A History in Landscape: Five of Egypt’s Most Architecturally Significant Buildings

Thursday, 24th November 2016

Baron Palace

Built at the turn of the 20th century by Belgian Baron Edouard Empain, the palace continues to be surrounded by a great deal of myth, not least of which is attributed to the architectural style in which it was built. Designed and built by Belle Epoque French architect Alexandre Marcel, the palace emulates the style of many Hindu temples in south and south-east Asia, specifically drawing on the imagery of India’s Orissa temples and Cambodia’s iconic Angkor Wat ruins.

The edifice has maintained its iconic status over the past century, and the opulence of the building is matched only by the tale that belies it, where oral history tells of a fantastical and tragic tale of a man struck into madness by the loss of his wife and daughter. To this day, the palace is inextricably linked in the national psyche with the image of Heliopolis and the man who erected it from the sand.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Completed in 2001 and designed in collaboration between Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta and Egyptian firm Hamza Associates, the Bibliotheca was built to commemorate the ancient Library of Alexandria, some 2,300 years later. Though there are no existing records of Alexander the Great’s original mammoth project, and while the sleek modernist design of the library is likely a major departure from the original, the Bibliotheca nonetheless does not fail to do justice to the legacy of the original through a simultaneously grandiose and contemporary circular edifice. Giving a nod to both the city’s vast historical past as well as its equally immense future potential, the library is among a few key locations that provide a glimpse of an Alexandria that could be.

Tiring Department Store

Overlooking downtown Cairo’s Attaba Square is a decrepit yet distinguished building with one obscure word adorning its domed central tower: “Tiring”. The building, in fact, once housed the Tiring Department Store, established in 1910 by Viktor Tiring, an Austrian merchant looking to expand his tailoring business from his birthplace in Istanbul, according to Cairobserver.  Designed by Czech architect Oscar Horowitz, in a quasi-art nouveau style that is mirrored across various European countries. In that sense, there is nothing entirely unique or Egyptian about the building, and having fallen into disrepair, it has become something of a relic of Cairo’s heyday. Yet, for that reason, it occupies an epochal, if peripheral, space in the mind of anyone who is at all familiar with downtown Cairo’s landscape.

Al Montazah Palace

Built as a summer home by the Khedive Abbas II, Al Montazah Palace, along with its expansive garden, is the culmination of an incontestably Ottoman past and an Italian Renaissance influence. It bespeaks a contradictory amalgam, with its traditional division between the Salamlek (built in 1982 and now functioning as Helnan Palestine Hotel) and the Haramlek (built in 1932), and a nod towards a cosmopolitan Alexandria during its heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s. The architecture of the palace is reminiscent of the fellow Mediterranean coastal city of Istanbul, with its seamless aesthetic fusion of the seemingly incongruous influences of East and West.

Azhar Mosque

Though its facade has been ever-changing over the centuries, Al-Azhar Mosque continues to be a central landmark of the Cairo cityscape, bearing within its very design the materials that have made up centuries and millennia of Egypt’s history. In its construction, it purportedly drew elements ranging from Ancient Egypt and the Hellenistic era, while maintaining a preexisting Fatimid structure that was repeated throughout various countries. Indeed, the structure of the Azhar Mosque is as fundamental to the Cairene landscape as the institution is to the history of Egyptian and Islamic thought and intellectualism.  

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