Car horns get louder as if protesting the traffic jam on Al-Azhar Street in old Cairo. Vans and cars are parked chaotically on two-narrow streets planned long before the days of sport utility vehicles. Pedestrians march out of market packed into narrow alleys between ancient building, to cress the busy street.
The neighbourhood, which was built during the Fatimid era, has always been considered the oldest part of Cairo. Writer and researcher Fathi Hafez El-Hadidi, however, proposes a different narrative.
In his recently published book “Urban development of Cairo Streets,” El-Hadidi argues that “Misr,” the neighbourhood known now as “Misr Al-Kadima”, is the oldest part of Cairo. The neighbourhood dates back to the Pharaonic time.
“This is where the story of the prophet Moses actually happened,” he said.
El-Hadidi, who worked as a clerk in the Ministry of Public Works, which oversees the planning and naming streets, and the construction and maintenance of public buildings, used government archives to conduct research for the book. The result is a sort of urban encyclopaedia that documents how streets “were originally built and how they survived,” he said. It examines the city’s streets from “the beginning” utill the 21st century.
“Cairo is as old as the Nile,” El-Hadidi said.
Since the city was built, its planning has affected the social life within its neighbourhoods, El-Hadidi said.
Because neighbourhoods with narrow streets, such as Al-Azhar, have been hard to navigate through since they were built, “only residents understood the nature of these neighbourhoods,” he said.
“The streets were so narrow that people from different buildings could have conversations from their windows,” he said.
The way the streets were planned changed during the Khedival time. The French “Boulevard,” which is a wide street that allows cars, was copied to the streets of Cairo, inspiring Khedive Ismail to build Downtown Cairo with wider streets, such as Ramsis and Talaat Harb.
Before the Khedival time, streets in Egypt followed the traditional design of narrow alleys. Khedive Ismail, however, built Downtown as a new city centre, copying the European model.
“He was educated in Europe, so he changed the model of Fatimid Cairo totally,” El-Hadidi said.
The project builds upon El-Hadidi’s 2009 book “Studies in the City of Cairo”, which documents seventeen of Cairo’s squares.