Paris along the Nile

Simon Akam takes a stroll down the crumbling, 19th-century boulevards of Cairo's European quarter

Mahasen Maher can still remember when the girls wore miniskirts to Groppi's. The 65-year-old Egyptian moved into her apartment above the venerable coffee shop on Midan Talaat Harb in downtown Cairo in the winter of 1960.

"It was one of the best restaurants, a nice place, with nice sweets," she says, seated at an inlaid table in the cavernous art-deco flat she shares with Rocky, her German shepherd, and Lazy, an exhausted-looking turtle. "We wore clothes without sleeves, décolletage. It was a nice place to live." However, almost five decades on, everything has changed. In the coffee shop below, girls in headscarves sip mediocre Nescafé at tables of stained Formica. The streets outside are choked with traffic. "Everything got worse," Maher says sadly.

The origins of Cairo's European quarter, centred on Midan Talaat Harb, extend back to a Europhile 19th-century ruler of Egypt, the Albanian Khedive Ismail. In 1867 Ismail visited the Exposition Universelle in Paris and was enraptured by the boulevards of the new city that had been constructed by Baron Haussmann. Flush with receipts from the spike the American civil war had created in the price of Egyptian cotton, Ismail decided to rebuild Cairo in the European style. On a swampy section of land between the Nile and the teeming souks of the medieval town, planners laid out a new city.

However, Ismail's ambition was not matched by financial acumen and his largesse bankrupted the Egyptian state. In 1882 the country came under de facto British control. Yet Cairo continued to thrive, and the hurried facades of the new boulevards were fleshed out by further construction, catering to a burgeoning Anglo-Egyptian caste of administrators, a cosmopolitan foreign community and the wealthy pashas and Coptic cotton kings of the Egyptian nobility.

The new buildings encompassed a riot of architectural styles, from art nouveau to arabesque. In the downtown area, villas were superseded by grand apartment blocks such as the Yacoubian Building, the monolithic structure on Sharia Talaat Harb, used by the Egyptian writer Alaa al Aswany as the setting for his bestselling novel of the same name.

However, despite its grandeur, the polyglot westernised Cairo that sprang up between the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries remained a colonial imposition. Its glamorous residents were a tiny, feudal fraction of the population, most of whom lived in grinding poverty. Such a state of affairs could not last for ever and the beginning of the end came on 26 January 1952, Black Saturday, when lingering discontent came to a head and mobs rampaged through the city burning signs of foreign rule.

By the end of the day the windows of Groppi's had been smashed, and it was clear that nothing would ever be the same again. Within a year the pro-western King Farouk had sailed into exile in Italy, in 1953 Egypt was declared a republic, and in 1956 Gamal Abdel Nasser was confirmed as president.

After the 1952 revolution the new administration passed legislation to fix the rents for residential property. The law was intended to protect the homes of the poor, but when the value of the Egyptian pound collapsed, the controlled rents became worthless. With rental revenue slashed and anything associated with the ancien régime cast out of favour, landlords ceased to look after the buildings. As Samir Raafat, an Egyptian historian, has written, "The word maintenance has gone the way of the tarboosh."

Visiting central Cairo today - the district referred to in Egyptian colloquial Arabic as Wust al-Balad, or "the heart of the country" - is a sad experience. Egypt's heart is clogged with the urban cholesterol of traffic and once-grand facades are smog-blackened and pockmarked with leaking air-conditioning units. With Soviet-inspired town planning and exponential population growth, the amount of green space for each of Cairo's 20 million-odd inhabitants is now about the same as the area of the upturned palms of the desperate beggars on Sharia el-Bustan.

One of the few who has campaigned for the preservation of the old city is Dr Isaak Azmy, a Cairene designer. At his elegant studio in the suburb of Heliopolis, he laments the decay in the heavy, formalistic cadences of classical Arabic. "Downtown was the centre of history, civilisation, humanity and architecture," he says. "But the people do not have taste. They do not appreciate the beauty of the old buildings."

However, beneath the botched ferroconcrete and miasma of carbon monoxide and the improbably named wireless networks that fill modern Cairo, there are still a few places where it is pos sible to find vestiges of the old city. One afternoon in the Nile-side district of Garden City, I turned in to Grey Pillars, the fantastical pile where gaberdine-clad British staff officers planned the defeat of Rommel in the Second World War.

I knocked on a door at random, and a graciously greying Egyptian artist ushered me into another marble-pillared world. Silver Yemeni daggers were splayed under glass-topped tables and portraits of ancestors in full Ottoman regalia gazed serenely down at what remained of their pashalik. Perched on a French Second Empire gilt chair and surrounded by unfinished canvases, the graceful owner spoke of the city of her youth. "The ladies were elegant. Egypt was another Paris. Now the traffic is awful."

Her words are echoed by those of one of the last remaining foreign residents of the Yacoubian Building, a grande dame whose cursive business card still gives her address using the pre-revolutionary street name, Sharia Suleiman Pasha. "It was very nice. But the world has changed."

However, there is a final irony to the slow decay of the old new city, the former Paris by the Nile. As more and more Egyptian women choose to take the veil, and the rise of Islamist groups continues to worry the secular apparatus of state, the residents of Cairo might do well to remember that the Parisian boulevards that Ismail copied owe their graceful proportions in part to the Napoleonic diktat that they be too broad to barricade.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty