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Friday, February 15, 2019

A Visit to Sinan Pasha Mosque in Bulaq

After visiting the fabulous fabric shop near the Hilton Cairo World Trade Center Residences, we headed back into "old Bulaq."  I wanted to see the Sinan Pasha Mosque which dates from 1571.  Visible from across the Nile for four centuries, it now is hidden behind the modern skyscrapers lining the Corniche.

This article in the Cairo Observer from 2012 has a photo and drawing that reveal architectural details along with this note:
The mosque is used by some of the area’s elders, and is visited by architecture specialists who know of it. But perhaps it could be interesting if more people wandered the streets of Bulaq and discovered Sinan Pasha and surrounding area for themselves.
We concur.  If you are looking for more detail, download this article by architectural historian, Tarek Swelim.

The mosque is located in a quiet area but the surrounding buildings make photography difficult.  In spite of that, I captured some good views of the dome and minaret.

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At the entry to the mosque, there is a sign presenting the history of the structure.  It's in Arabic only, indicating that not many foreign tourists are expected.
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Monday, February 11, 2019

Urban Renewal - Bulaq Is Changing, Part 3

I hope you studied the first two Bulaq posts thoroughly so you have all the historic and social-justice background down and are ready to tour Bulaq.

We spent the better part of a day walking through the northern part of the district.  The area contains a fabulous collection of used auto parts shops, tool shops, metalworking shops and tiny factories.  We learned a long time ago that a "factory" is quite different from what we think of when we hear the word used back home.

We approached the area crossing the Nile via the 26th of July Bridge and quickly descended into the heavy downtown traffic.
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On our right side, we saw the continuing demolition that we had visited the day before and one of the buildings being preserved.
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We parked under the elevated outbound lanes of the bridge and noted the busy garment district on that side.  Clothing is both new and pre-worn which comes from outside of Egypt. The price on the rack being rolled out is 35 Egyptian pounds - about two dollars.
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The garment district quickly gives way to a large area of small shops featuring used auto parts.  Any part you can imagine hangs in visible display.  If you have ever dismantled an engine or swapped out a transmission, you will be awestruck as you follow the wandering streets.

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Need a tool?  Perhaps a large wrench or a come-along?  You are in the right area.


After a half mile or so of "tool town," we found ourselves close to the Nile corniche with the blue Egyptian National Bank buildings in sight.  Is that a church next to the bank?  Yes it is, a Coptic church.
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Suddenly we were back in the modern era and found ourselves in an area of clean, brightly lit fabric shops.  The largest of these held some fabric in patterns of interest to both Linda and me.  Yes, those pictures of Marilyn are not photos; it is actually fabric, meters upon meters of Marilyn! We stopped in to look more closely.  While Linda looked at fabric, I took some pictures of the passing foot traffic including a gentleman pushing a large blue hand-truck.

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After purchasing some fabric at a very reasonable price, we headed back into the interior of Bulaq to visit some of the tiny factories.  Most of the factories were the size of an American one-car garage.

Raw materials were close at hand.  This shop sells steel bar stock.
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This factory is turning out those blue hand-trucks that I spotted an example of earlier.

As we returned to the parking lot, suddenly the factories and used auto parts faded away and women's underwear appeared.  There may have been some men's also but I was so taken by the ladies' colors that I really didn't check too closely.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Urban Renewal - Bulaq Is Changing,Part 2

If you skipped that twenty-six minute video tour of Bulaq that I steered you toward in the previous post because of its length, you might still enjoy reading this 2015 article from Egypt Today titled "A Walkabout Around Cairo's Bulaq District."
... When he was just a child, he was not supposed to go beyond Merza mosque after dark, as all the shops would close and it was too dangerous to walk around. If anyone crossed the mosque “a genie would appear and freeze them and they wouldn’t be able to move,” he tells me.

Lucky for us, it isn’t dark so we aren’t too worried about going past Merza to reach our second destination. El Qadior judge Zayn El-Din Yahya mosque, commonly known as El Mahkama mosque, is famous for missing the top half of its minaret. As legend has it, the minaret was split in half when a huge snake swirled around it.

Not knowing what really happened to the minaret, Salah asks the first man he sees sitting in front of a shop when we walk out of Merza, “Do you know what happened to the Mahkama mosque’s minaret?” The big man’s dark green eyes seem a little worried as they rest on my camera, but Salah introduces himself and reassures him I am doing a story on the area and how it’s changed over the years. Suddenly the man sits up straight. “I have maps.”... 
After watching the video and reading that article, I came away wondering what will happen to the historic buildings in the district and curious to know more about the Ali Baba Cinema and its fate.  And what about the people who called Bulaq home for many generations?

Let's deal with the Ali Baba Cinema first.

In 1946, architect Naoum Shebib invented a process for building a domed roof which he patented and is known as the "Chebib Vault."
 The "VoĆ»te Chebib" was a unique method that consisted in the following steps: 1) an earth mould was fashioned in the shape of the desired thin shell, 2) steel rods were positioned within the mould, 3) a thin layer of concrete was poured over the entire structure, embodying the steel rods while taking the shape of the mould and 4) the hardened concrete vault was slowly raised to its final position by using an ingenious system of jacks. In this case, the vault was raised to a height of 12 meters (40 feet).

Shebib went on to greater fame as the architect of the Cairo Tower.

The Ali Baba set the tone for a class of popular cinema showplaces know as "Terzo theaters."   The Ali Baba was actually torn down in the summer of 2017, departing before this latest mass leveling.

This article explores the Terzo theater genre and the heyday of Egyptian movies in more detail.
“Since my childhood, I used to go to Ali Baba to enjoy its diverse programme,” Saber Sarhan, an employee of a garments store opposite the now-ruined cinema recalled. “I would see two Arabic and a foreign film for a ticket of three piastres [one pound equals 100 piastres]. But that was in the late 1960s before prices have gone crazy,” the 54-year-old man told Gulf News.
Besides providing memories for Cairo cinema fans and architecture students, the Ali Baba became quite an attraction for the gay community in more recent years.  I will leave it to the reader and Google to explore the numerous explicit and NSFW sites that describe that role.

As for the historic mosques and a few buildings from the British Colonial period, those will be preserved.  You can see some of these on the distant edge of the cleared area.

And the very historic mosque of Sinan Pasha is well beyond the current zone of destruction.  We will see more of it in the next post.

As for the long suffering residents of Bulaq, there were many years of discussion before displacement began.  The government offered compensation as it purchased the land and that took a number of years.  While the compensation may have represented adequate market value, it was not enough to finance a home and lifestyle in the sandy desert suburbs where the government planners would have the residents live.  This review of that twenty-six minute film about Bulaq finds the displacement of Bulaq residents to be at the heart of the 2011 revolution:
Although world and Egyptian media have been fixated on the symbolic Tahrir Square, little attention has been directed towards places where many Egyptians converging on the square actually live. Bulaq, only a few hundred meters north of Tahrir Square, is one such neighborhood.

The residents of Bulaq represent the essence of why Egyptians erupted in mass protests last year. This is a community that has suffered for nearly forty years at the hands of the Sadat and Mubarak regimes, which aimed to erase the district from Cairo’s map.
One additional view of Bulaq can be found in this three minute music video.  Besides serving as an introduction to the modern Egyptian techno-music of youth that can be heard at parties and wedding receptions, the subtitles provide a quick introduction to Bulaq.

The first thing that comes to mind when you hear "Bulaq" is a picture of a ghetto, and all the stereotypes that comes with that.

But, it's not like that.  Yeah, maybe it's crowded.  But that's the case for any ghetto.  But it's not the case that you're scared when you walk into it.

With all of that as background, my next post will take you on a walk through the shops, mini-factories and interesting sights that stand just outside the current Bulaq destruction zone.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Urban Renewal - Bulaq Is Changing, Part 1

Metropolitan Cairo is divided into some seventy districts.  Getting around the city in a taxi frequently entails naming a district and then proceeding.  Ask to be taken to Maadi or Shubra and you are largely done with the instructions.

One quite large and well known district is Bulaq.  It occupies a triangle with one side on the eastern bank of the Nile and extends to the North from just beyond the Egyptian National Museum well beyond the distinctive blue towers of the Egyptian National Bank.  To the east, the district reaches most of the way toward the central train station.

Bulaq was once a separate village and was the port of Cairo.  A favorite with artists, it turns up regularly in paintings and travel guides from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This sketch is from the 1840 Illustrations of Cairo by Robert Hay which can be viewed online here.  Note the Mosque of Sinan Pasha in the background on the left - we are going to encounter it again.

And this painting is from the 1906 book: Egypt, Painted and Described, by R. Talbot Kelly which can be downloaded here.

The section of Bulaq along the Nile has now given way to modern new high-rise construction.  The blue towers of the Egyptian National Bank stand out as a prominent landmark visible on both sides of the river.

Back from the river, however, the architecture and landscape might best be described as colorful old Cairo.

Bulaq has long been a vexing issue for Cairo's urban planners and city government.  British architect Gehan Selim has managed to turn the story into a full-length book.  (If you are not an urban planner or architect this book is going to be a tough read!)  In her introduction, Selim describes the area:
Over centuries, the district grew haphazardly and became dominated by tight alleyways, lanes, crowded tenements and Islamic architecture and filled with enormous workshops of small-scale industries.
It is populated by a mixed working class from all parts of Egypt, who migrated to the city during the 19th century to work on Muhammad 'Ali' Pasha's modernization projects. To the north of the district is located the bulk of the city's newer industrial plants. The district is filled with outstanding Mamluk and Ottoman mosques and merchants' houses located near the port.
 Well, the planners and government have finally overcome their reluctance and begun a major renewal of the area marked in dark pink on the map at the top of this post.  I wish that we had known this was going to happen so could have taken some good "before pictures" last year.  Lacking that, I encourage watching this twenty-six minute video about Bulaq.  As close as I can come to a "before" picture is to show you a "screen capture" from the video.

 After watching the video, I was ready to move to Bulaq. However, Linda and I talked to a "beat cop" in the area, a former downtown shop owner who ate lunch there during the 1980's  and 1990's and a recently displaced resident.  Nostalgia aside, the neighborhood had become pretty much unlivable.

Here is a panorama shot of that dark pink area as it looks today with the buildings demolished.

The small black figure seated on a cement chunk in the right third of the photo is a displaced resident looking wistfully at a pile of stones that marks the area where she grew up and raised her children. She said she likes to come here often and remember her life as it was.  The government has given all residents some compensation for their businesses and homes but not nearly enough to remove the pain of leaving the area where they lived and worked all their lives.

(Linda's note:)  I once accidentally wandered into this labyrinth of close set buildings and couldn't find my way out. Since I was a foreigner in a place where foreigners were seldom seen, I attracted a fair amount of attention.  The residents waved and greeted me in Arabic and were so friendly that I decided to enjoy being lost as I meandered about until finally making my way out of the area.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

A Vist to Tunis - Part 5, A Visit to the Caricature Museum

When I was exploring the area around Tunis on my laptop computer, I ran my mouse pointer along the shore of Lake Qaroun and one of the first things to pop up was the Caricature Museum - a surprising find out in this area, I thought.

Lonely Planet has a short entry for the Fayoum Art Center Residency that describes it this way:
This project, run by painter Mohamed Abla hosts classes and resident artists from around the world in the cooler months of January and February; email him for information on upcoming workshops. For the casual visitor, the onsite Caricature Museum holds an interesting collection of Egyptian political cartoons.
You can be sure I was keeping an eye out for the museum as we strolled through Tunis.  A prominent banner marked the entrance, on a large piece of land with the museum sitting well back from the street.
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We approached the building and after a stroll through the gallery, we soon ran into Mohamed Abla's son, Ibrahim. Ibrahim was not particularly interested in collecting the entrance fee of $1.14 but was quite enthusiastic in his welcome.

Ibrahim gave us a little background on his well-known father and the museum.  See this article in ArtSmart for a mini-bio of Mahmoud Abla and this article in Ahram Online for a full account of the Caricature Museum.  A longer biography of Abla can be found here.

Ibrahim invited us for tea, of course, and offered us a quick tour of the facilities where a workshop was underway.  A visit to the top of the classroom building afforded a pleasant view of the lake in the distance and we noted one artist-in-residence working on a painting that incorporates the blue theme of the village. A short chat with this artist revealed that she was from Berlin.

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The Caricature Museum features works primarily from Egyptian publications and is probably most appreciated by visitors much more fluent than Linda and I in both the local language and politics.


This is my final post on the village of Tunis. It seems appropriate to close with this link to an article in Ahram Online describing a dispute between the government and the artists in Tunis.  That dispute closed the artist's facilities for a period back in May of 2017.  This should serve as a springboard to the next blog posts covering urban renewal in the heart of Cairo.

Monday, February 4, 2019

A Vist to Tunis - Part 4, A Visit to a Pottery Workshop

Tunis is an artist's town - potters, painters and the like, so I had better take some time to describe the art scene.

Mahmoud Youssef's Pottery Workshop had the most prominent sign and the largest group of visitors.  Of course, it was lunchtime and Mahmoud also was serving pizza courtesy of the Ibis Cooking School on the same site.
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We went straight into the pottery shop and found a nice selection of handcrafted items.  I thought about picking up a coffee mug but couldn't find one with a "Tunis, Egypt" inscription fired into it.

On display was a poster of Mahmoud at work.

As we left, we noticed that the crowd was largely lined up for the pizza which was being prepared on the spot.

Aharam Online offers an article describing Mohamad Yousseff's pottery workshop and the surrounding area in a 2016 article found here.