Urban transformations: The great Cairo fire and the founding of a modern capital, 1952-1970

Yasser Elsheshtawy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


In January 1952 an anti-British mob set numerous buildings in downtown Cairo on fire. One of those was the famed 1860 Shepheard's Hotel. These events led to the July 23 military takeover, overthrowing the monarchy and resulting in a group of military officers assuming power. In their strive to remove the symbols of the colonial past they engaged in a far reaching att empt to modernize Cairo. The British Barracks located along the Nile, at the edge of the city's downtown area, were a particularly poignant target. They were replaced in 1959 by the ultra-modern Nile Hilton. Both of these incidents, and buildings, reveal a specific moment in Cairo's history in which the past was cast aside, removed and destroyed and in its place a new vision was promulgated aiming squarely at engaging Cairo and in turn Egypt with the wider world. This paper argues that Cairo's twentieth-century urban development can be read through these two incidents. The fire that burned down Shepheard's set in motion a process that led to the city's current urban form. Tracing the trajectory that began with this incident up until the construction and subsequent use of the Nile Hilton, is revealing in the kind of rupture, both spatial and social, that occurred. Through acts of spatial upheaval a certain form of spatial violence was used to seek a new vision. Media accounts, literary portrayals, and historical imagery evoke the circumstances surrounding these events in addition to complementing various academic studies that have examined this period. Moreover by using such sources - both in their online and archival physical presence - I intend to portray the everyday and the extent to which these two buildings affected the social lives of Cairenes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)408-425
Number of pages18
JournalBuilt Environment
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Urban Studies


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