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Storied Structures: The History of the Yacoubian Building in Egypt

August 23, 2022

Cairo is home to some of the most beautiful art-deco structures in the world, so what makes one building, situated in Downtown Cairo’s Talaat Harb Square, stand out as a subject for books, films, and television shows in Egypt?

Photo credit: Zeina Hanafy

Eternalized in writing through Alaa El-Aswany’s best-selling novel and showcased on all screens in Marwan Hamed’s film adaptation, Omaret Yacoubian (‘The Yacoubian Building’) is one of Cairo’s architectural jewels, etched in Egypt’s history.

Photo Credit: Good Reads

The historical building was commissioned by the millionaire Jacob Yacoubian in 1937. Head of the Armenian community in Egypt at the time, Yacoubian commissioned Armenian architect Jaro Balian to design the building. He designed the building to represent the Art Deco style, infusing classic European aesthetics. The name Yacoubian was engraved on its entrance in Arabic and English in luminous neon lettering.

The building was home to a multitude of Egyptian pashas, wealthy Europeans, and star artists. It blended different religions, ethnicities, and nationalities.When a number of buildings were transferred to state ownership in the wake of the 1952 revolution, the living situations changed for its inhabitants. They were chased out, and there were physical transformations to the building, among them the obvious transformation of rooftop rooms from laundry rooms to housing.

Over the years, it cannot be said that the Yacoubian building has aged gracefully, and it is now quite easy to miss on a stroll in Downtown Cairo. It has been bedecked with signs for shops that now line its first floor, and the first glimpse of it is anti-climactic for those who imagined an enthralling edifice.

These expectations are largely based on the appearance of the building in the Omaret Yacoubian film (2006), directed by the iconic Marwan Hamed, with a star-studded cast including Adel Emam, Youssra, Hend Sabri, Khaled El-Sawi, and many more. Hamed’s film, though centered around the historic building, does not depict the real Yacoubian building.

The film, which features a building close to Shorbagy street in down Cairo, is centered around the decaying Yacoubian complex, and follows the interwoven stories of its residents as they face power struggles, corruption, drugs, and more. The tenants of the building, who end up in a storm of hate, drunkenness, and subjugation, mirror the decline and decay of Egyptian society.

Today, the building is a remnant of a once beautiful architectural era, overpowered by the influx of shops and urban expansion. Still, the Yacoubian building, as many others in Egypt, reflect the bygone history of Egypt.

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