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Reviving Cairo's splendour?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 01 - 2019

Whenever I stroll through the streets of Paris, contemplating its elegant architecture and beautiful statues, my mind turns to the architectural and sculptural treasures we have in Cairo.
There is a reason why this city earned the epithet of “the Paris of the East.” However, sadly there is also a vast gulf between the neglect that Cairo suffers from and the attention that Paris enjoys, especially since the 1980s when former French president François Mitterrand launched his ambitious “grandes opérations d'architecture et d'urbanisme” in Paris, an ambitious urban and cultural renewal project for the city.
Mitterrand's “grands projets,” as this project was known in short, not only aimed to restore and renovate Paris's architectural and artistic monuments, but also to create new ones such as the Louvre's glass pyramid, the Musée d'Orsay (converted from a former railway station), the Arab World Institute, the Bastille Opera House (on the same site as the notorious prison), the Grande Arche de la Défense and the new National Library.
Among the city's historic monuments that were targeted for a facelift was the ancient Egyptian obelisk which stands in the Place de la Concorde. The obelisk's small pyramidal cap was given a gold-leaf coating, enabling it to shine as proudly as it had in the age of the Pharaohs.
When asked about the hefty 18 billion French francs earmarked for these projects, Mitterrand explained that they were an investment in France's soft power and as crucial as the country's defense spending.
The reason I have brought up Mitterrand's project here is because Cairo is in a similar position today as Paris was then. As Egypt prepares to transfer all its government offices to the New Administrative Capital, it has a rare opportunity to free Cairo of its heavy congestion and from the ugliness that has too often obscured its architectural and sculptural features.
It is impossible, here, to enumerate the many artistic treasures that merit attention in our beloved city, from the buildings that date back to the Islamic and Coptic eras to the 19th-century edifices of Khedival Cairo. I will confine myself to a few items that many still overlook, notably the bronze statues by the French sculptor Henri Jacquemart (1824-1896) that adorn the city. Among his most important works are the statues of Mohamed Ali, Suleiman Pasha and Lazoghli and the large lions guarding the entrances to Qasr Al-Nile Bridge. If these statues were transported to France, the French would make a museum for them.
Suleiman Pasha, born Joseph Anthelme Sève, was engaged by Mohamed Ali to build a modern Egyptian army. After settling in Egypt, with which he fell in love, he converted to Islam and acquired the title of Suleiman Pasha Al-Fransawi (the Frenchman). His statue now stands in the Military Museum in the Citadel after having been moved there from the Downtown square that once bore his name but has since been renamed to commemorate the pioneering Egyptian economist and founder of the Bank of Egypt, Talaat Harb.
Suleiman Pasha's connection with Egypt goes beyond the military. His daughter married Mohamed Sherif Pasha, the father of the Egyptian constitution and a prime minister. From that marriage came a daughter named Tawfika, in honour of the khedive Ismail's successor, the khedive Tawfik. Tawfika in turn married Abdel-Rehim Pasha Sabri, who would eventually become minister of agriculture. Tawfika's and Abdel-Rehim's daughter was destined to become queen Nazli of Egypt, the mother of the last king of Egypt, king Farouk.
Lazoghli's statue still stands in the Cairo square bearing his name. He, too, has an interesting story. Also a military man, his name was originally Mahmut Bek Lazoglu (son of the Laz people), but he modified his Turkish name to Lazoghli. He served as katkhuda, approximately prime minister, under the khedive Ismail. By the time the khedive commissioned his statue, Lazoghli had died and there were no portraits of him that Jacquemart could use in order to create a likeness.
By pure coincidence, some people who had known him personally came across an elderly water-carrier in the Khan Al-Khalili district of Cairo who they thought looked exactly like him. So they dressed him in the late pasha's clothes and brought him to Jacquemart for him to use as a model. The elderly water-carrier could never have imagined that he would one day be immortalised in bronze by one of the most famous sculptors of the age, even if that sculpture did not bear his name.
This is not the only irony connected with the statue. Not only is it a statue of a water-carrier, rather than a katkhuda who was also an army officer, it became associated with the Ministry of the Interior rather than the army. The Interior Ministry happens to be situated right next to the square where the statue stands. So, should anyone have to go to the ministry, they say “I'm going to Lazoghli.” Yet, “Lazoghli” was not a real name, the statue is not of him, and he had nothing to do with the Interior Ministry. Still, it is the only one of the statues that remains standing where it was originally intended and in a square that has not changed its name either.
Few are aware that Jacquemart's four lions were originally destined to greet visitors as they entered the two gates of the Zoological Gardens in Giza. By the time the fourth of them had arrived from France, khedive Ismail had been deposed and his son Tawfik had taken his place. As the Khedive Ismail Bridge, the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge today, was slated for a facelift at the time, Tawfik decided that it needed something to reflect the stature of his father, so he had the lions posted at both ends of the bridge. Large reliefs of jungle animals took the lions' originally intended place when the Zoo was inaugurated in 1891.
Will the move to the New Administrative Capital prove an opportunity to restore Cairo to its former splendour? As the city sheds some of the burdens that have weighed on it for years, will it be able to dedicate much-needed attention to its many historical architectural and sculptural attractions? Or am I dreaming?


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