A Pub Crawl in Ottoman Cairo

OUP have just published Joseph Ben Prestel’s book Emotional Citieswhich compares Berlin and Cairo 1860-1910. In it, there is a chapter that details Egyptian worries about the corrupting power of the new Ezbekiyya district, with its bars, music halls and theatres. People worried that all this entertainment was leading people astray and seriously affecting the rationality (‘aql) of the Egyptian nation.

Inspired by this book, I want to take us back to Ottoman Ezbekiyya and I guide you on pub crawl through its fleshpots and dens of iniquity. Be careful not to become irrational.

The date we shall return to in our time-machine is 14th June 1904.[1] I will be using the Goad Insurance Map made in 1905 that is available online from the University of Harvard, here. It is an extremely detailed map of all the businesses and houses in the area that you can easily lose hours in. I suggest you look at it yourselves.

Large Map

Ezbekiyya, a recent development built in an area that used to be home to a lake surrounded by palaces, was now the centre of “European” Cairo with hotels for travellers as well as theatres, cafes and bars. Instead of a lake, the centre of Ezbekiyya was now a large park. The west side of this park borders on an area that contained to the houses of Cairo’s elite and that gradually got built up to become what, in 2017, is “Downtown Cairo”. This is where the grand, expensive hotels, like the Shepheard and the Continental (aka Savoy), stood. This is not the kind of place I would want to do a pub crawl. Our tour will focus on the seedier areas to the North, South and East which eventually lead out to the old Jewish areas of Mouski and the Khan al-Khalili.

Stop 1: Shepheard Hotel

Although I don’t want to spend much time in the West, I have chosen the date 14th June so that we do get a chance, at least, to see it before heading out.

Shepheard's

Shepheard’s was Cairo’s most famous hotel; luxurious and desirable, it was the place where ever tourist wanted to stay and Thomas Cook had an office within the grounds. On the 14th June 1904 it was hosting a momentous event in the history of Arabic literature: the launch party for Sulayman al-Bustani’s Iliad, the first full translation of Homer’s epic into Arabic. Around 100 Egyptian, Syrian and Greek writers, critics and scholars were there, including Rashid Rida and Yaqub Sarruf, editor of al-Muqtataf. Before we start drinking you can try to catch a glimpse of some literary celebrities or pick up a copy of al-Bustani’s translation of Homer. (I have selected this date so you can do this even though it means that we are using the map slightly before its publication).

(Shepheard’s was burned down in 1952 and on its site there is now a petrol station.)

Stop 2: The Star and Garter Bar

From the Shepheard let us head east into what a guidebook in 2017 would call “the nightlife district”.  It is a short walk to the top of Sharia Wagh al-Berka (in section 5 on the large map. Now named Najib al-Rihani after the famous and appropriately high-living actor). Here we find the large Star and Garter Bar on the corner. Since it is bad luck to drink in a pub you don’t know the name of I will try to take us to bars that we can see the name of. So drink you first bottle of Egyptian Stella, the beer brand founded in 1897 by a Belgian man called Albert Heyndrickx.

Star and Garter

Stop 3: The Russo-Japonais Bar

There are a few bars on this street, including the Obelisk bar in the Hotel Port Said and the Alexandrie bar. I am going to take us, though, to the Russo-Japonais, principally because of the name. It was, no doubt, given that name in the heat of the enthusiasm that followed the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. The European power, Russia, was defeated by the plucky Japanese and many other “Eastern” nations saw this as an example of how they might stand up to their European colonisers. The owner of this place was so thrilled by those events that he named his bar after these events in the Far East.

Russo-Japonaid

Stop 4: The Grande Cafe Armenien

After that drink we can move round to panel number 6 on the map. We come to the bottom of Sharia Clot Bey, named after the French medical pioneer Antoine Clot. In this period, it was the centre of the “European” red light district, prostitution having been legalised by the Ottoman authorities. Our pleasures will be more chaste. We can take the opportunity to keep ourselves awake with a coffee at the Grande Cafe Armenien on Midan al-Khansidar.

Armenien

Stop 5: Behera Bar

It is a very short walk from the Cafe Armenien and Midan al-Khasindar to the next bar on the stop, the Behera bar. Walking to the East side of the gardens and in to the 7th panel on our map. The bar is nestled in what appears to be a fabric district, including a Singer sewing machine shop. (Still today, there are many tailors and fabric shops around Ezbekiyya.)

Behera

Final Stop Option 1: The Opera House

After a few drinks, we will no doubt be in the mood to take in a show. There are two choices; the first choice is the boring one. We could go to the elite Khedival Opera House and see something there. I do not know exactly what is on tonight. If there is not a summer holiday, we will be able to see one of the touring European companies that the government subsidises because they are said to promote tourism. The troupes were normally French or Italian and would perform the classics.

Before the performance, we could grab a drink at the bar opposite the Opera house.

Opera

(Since 1904, the Opera house has burned down and now a carpark stands in its place)

Final Stop Option 2: The Egyptian Theatre

If, instead of the Opera house, we head out to Sharia Mohammed Ali we have a more exciting choice. We can go to Iskander Farah’s Egyptian Theatre to see his show. On the night of the 14th June his troupe are putting on a production of Harun al-Rashid, a play based on the stories of the Arabian Nights . Salama Higazi will be singing the lead parts and, to attract the crowd, the performance will be followed by some short moving pictures.

Egyptian theatre

In terms of a pre-theatre drink, there is a huge choice. In this picture alone, I count 18 different bars. Because it has a balcony, I suggest the bar in the bottom right of the picture.

The End

So that is the end of our pub crawl of the 14th June 1904. I highly recommend looking at the map (versions exist for other cities, including Alexandria) and planning your own Ottoman pub crawl.

 

[1] On this date Egypt was under British occupation but it was still, nominally, part of the Ottoman Empire.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Shereef says:

    For an Egyptian, this is so cool especially when I am familiar with these neighborhoods and some of the historical context and landmarks

    Like

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