In Cairo, one can trace modern Egyptian history through the marks left on the cityscape by Egypt’s rulers. Some made bold statements like Muhammad Ali’s mosque (1830–1848) sitting on a hill overlooking the city; others left a different kind of mark, such as the swelling ring of brick informal housing—the result of what former president Hosni Mubarak didn’t do. But ever since Khedive Ismail (1863–1879) decided to build a new city adjacent to the old Cairo as it existed in his day, the awkward swath of land between his new city and the Nile has captured the attention of Egyptians. This area became today’s Tahrir Square. With the current revolution underway, architects, planners, and dreamers have been calling for meetings, discussions, and debates on what to do with the square. Topics of discussion include: should it be redesigned and how; how will the revolution and the martyrs be memorialized; and should it be renamed. But in fact Tahrir Square has been the topic of similar conversations over the last century, as evidenced by a brief history of the site and some of its unrealized proposals.
Present day Tahrir Square was once an uninhabitable swampland that flooded according to the cycles of the Nile. The area was drained, and the eastern bank of the Nile was reinforced in the 1860s through1870s. Massive barracks for the Egyptian army were built, and in 1872 the Qasr el Nil Bridge was opened to connect Ismail’s Cairo, by way of the square, with Zamalek Island. A decade later, the barracks became home to the British army who had taken control of Egypt. The present-day square was a buffer zone between the elite district of Ismailia and the British military. In 1902 the Egyptian museum’s new building was opened to the public—after half a century of moving to different locations. The neo-classical structure adorned with the names of archeologists and important figures in Egyptian history sits at the northern edge of the square, creating slightly more definition to an open space that was still on the edge of the city rather than part of it. At this point, Ismailia Square, as it was then called, was still not a city square in urban terms, that is, a defined urban space where the community gathers.
In 1904 architects and journalists stirred public opinion by raising the issue of the barracks’ location, arguing that it was no longer appropriate for this sign of foreign occupation to be so close to the city and to sit next to the symbol of ancient Egyptian civilization, the museum. An architect and planner by the name Moussa Qattawi Pasha produced a plan for the area that called for the demolition of the barracks and the creation of luxury residential blocks framing a grand approach to the Egyptian Museum. In the plan, the new avenue, Khedive Ismail Street, would lead to the entrance of the museum, passing through multiple round plazas with ancient statues dotting the way. The urban plan follows the patterns of the already half-century-old Ismailia district—large residential blocks that wrap around the perimeters of city blocks. The buildings in Qattawi’s plan were to continue to the shore of the Nile. In addition to the symbolic value of imagining the area without the British barracks, Qattawi’s plan attempted to solve two main issues: creating an appropriate context for the Egyptian Museum and continuing the urban fabric of the Ismailia district to fill what until then had been an urban void in a key location in the city. This plan was not concerned with creating open public space—Cairo was dotted with squares and gardens elsewhere.
Despite the appeal of Qattawi’s plan, it was never realized, as there were no plans to demolish the barracks. However, in 1947, after the exit of British troops from the area, demolition of the massive building was imminent. And again there was a fervor in the media, with journalists and architects scrambling for ideas of what to do with the area.
Muhammad dhul-Faqqar Bek published a plan to redesign Qasr el-Nil area in al-Musawwar journal in April 1947. The utopian plan called for a cultural and political center for the city. This translated into administrative buildings for various ministries and government bureaucracies and a plethora of museums, in addition to a series of commemorative statues, all surrounded by vast public gardens.
Furthermore, the plan included a new parliament building modeled after the United States Capitol. The proposed parliament was to sit on the site of the British barracks, literally replacing the site of foreign occupation with Egypt’s constitutional legislative body. The descriptive text of the plan proclaimed, “the capital’s official, political, and cultural life will be united” in the new center “to give tourists and visitors a clear view of Egypt with its ancient heritage, and its modern city.” This plan was in the spirit of anti-colonial nationalism of the time. Again, this plan was never fully realized, but elements from it, such as creating some open public spaces and an administrative building were carried out. The barracks were demolished but the site remained vacant. The massive Mogamma government building, by architect Kamal Ismail opened in 1951, is perhaps the only remnant from dhul-Faqqar’s vision, although he had no direct involvement in its design and implementation.
Yet again as the political situation shifted, the area known as Ismailiyya Square was renamed in 1954 in the wake of the 1952 coup d’état that dethroned King Farouk and led to the systematic erasure of his ancestors’ names from the cityscape. The area became Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square, and was the site of annual parades to celebrate the coup. Just a year earlier, in 1953, an architect by the name Sayed Karim capitalized on the seismic shift in Egyptian politics and produced a plan. Hoping to impress the new regime, Karim published in his magazine al-Imara—Egypt’s leading architectural journal at the time—a redesign for the area of the former Qasr elNil barracks. Karim’s 1953 plan called for constructing a hotel on the site of the barracks (with a casino extending into the Nile), the demolition of the Egyptian museum and replacing it with a massive multi-level structure that would be the Museum of Egyptian Civilization, new buildings for the ministry of foreign affairs and the radio and television administration, and finally, a series of monuments including a commemorative sculpture for the 1952 coup and, perhaps most dramatically, a massive monument to the unknown soldier designed by artist Fathy Mahmoud. Karim’s vision, like others before it, was never implemented.
The ongoing Egyptian revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak after a 30-year rule has given Tahrir Square a new place in Egyptian collective consciousness. As the political landscape shifts, Tahrir Square continues to capture the magination of politicians, architects, and urban planners eager to come up with a master plan and complete what they recognize is an unfinished urban space. Former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, in an effort to appease protesters in Tahrir Square, suggested that the square be transformed into Cairo’s Hyde Park. And architects continue to hold meetings in a race for who will come up with the most popular plan first. Cairo has always been a city of great works of architecture and intelligent city planning. It is also a city marked by many failures at the hands of hasty architects and unimaginative politicians. Yet no one politician or architect has been able to lay claim over the design and symbolism of Tahrir Square, which remains as a collection of fragments from many failed or unfinished plans and urban fantasies. This latest leaderless revolution centered on Tahrir Square is a potent moment that calls for pause and an examination of the past and past proposals. Egypt’s first true popular revolution in 7,000 years is an opportunity for an architectural revolution that not only captures the moment and but also takes Tahrir into the future without repeating mistakes of the past.