Heliopolis, Egypt: Politics of Space in Occupied Cairo



Between 1840 and 1940 the European colonial ambitions of two of the great powers, France and England, meant that a number of new towns were founded. During the height of European colonial expansion into the Middle East, the competition between these two powers in Egypt was clear with two suburbs built during the early 20th century: Maadi (1907), created by British banker Ernest Cassel, and Heliopolis (1905), founded by Belgian engineer Edward Empain — both had worked on the subways in London and Paris, respectively.

Colonialism refers not simply to the establishing of a European administration, but also the spread of political order that inscribes a new conception of space in the social world. The pattern of organizing a new city along European lines that is marked by a massive foreign presence was common in colonial cities of the 19th and 20th centuries. In Cairo, it was long before the colonial period that ‘Westernization’ first made its appearance within the city’s urban setting. Divided into old and new, even before 1882, Cairo literally fit the description applied to it when Mohammad Ali Boulevard was first constructed between 1873-1875, during Khedive Ismail’s rule: “Cairo is like a cracked vase whose two halves can never be put back together” (Imperialism and Revolution, 1967).

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Mapping different urban patterns during three regimes. / Diagrams by Mahy Mourad.

Developments that shaped the physical appearance of the city along European lines — before Americanism was to take command later — occurred during three political eras: the reign of Khedive Ismail (1863-79), the British occupation (1882-1922) and the so called “Liberal Age” (1922-1952). Inspired by Paris, Ismail’s vision of modernization was to make Cairo a European city. Within a decade, numerous gardens and promenades were laid out, new streets were cut through the old city fabric, and modern quarters were created at its edge.

The history of urban development in Cairo during the first half of the 20th century is strongly linked to Britain’s occupation of Egypt and thus to the colonial rule. In 1882 the British took administrative control of Egypt. Intended to be temporary, it instead developed into a durable arrangement that continued for more than half a century. Egypt was still technically part of the Ottoman Empire, headed by Khedive Tawfiq. However, Britain continued to exercise power on the political system, in particular through Consul-General Lord Cromer (1883-1907), who served in India before Egypt. The status of the Egyptian monarchical country under foreign domination at the outset of the twentieth century was clearly reflected in modern urban developments in Cairo.

In contrast with previous Khedival policies, British rule in Egypt was characterized by the State disengagement from matters of urban planning. The only significant public intervention at that time was the implementation of a sewer and drainage system in Cairo (1907-1915). The other urban developments during that period were all due to private initiatives, both local and foreign, such as Garden City (1906) and Koubbeh Gardens (1908), the garden suburb of Maadi, and the new satellite site of Heliopolis.

During the British occupation, the deep cleavages between the western and eastern parts of Cairo, which had first appeared during Ismail’s time, became even more profound. The indigenous city quarters lying to the East, maintained a preindustrial technology and way of life in comparison to the ‘Westernized’ quarters in the west, with steam-powered techniques and clear European identification. In December of 1894, engineer Edward Empain was granted a concession to establish an electric tramway system for the city of Cairo. The work of the wealthy Belgian engineer, entrepreneur and industrialist is to be noted in the context of public transportation, for he had built the Paris Metro and also undertook business in colonial Congo. Between 1896 and 1898, eight lines with a total track length of 22 kilometers, were inaugurated. The aim of this initial system was to create an internal network linking important points within the city. No doubt, the entire medieval core city was left out of this network, and to this day is only partially rectified.

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(1) Mosque Abbas (1918). (2&3) Two postcards from colonial Heliopolis. / Cairo Postcard Trust (4) Latin Cathedral of Our Lady of Heliopolis.

The expansion of the mass transit system in Cairo continued during the first decade of the twentieth century. By 1907, many of the peripheral areas north and northeast of the city had been brought within reach of urban expansion by the new tramlines in Cairo, increasing the possibility of extending outside its fertile zones. Before 1952, only one attempt had been made to break through the desert barrier, resulting in the creation of one of Cairo’s most remarkable modern suburbs, Heliopolis. A garden satellite town designed in the latest manner of British town planning, its initial development is intimately linked to the expansion of the tramline and led to later replications.

On May 23, 1905, another concession was approved by the Egyptian government to grant Edouard Empain and Boghos Nubar Pasha, son of an Egyptian Minister at that time, the property of 25 square kilometers in the desert of Abbasiya, 10 kilometers from the city center. Awarded the title of Baron a year after the Heliopolis Company was formed by the Belgian king, Empain paid one pound per Feddan (4,200 square meters), spending five thousand pounds for the land. Eight months later, a company,‘Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company’ (HOC), was officially established. The company also had to obtain the permission of the British, who had administrative control of Egypt by that time.

Colonialism was the occasion for urban planning experiments that frequently resulted in the transfer of metropolitan forms and concepts. It was during the British occupation and through the initiative of European architects (Belgian, French, and British) that the ‘Haussmannization’ of Cairo came to be envisioned. The most notable urbanistic ideas and practices promoted in Egypt during the British reign are represented in the booming Garden City movement of the period, in Britain as in elsewhere. Work on the sanitary network (1907) and the transformation of the road system, as well as the extensions of Cairo implemented at the turn of this century, are indicators of this trend.

The sole undertaking in which the imprint of the British concept of a Garden City, as designed by Ebenezer Howard in 1902, is most obvious in Cairo is the suburb of Maadi. The site, south of Cairo, was acquired in 1905 and developed the following year using a pattern that was inspired by the plan of the new city of Khartoum, also conceived by British engineers in 1898. The members of the small British colony in Cairo were attracted to what Maadi had to offer, and were the first to acquire properties in the area. Although the penetration of the British urban planning concepts in Cairo were relatively weak, in contrast to British Empire action in other territories, Maadi constituted the implementation of the colonial period that showed the closest affinity to British planning principles.

The governing feature of colonial town planning had always been the differentiation of “European” and “Native” poles through precise zoning. The urbanization of the city of Heliopolis was characterized from the outset by hierarchical urban space; this was clear in the initial planning that proposed two oases, which has clearly rendered the categorization of space. The first oasis, Korba district (south-eastern Heliopolis), hosted elegant villas and affluent classes. In contrast, the second oasis (north-west) accommodated less affluent classes and workers on the construction and maintenance of the city as well as in the domestic service of the bourgeois population. The other parts are occupied by intermediate classes, in particular officials of the Egyptian government, for whom two housing programs were launched by the Company in 1907.

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(1) Map showing the concessions granted to the company: 2500 hectares and the train and tram to downtown and Abbassiya. (2) Heliopolis Palace Hotel in 1918. (3) English Church of Heliopolis. (4) The Hindu palace (Baron palace) / Photograph by Mahy Mourad (2014)

This hierarchical zoning was also social. Space was used as a divisive tool in order to engineer social division. The social distinctions were not only symbolized by the differentiation in the architectural order (from palace to the economical apartment), but also through the spatial order, on the city scale from richer to poorer: a quarter with palaces and villas, a quarter with bourgeois apartments, and a quarter containing factories and workers dwellings.

The expansion of Cairo under the British rule came along the lines of the French-styled town begun by Ismail, lines that are still easily detected on a map of the contemporary city. To the East lies the native city with its labyrinth, maze-like street pattern. In the West lies the westernized city with its clearly European identification. As is the experience of many cities with a colonial heritage, one could speak of a “native” city and a “European” one that differed in many respects — even in the layout of their streets. In Heliopolis, the hierarchical spatial organization was also visible in the street network. According to a 1939 map, what is now referred to as street was classified then as avenues, boulevards, and streets. There were five types of streets designed in the initial plan of Heliopolis: large streets with a garden in the middle; prestigious streets (30 and 40m); streets separating districts (20 to 25m); secondary avenues defining a group of small districts (12.5 to 16m) and circulation streets which divided the small districts (10 to 11m).

During the British occupation, many of the important names of urban landmarks and arteries in Cairo were associated with the monarch and colonialism, which were later changed during Nasser’s administration.  In an attempt to erase the memory of the monarch and colony, names of city streets and landmarks associated with the Khedival family  and Europeans were all replaced. In Heliopolis, the renaming has targeted streets with names of foreigners; General Baron Empain Avenue and Pasteur Street were renamed into Nazih Khalifa Street and Aleppo Street. Streets with names of the monarch family, such as Mohamed Ali Avenue, Tawfiq Boulevard and Ismail Boulevard, were also renamed into Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad streets respectively; and Avenue Fouad I renamed into Orouba Street (literally mean Arabism). Such new names clearly reflected the regime ambition to acquire Arab political status through modernization and the Pan-Arab unity called by Nasser.

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Transformation of the Heliopolis skyline 1920s-2000s / Dobrowolska (2006) adapted by Mahy Mourad.

During the 1950s, the development of Cairo operated from colonial to anti-colonial nationalistic logics. Space was used as an instrument, a framework, that allowed the imagining of postcolonial national Egypt. Nasser’s policies of centralization and social provision brought deep change to Egyptian society, represented in the narrowing gap between the different socioeconomic levels of Egyptians. This had concrete spatial manifestations in the urban fabric. The new extension of Heliopolis, mainly built after the 1952 revolution, could be distinguished from older regions by its highly organized structure, featured in equal plot sizes with modular pattern and green squares, surrounded by residential blocks. Unlike the original core of Heliopolis, the new developments did not produce a hierarchization of space (previously represented in plot size and housing typologies), nor did it present any monumental icons. 

Across the world, colonialism produced a substantial built legacy that continues to mark post-colonial urban landscapes. In many occasions, the architecture and urban setting produced under colonial rule is re-used, re-appropriated, embraced and at times contested. An analysis of modern Cairo from a political perspective (pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial) gives a greater understanding of the transformation in the physical built environment brought about by westernization before and after the foreign occupation. Cairo’s Belle Époque spaces have been identified with the British colonizers, but also with agency, presence, as well as the Egyptian elites and middle classes, before and after the colonial period. Cairo’s architecture and urbanism have often been trapped in North-South, East-West dualities; it is a complex city, a blend of old and new, of East and West, which must not be allowed to achieve its new order at the expense of its unique authenticity, the issue is one of balancing conservation and progress.