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“The pressures on Egypt’s environment and population have changed life in Zamalek,” says interior designer and photographer Karim El Hayawan. Recently returning to this leafy pocket of the Egyptian capital after a stint in the suburbs, today he is relaxing in an airy studio in a part of town that feels removed from the city’s overcrowded streets and tense political atmosphere. His walls are covered with works from contemporary Egyptian artists and photographers, and with the escapist he’s discussing Zamalek’s late 19th-century villas and more modern art deco apartment complexes that he’s come to cherish. Peering down at the dusty streets below, a rich tapestry of architecture weaves its way along the riverbank of the downtown island district beyond his home. “I’ve come to appreciate this neighbourhood more for its surreality than for its serenity,” he says.

“It’s difficult to pretend it’s a quaint little area,” he adds, explaining how schools operate from heavily guarded mansions and security troops (overseeing the island’s 10 major embassies and hotels) are a regular sight. Yet, despite the city’s anxiety over its turbulent recent history, the mood in Zamalek still harks back to a more relaxed and flamboyant Egyptian yesteryear. This area largely avoided the trauma of Egypt’s chapter of the Arab Spring in 2011 that turned parts of Cairo into a warzone. Members of the community remember the revolution mostly as a time when they had to organise their own rubbish collections and set up a volunteer neighbourhood watch to secure the residential streets.

Despite Zamalek’s central location – wedged between the Nile’s right bank and the city centre – the area has more green space per square kilometre than any other part of Cairo. Its 20,000 residents have former khedive (Egyptian ruler) Ismail Pasha to thank for their leafy patch. The khedive, responsible for establishing the Suez Canal, created Zamalek as a refuge from Cairo’s “crowded” centre – this was the late 1860s when the entire city counted 300,000 residents (today it has surpassed 20 million).

Ismail made a botanical garden as a setting for three palaces on the island where lush acacia, banyan and eucalyptus trees provided shelter from the simmering desert heat. The idea was to impress European royalty and investors being hosted for the inauguration of the Suez Canal. This royal retreat consisted of palaces in the Ottoman tradition – a festivities hall, a selamlik (guest residence) and a haremlik (private family residence) – all set on 49 acres of lush land. After multiple international royal visits it didn’t take long for capital from France and Britain to flow in as shareholders began to increase their stakes in Egypt’s industrialising economy.

Today, Cairo is a place far beyond Egypt’s royalist era but Ismail’s selamlik and festivities hall still stand strong – serving as the five-star Cairo Marriott Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino. A neoclassical confection touched by Moorish flourishes, the hotel’s lobby boasts sofas and chairs upholstered with fabrics from the city’s famed Khan al Khalili market. Public spaces here are partitioned with the traditional geometric latticed mashrabiya wooden screens and adorned with ornate mirrors. There may be newer hotels in Cairo but nothing rivals the Marriott’s arabesque cool.

It’s an aura very much cherished by wealthy guests from the Gulf States and Egyptian tycoons who sip tea or beer on the leafy terrace and play baccarat. While the original gardens that surrounded the palace have been swallowed up by residential development, citizens making their home in Zamalek enjoy a quality of life greater than others across the Nile, in neighbouring central districts.

“We are privileged to have the acacia trees shading our streets and a sense of community that is quite intimate by Cairo standards,” says Zamalah resident Salma Osman, a television producer for Egyptian and Arab Gulf satellite channels. Osman says she finds no better antidote to the stress that comes with living in a crowded city than watering the collection of north African succulents she has potted in Egyptian ceramics on her balcony. Her flat overlooks both the Marriott’s gardens and the grounds of the Gezira Sporting Club. The latter turned a swathe of land into private space but in doing so has protected the island from the overdevelopment suffered by the rest of the city.

Many smaller parks still exist here too, including the Aquarium Grotto Garden where families take their children to one of the best-maintained playgrounds in town. It’s also a favoured spot for outdoor music events and craft fairs. “It is much safer here [than the rest of Cairo] and women can go shopping or walk their dogs in Zamalek with no hassle,” Osman says – in a recent survey of global megacities, Cairo came last for women’s safety. But safety is considered a less-pressing issue in Zamalek, where old royal villas serve as well-guarded residences for embassies and bases for Cairo’s sizeable diplomatic corps.

The greatest concentration of residential buildings in Zamalek is found north of the Marriott and, for architectural admirers, it’s worth the trek. Here a raucous mix of styles – in concrete and brick, and ranging from late baroque palaces to modernist Arab apartments – crop up among green gardens.

“Zamalek had waves of reviving historic styles like Andalusian or neo-gothic and adapting new ones like art nouveau in the 1920s and art deco in the 1930s,” says Ahmad al-Bindari, a historian and a photographer of Cairo architecture. “The buildings also reflect the diversity of the area’s residents over time: British colonial era administrators, Italian construction engineers, members of the Egyptian royal family and the aspirational bourgeoisie who followed them.”

Within this mixture of architectural styles we find the Baehler Mansions, which offer a glimpse into the life of the upper-middle classes in the colonial period. The complex was named after the late 19th-century developer Charles Baehler, a Swiss hotelier who gets credit alongside Thomas Cook for making tourism Egypt’s second-largest source of foreign currency.

The mansions are large Victorian-era flats with elegant brickwork and cavernous hallways. The individual units are characterised by arts-and-crafts details including rustic wood-gated balconies. The block is also home to La Bodega, a popular lounge bar and restaurant, where the elaborate setting seems to be more of a draw than the Italian food and pricey cocktails.

Nearby, we meet Zamalek resident Hassan Abouseda, an architectural consultant for citizen-led preservation efforts in the city’s downtown. “I’ve tried to make my apartment have something of the mid-century feel of the Safari Bar at the Nile Hilton,” says Abouseda from his flat in the 16-storey modernist Le Bon Building.

His space is remarkable. On top of pristinely polished parqueted timber floors sits a cast-iron latticed screen – salvaged from a demolished residence. Rare finds from his travels tastefully furnish the flat. “For me the attachment to Zamalek is almost entirely Proustian,” he says. “It’s the one place in Cairo that still retains most of what it was like a century ago both in terms of human scale and cosmopolitan diversity.” As the city’s most attractive area, Zamalek has an outsized role as a shelter for the arts and creative industries. “My studio is here and so are the most important art galleries like Art Talks and Soma,” says El Hayawan, who we rejoin to tour the island’s cultural sites.

While Soma is respected for art education and exhibiting socially engaged work, more upmarket galleries are making a name for themselves here too. SafarKhan specialises in the seminal figures of 20th-century Egyptian painting, while the Zamalek Art Gallery is considered Cairo’s most established and influential in terms of both exhibitors and collectors.

But the most promising pointer to the culturally fruitful future of Zamalek comes in the form of the Aisha Fahmy Palace. Built in 1907, Aisha Fahmy has recently reopened as an exhibition space after a faithful renovation led by Egypt’s culture ministry. Regardless of what textiles, paintings or photography the museum curators are displaying, visitors come just as eagerly to admire the stained-glass windows, and marvel at the Versailles-style interior colour scheme. It’s a sign that both government and citizens are in sync – at least when it comes to the art of appreciating good architecture.

“The development of the suburbs and the construction of the new capital being established outside Cairo are going to relieve much of the pressure on Zamalek,” says neighbourhood stalwart Seif El Rashidi, who is writing a book on Cairo’s art deco buildings with fellow architectural historian Ahmad al-Bindari. He paints a vibrant vision for Zamalek’s future – and it’s one that will hopefully see more visitors discovering this roughly cut gem sitting pretty on the Nile. “Once the embassies move to the new capital I think the ‘Green Zone’ feeling that bothers some residents will dissipate as the barriers outside the ambassadors’ villas come down and what we have here becomes even more visible to the public.”

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  • The Urbanist