Esbekieh Square (Cairo)

Until his death in 1848, Muhammed Ali Pasha instituted a number of social and economic reforms that earned him the title of founder of modern Egypt. He undertook the construction of a number of public buildings in the city, but these reforms had little effect on Cairo’s ancient cityscape. Real modernization of the city happened under the rule of his grandson, Ismail Pasha (‘the Magnificent’). Inspired by the example that Paris had set to the world, he transformed Cairo into a modern Western city. The cost was phenomenal. The resulting debt was immense and provided a pretext for increasing European control, which culminated with the 1882 British invasion. The economic heart of the city moved away from historic Muslim Cairo toward the newly built contemporary areas.


Europeans accounted for five percent of Cairo’s population at the end of the nineteenth century, by which point they held most top governmental and commercial positions. The Haussmannization of Cairo of 1867 was exemplified by the Esbekieh area. It was once a network of walkways with huge sycamores, a stagnant canal, and a fringe of tumble-down native houses. Haussmann turned the place into a gardened plaza with imposing stone buildings for public and commercial purposes. The nineteenth century ‘lure of the East’, the cult of Cairo amongst painters and poets, pre-dates that period. They were obsessed with the old city. There are a large number of paintings and drawings that try to communicate the exotic charm of the place rather than any indication of topography. Typical titles are simply ‘Cairo street’ or ‘street scene in Cairo’. It was the atmosphere, the ambience, and the local colour that attracted European artists to the Orient.

Antoine-George-Prosper Marilhat was an Orientalist painter who, at the age of twenty, made his debut in the Salon of 1831 with a landscape of his native Auvergne. That same year he joined Austrian diplomat and scholar Charles von Hügel on an expedition to Greece, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt. The latter went on to Asia, Australia and New Zealand, returning via Cape of Good Hope to London. Marilhat stayed in the Orient for a further twenty-two months producing ten albums of sketches and drawings. These activities provided inspiration for the rest of his working life. His visit to Egypt proved to be the most overwhelming experience. His painting ‘Ruines de la mosque de Calife Hakam au Cairo’ was exhibited at the Salon of 1840 and made a deep impact on public and critics alike. In an age of increasing hurry, the timelessness of the image struck a cord. The age became hooked on the romanticism of ancient ruins.

Art critic, poet and novelist Théophile Gautier was deeply moved by Marilhat’s paintings. In the cult of beauty professed by him, the Orient played a significant role. Five years after his death, two volumes edited by Charpentier, bearing the title L’Orient, voyages et voyageurs (1877) relate Gautier’s account of his travels to the Near East and his various exposures, through paintings and books, to the Far East. Gautier’s first initiations to the Orient were his voyages to Spain in 1840, to Algeria in 1845, and to Constantinople in 1852.

Egypt, which visited only three years before his death, despite his yearning to do so throughout his life, occupies more than two thirds of the second volume of L’Orient. Since the 1830s Gautier had dreamt of happiness in the guise of Greek beauty and Oriental sensuality. The Orient to him was first and foremost Ancient Egypt. The extraordinary fact is that Gautier created all his works of fiction revolving around Egypt before he ever set foot in that country. In his creative work, the Orient is a geographical location, but above all an exotic ideal with aesthetic and emotional significance. It served him as an alternative to European culture. Many French authors and artists of the 1840s were united in their disgust with the idolatry of progress; with the ‘Americanization’ of society; and, above all, with the rejection of genius and its denial of individuality. They dedicated their life to the pursuit of beauty.

The vogue of Egypt had begun in France before 1789 and blossomed with Napoleon’s expedition in 1798 and the group of scholars who accompanied him which led to the creation of the Egyptian Institute. In 1857, Gautier published a novel which was the culmination of nearly three decades of interest in Ancient Egypt, Le Roman de la momie, which tells the story of Lord Evandale who discovers the tomb of Queen Tahoser. He falls in love with her retrospectively, takes her mummy to London, and suffers a life-long alienation owing to his impossible passion.

As an outstanding art critic, Gautier was acquainted with the achievements of the Orientalist painters whose works dealing with Egypt, Syria, or Turkey fortified his nostalgic imagination. Orientalist themes were much in fashion in 1830. There had been earlier influences such as Delacroix’s ‘Massacres de Scio’ (1823) and other such vibrant paintings inspired by the painter’s trip to Algeria and Morroco.

At the Salon of 1833, Gautier saw a painting depicting ‘La Place de l’Esbékieh au Caire’. It made on him a profound impression on him. He recorded his reaction in the following terms. On seeing the painting he ‘became sick at heart, and yearned for the Orient, in which I had not yet set foot’. He asserts in his book on the Orient that Marilhat’s painting provided him with a basis from which his imagination departed on fantastic errands on the narrow streets of old Cairo. The opening sentence of his 1842 story ‘La mille et deuxième nuit’ locates the protagonist on the same Esbekieh Square painted by Marilhat: ‘Il y avait une fois dans la ville du Caire un jeune homme nommé Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, qui demeurait sur la place de l’Esbékieh’. He transposed the experience also in the poem ‘L’esclave noir’ in which a smoking black slave (the famous tobacco of Latakieh) watches a pale looking Muslim woman wearing a black veil passing by at Esbekieh square:

Comme elle, il habitait le Caire;
Tout en fumant son latakieh,
Il la voyait passer naguère
Sur la place de l’Esbékieh.

Gautier was moved by the power of the painting. When he actually saw the place with his own eyes during his visit to Cairo his account lacks any emotion at all. Gautier was an aesthete – reality always came second.