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Ataba Square: Cairo’s Famed Historical and Cultural Hub

January 1, 2022

In the heart of Cairo’s crowded streets lies Ataba Square, a space of various essences in sculpturing the historical, cultural, geographical, and economic situation in Egypt. Egypt’s main post office is located near it, and it is the starting point of Cairo where all distances of cities are measured, according to the book “History of Post in Egypt” by Dr. Abdelwahab Shaker (2013). As it is often deemed the ‘starting point’ of Cairo, many also consider it to be the heart of the beginning of the urban aesthetic of Egypt.

Other famous buildings in Ataba square are the old Cairo Opera House, which is currently located in the Elgezira area, and Azbakeya Garden Theater currently known as the National Theater. These two hubs played a critical role in illuminating the culture in Egypt.

A sneak peak into its history

In terms of its history, Saifulldin Azbak Al-Thahiri, who was a member of the latest of the Mamluk generation in Egypt, decided to build a house and a mosque on the Azbakeya land in the mid-1400s.

Later, in 1495, the area’s identity started to take shape, with markets and many houses spreading all over. During the era of Khedive Ismail in the mid-1800s, the land witnessed an effective shift in its layout and infrastructure. The tram was first introduced in Egypt connecting some remote places together. Indeed, the first tram in Egypt kicked off from Ataba square in 1896, crossing several neighbors such as Heliopolis, according to the book “Cairo’s Tram: A Historical, social and literary study” written by Mohamed Sayed Kilany.

Regarding origins of its name, Ataba is an Arabic word meaning ‘threshold’; originally, the place was called “Al-Ataba Al-khadra” meaning the ‘green threshold’. The reason for this was the enormous greenery landscapes that surrounded it.

A hub of culture?

In 1868, Khedive Ismail ordered construction on Azbakeya land; after renovating it, a theater and an opera house. Designed by the Italian architect; Veroucci, the layout of the building was categorized under the medieval European architectural era.

After World War One, many people, fleeing a destroyed Europe, ended up looking for resettling opportunities in Cairo. With many north Africaners studying there, Cairo was considered a cosmopolitan community at the time, therefore, several of the European and international shows and operas were performed in a myriad of cultural spaces.

Furthermore, the theater had its unique flavour as well, with several plays gaining huge popularity; they were played and directed by an entire Egyptian team lead by Yaacob Sannoa, the founder of modern Arabic theater.

Another iconic building found around Ataba square is the Tiring building, one of only three around the world. Its architectural details render it recognizable, but it is the statue on top of the four men sitting on their knees and lifting Earth above them that is its most iconic feature.

Beside the arts presented in Ataba Square, a famous coffee shop which had been located there, also formerly considered a cultural hub, was “Matatia”. Matatia was a place where poetry and literature legends used to meet such as Hafez Ibrahim, Abbas Al-Akkad, Ahmed Shawky, Al-Mowelhy, Al-Mazeni, and several others used to compose their great works. Other iconic figures who used to visit this place with a crowd of gathering keen on learning were Gamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, Abdullah Al-Nadim, and Mohamed Abdo; they were all essential figures renovating modern Egyptian history.

Propelling the economy forward

In 1886, the first public market was established in the Khedivate Cairo, in Ataba Square. Ataba and Mousky are two words that are often linked together, with the Mousky functioning as the extension of Ataba Market – both places were and still are considered the largest commerce markets in the Middle East. All the products sold there were crafted in Egypt and, generally, imports were minimal at that time. In fact, the Egyptian textile products available were internationally recognized as distinct, alongside leather products such as bags and shoes.

Mousky was particularly famous for being a focus point of Egyptian Jews merchants who used to pass on their crafts to younger generations, until they gradually started leaving Egypt by the mid-1900’s. Since its establishment till current days, this market has been expanding, and the number of merchants is increasing, alongside the diversity and availability of products.

Moreover, Ataba square is surrounded by very famous streets such as AbdulAziz and Mohamed Ali streets. The first is known for its vendors of household and electrical devices while the latter retains musical products, accessories, and instruments.

Ataba at the Present Time

Currently, Ataba square is still a place where tens of thousands of Egyptians flock to every day. The place currently holds a book fair that includes around 132 bookstores; nicknamed the Azbakeya wall or better known in Arabic as “Sour Al-Azbakeya”. Compared to more modern and expensive bookstores, the book market is a popular option as prices are relatively reasonable, and the quality and availability of the books have been constant.

Ataba Square witnessed critical phases in Egyptian history: from strikes and revolutions to famous plays and operas. Although the layout and architecture of the place changed a lot throughout time, the space never lost its identity. Over the years, crowds have increased, and the area has become denser, yet. While strolling, one can still find the harmony between buyers and sellers which lingers centuries later.

Main image source: Tripsadvisor.

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