afternoons in the Riche, but the beautiful floral mosaics around the entrance still have their sparkle.
 
Follow Talaat Harb's gaze and head down Qasr al-Nil Street, lined with boutiques and shoe shops with more bright, shiny color than a package of M&Ms. Take the second small street on the right to face the Cosmopolitan Hotel, opened in 1902 as the Metropolitan, and a gorgeous example of some of the fine architecture hidden in the downtown backstreets. Next door to the hotel is the Bourse (2), or stock exchange. At the time it was built, in the early 20th century, Egypt's economy was booming and its stock exchange was rated among the world's top ten. Since the government initiated a program of privatization in the mid-1990s, share trading has become big business once again, meriting a face-lift for the Bourse, and for the surrounding streets.
 
From the Bourse rejoin Qasr al-Nil Street beside the Trieste Insurance Building (3) (11 Sharifeen St.), designed by one of the many European architects Ismail commissioned to help him create his new capital, a prolific Italian named Antoine Lasciac. Across from Lasciac's elegant building, modern Cairo reasserts itself on pedestrian-only Shawarby Street, full of shops selling jeans and jackets and loud with pop soundtracks emanating from half a dozen music cassette stores. Halfway along on the left, a little alley leads back to Talaat Harb, emerging beside a popular bakery called Al-Abd (19 Talaat Harb St.). Perpetually packed right up until closing at midnight, it serves Cairo's best baklava and other syrupy, nut pastries, costing just a couple of dollars for a half pound to take out. This upper end of Talaat Harb marks the beginning of Cairo's entertainment district, with theaters and low-rent belly-dancing joints. Most of these advertise with huge, garish, often hand-painted billboards, as seen at the Cinema Miami, which screens Egyptian movies. Across the road, the jaggedly art deco Cinema Metro (4) first opened house in 1939 with Gone With the Wind and still shows mostly Hollywood fare.
 
Adly Street runs east off Talaat Harb beside the Metro building, and along here is what looks like a movie-set construction for a Babylonian epic but is in fact one of the few remaining monuments to Cairo's once substantial and influential Jewish community, the Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue (5).
 
Jews were founders of the national bank and were heavily involved in the development of the city during the early decades of the 20th century, but most left following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Numbers are now so low that although the synagogue still opens for Shabbat there are not enough people for a minyan (the minimum ten required for a service). Beyond the synagogue is the visitor information office (5 Adly St., tel +2 02 391 3454), where the staff are friendly but poorly resourced.
 
Continuing on, Adly links with Opera Square (6). It's hard to imagine now, but this large, open plaza was originally the centerpiece of Ismail's Cairo. As the name suggests, it was once graced by an opera house, hastily built just in time for the celebrations accompanying the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. It was to have been inaugurated with a performance of Aida, a new opera with an Egyptian theme specially commissioned for the occasion from Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. In any case, Aida was not ready in time, so the first-night guests were entertained with Verdi's Rigoletto instead. Fire destroyed the Opera House in 1972 and it was replaced with a building far more suited to modern Cairo life: a multistory parking garage. The equestrian statue is of Ibrahim, father of Ismail, who ruled Egypt for just 40 days before his death in 1848.
 
Greenery is a rarity in central Cairo, an almost extinct phenomenon. The flat green patch on the north side of Opera Square is all that remains of what until not too long ago was a wooded park, the Ezbekiyya, with paths around a lake and pavilion cafés where bands played. It has the appearance of a site waiting for a building to happen. One paved corner is taken up by the cabins of a secondhand book market, beyond which is Khazinder Square, site of the Sednaoui department store (7). Modeled on Galeries Lafayette in Paris and opened in 1913, it merits a look inside for the grandiose central atrium.
 
From Sednaoui head north along Clot Bey Street, named for a French physician to the 19th-century Egyptian court. You are now leaving European Cairo behind and entering an old residential quarter, little changed in character since the time of the good doctor. Streets become narrower and the architecture more ramshackle. During World War II, Clot Bey was more commonly known as the "Birka," and was a seamy red-light district. It would be wrong to suggest that Clot Bey has since become gentrified. Instead, it is prostitution that has gone upscale. At its northern end, Clot Bey joins numerous other streets in spilling into Ramses Square, the most chaotic spot in Cairo. All routes from the north of the city converge here, spewing cars, buses, and taxis into one great screeching, horn-honking melee. At the center of it all stands a colossus of Ramses II (8), the great warrior pharaoh. It was unearthed at Memphis and erected on this site in 1955. Conservation fears led to the recent removal of the original statue (now in storage) and its replacement with the replica you see today. Beyond the statue, reached by a pedestrian bridge, is Ramses Station. Part of the station building houses the Egyptian National Railways Museum (9) (tel +2 02 575 3555, closed Mon.), which has a tiny royal locomotive with plush seating for four only, presented to Egypt by Empress Eugénie of France at the opening of the Suez Canal.
 
From Ramses Square it is a brief three-stop ride on the subway back to Tahrir Square (metro: Sadat), where this walk began.


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