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Press and urbanism in Cairo, 1924/الصحافة والعمران في القاهرة، ١٩٢٤


This picture represents a fundamental triangle between technology (paving machines), the Arabic press (the editorial office of the magazine al-Lata’if al-Musawwara, “Pictorial Entertainment”), and urban engineers (the Tanzim office). The picture itself is a cut from al-Lata’if al-Musawwara (September 1924) and its text says that the Tanzim brought new paving machines from the United States of America and in the picture they work in front of the editorial building of the journal. The building is this one today, it was close to the Helwan station in the 1920s.

Detail of General Map of Cairo, Survey Department, 1920

The relationship between urbanism and the press, like in all other cities, is fundamental in Cairo. The daily and weekly journals and magazines in Arabic (and in Italian, French, Greek, English, Hebrew, etc) registered and commented on property development, novel architecture, new streets, urban engineering feats and failures, prices, urban policies of exclusion and inclusion, and, of course, morally condemnable buildings and activities. This fundamental relationship is a shared technological one in this picture since the press machine, the paving machines, and photography (a third technology!) establish the public sphere and the public space simultaneously through automatization mechanisms.

Al-Lata’if al-Musawwara was a weekly magazine specialized in publishing news and comments with photographs and caricatures. Its owner and editor Iskandar Makaryus (1882-1952) and his brother Salim Makaryus started the magazine in 1915, in a moment of almost total press censorship in WWI Egypt, when martial law was in effect, and the British practically ruled the country with its wartime economy. Given that the Makaryus family belonged to the well-connected and rich Christian Syrian bourgeoisie in Egypt (the father, the famous Shahin had already been an Arabic press capitalist, owner of al-Lata’if among other journals) it is not unlikely that the British authorities not only allowed his enterprise aiming at entertaining news instead of politics but supported its publication during war time. The British press propagandist was certainly disappointed in 1919 when the editors switched their loyalty to the Egyptian nationalist grandees (Fahmy, 2011, 151). Al-Lata’if al-Musawwara remained an extremely popular illustrated Arabic journal until the mid-1920s in Egypt.

Title page of al-Lata’if al-Musawwara, 14 April 1919

We do not know yet the relationship between the magazine al-Lata’if al-Musawarra and the Tanzim administration. The Tanzim has been the basic urban authority in Cairo; in Arabic originally Majlis Tanzim al-Mahrusa, the Cairo Urban Engineering (“Planning”) Office; in the 1870s-80s its French name was Administration de la Voirie (we may write more about this important institution in a future post). Street pavement was an essential urban feature, including gas and water-canalization, speedy traffic. Cairotes envied paved Alexandrian streets as early as the 1890s (Barak, 2009). In 1924, the Tanzim engineers were proud of the new American machines (this is certain based on their posing in the picture) and it is possible that they asked the editors to publish a photograph in their popular paper; and the editors thought that with the same breath they advertise their own journal as well. In any case, this picture connects the Cairo public space with the public sphere, Egypt and US technology, press cuts and our project “The Making of Modern Cairo.”

Bibliography: remembering al-Lata’if al-Musawwara in Egypt ; Ghislaine Alleaume, L’école polytechnique du Caire et ses élèves: la formation d’une élite technique dans l’Égypte du XIXe siècle (Lille : A.N.R.T, Université de Lille III, 1993) ; On Barak, “Scraping the Surface: The Techno-Politics of Modern Streets in Turn-of-Twentieth-Century Alexandria,” Mediterranean Historical Review 24, no. 2 (2009), 187–205 ; Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman: nationalism, Gender, and Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 89-90; Ziad Fahmy, Ordinary EgyptiansCreating the Modern Nation Through Popular Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 151; for a comparison in Ottoman Damascus: Till Grallert, “Mapping Ottoman Damascus through news reports: A practical approach,” in Elias Muhanna (ed.), Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle East Studies (Boston: De Gruyter, 2014), 171–193, available at; Adam Mestyan, Arab Patriotism – The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), Chapter Three; Mercedes Volait, Architectes et architectures de l’Égypte moderne 1830–1950—Genèse et essor d’une expertise locale (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2005), 93-97. (A.M.)

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