A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Brief Biography of Tahrir Square

Midan al-Tahrir, Liberation Square, Cairo's great central plaza, has been the center of world attention for the past several weeks, and, nearly 60 years after being named Liberation Square, has earned its name. Of all the central characters in this drama, though, it seems to be the one that hasn't been the subject of profiles in the round-the-clock coverage so far.

My daughter,looking at the crowds on TV, asked the pertinent question, "Why do they call it a square if it's round?" It's not exactly round, either, though a huge traffic circle marks its center. (And "Midan," or maydan,originally referred to any large open space, including sporting fields.)

Tahrir sits at the intersection of several major streets, and is home to the Egyptian Museum, the former Nile Hilton (now owned by Ritz Carlton), the Foreign Ministry, the Arab League, the old campus of the American University in Cairo, the ‘Umar Makram mosque, and the huge monument to bureaucracy known as the Mugamma‘. It is a central bus terminal and the major Metro system hub (Sadat station). It sits east of one of the main bridges across the Nile, the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, whose guardian lions have been seen frequently during the demonstrations.

It owes its beginning to the era of the Khedive Isma‘il, left, who ruled from 1863 to 1879, and who had a grand vision for a construction of a modern, European style city in Cairo, to the west of the old city, on ground that had been periodically flooded by the Nile and had been underdeveloped as a flood plain. Much construction was carried out for the grand opening of the Suez Canal, and the process continued into the reign of his successor, Khedive Tewfiq.

The master planner of all this was an engineer and city planner named ‘Ali Pasha Mubarak, no relation to the former President that I know of, shown at right. Most of downtown Cairo and its various elegant (if now rather faded) squares are a result of his master plan. The square we are now so familiar with he named for his patron, Khedive Isma‘il, as Midan Ismailia.

Isma‘il's grand building plans, among other ventures, were financed by borrowing, to the point that Egypt's debt to European lenders became unbearable, leading to the British intervention of 1882 and the de facto protectorate by Britain.

Midan Ismailia became a center of British authority. Where the Nile Hilton and Arab League now stand, stood the Qasr al-Nil barracks, a military camp and symbol of British power. To the south lay the British Embassy, which ran down to the Nile (there was as yet no corniche).

Only after the military coup of 1952 was the Midan renamed from Ismailia to Liberation Square. To underscore the symbolism, Nasser tore the barracks down and built the Nile Hilton and Arab League; the British Ambassador lost his riverfront access and the corniche was built.

During the Sadat era, there was an unsightly pedestrian walkway built around the Midan; that was mercifully torn down. When the Metro opened, Tahrir became a major hub, as it already was for buses.

And today, Liberation Square finally justified its name.


aron said...

"During the Sadat era, there was an unsightly pedestrian walkway built around the Midan"

What, like a walking bridge? All around the square?

(Sorry for not focusing on more important matters, but I'll always wonder if I don't ask...)

Michael Collins Dunn said...


Exactly. A raised bridge around the whole traffic circle so pedestrians didn't block the traffic. But it blocked the sightlines and was really ugly. I think they tore it down finally when they dug the subway station.

Anonymous said...

I'll take the unsightly pedestrian walkway any day in trade for the monstrosity which now runs above 26th July St in Zamalek.

Or the Burj Al Aar nearby.

David Mack said...

Burj Al Aar

Do they still call it Wa'if Rusfel after Kim Roosevelt? Most of the demonstrators in Midan at'Tahrir were too young to remember that bit of Egyptian humor, so perhaps burj al aar is the sanitized version their parents used.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


Good question. Any Egyptians want to comment?