In the middle of the 19th century, the slavishly Francophile khedive Isma'il laid out this district on a Parisian plan across the old canal from Islamic Cairo, which until then had been the heart of the city. It quickly became the most fashionable commercial and residential district, lined with cafés and jewelers and settled by all the major department stores. In time, as new residential districts such as Garden City and Zamalek opened up, Downtown lost favor as a place to live. But it was, above all else, a colonial city—standing in proximity to traditional Cairo but self-consciously apart from it.
With the rise of Egyptian nationalism in the early 20th century, that could not last. Much of Downtown was systematically torched in anti-foreign riots on Black Saturday in January 1952, in a spasm of violence that demonstrated how closely architecture was associated with colonial rule. The riots marked the beginning of the end for the foreign presence in Egypt: the revolution that overthrew the British-backed monarchy followed Black Saturday within months, and with it all the street names changed to reflect the new heroes. But it was the wave of nationalizations in the early 1960s that finally closed the colonial chapter Downtown, as those foreigners who had stayed on past the revolution lost their businesses, their way of life, and their place in a city that had never really belonged to them.
Downtown—called Wist al-Balad in Arabic—is still loved today, but more for its shoe stores and movie theaters than for its architecture and the unique melding of cultures and influences that it once represented. Walking through the district gives you a sense of infinite discovery, of little fragments of a time and place, now lost, that haven't quite been swept away by the changing politics. Although all the shops at street level have redecorated their own facades, look higher and the fin-de-siècle city comes alive. Sadly, most of the buildings are in an advanced state of decay, so you have to use a little imagination to re-create the neighborhood's former glory.
Quite apart from the experience of Downtown Cairo, the Egyptian Antiquities Museum is a lens through which to see the ancient world. And it is essential to any trip to Egypt. Its vast stores of treasures from ancient Egypt are as astonishing as they are daunting to take in. Tour the museum in conjunction with a day in Giza, or before you head upriver to Luxor, Aswan, and beyond for the Nile Valley monuments.