Egypt: Rawdah (Roda) Island

Rawdah (Roda) Island
by Jimmy Dunn

Today there are two main islands in the Nile at Cairo, though this was not always the case. Zamalek, more familiar to many tourists because of its several five star hotels and upscale restaurants and entertainment, did not exist in the dynastic period. Rawdah (Officially Al Manyal ar-Rawdah but commonly known as Roda outside of Egypt) island, is composed of bedrock and probably always existed, though its placement in the Nile has changed. In the Dynastic period, it was referred to as Per-hapi-n-On Which means the House of the Nile of On, and it was this name that was probably mistranslated by the Greeks as Babylon. Of course, small sections of the fortress of Babylon can still be viewed across the river in Old Cairo. We are told that during the Roman era, a twin to this fortress also stood on Rawdah.

There is no question that Rawdah Island enjoys a rich history. Monumental buildings certainly were built here, destroyed and built again throughout the history of Egypt, though no remains of ancient monuments remain. It enjoyed a position in the Nile between the northern limits of ancient Memphis on the west bank of the Nile, and Heliopolis (On) on the east bank. However, the Island was more closely associated with Heliopolis. Since the 15th century, the island has been separated from the west bank of the Nile by only a small channel, but this was not always so. The Nile's course has changed several times over history. Rawdah was once located closer to the center of the Nile.

Most of the more interesting history of the island comes to us from the Islamic period. For example, it was here that the riverine (Bahri) Mamluks were housed. The Mamluks of Egypt were a ruling faction during the middle ages but there were various factions of Mamluks. Another faction were housed at the well known Citadel, and at various time these two opposing groups would exchange cannon fire across a sizable chunk of Cairo.

Since the time of the Pharaohs, the island has at different times been a large port, a shipbuilding island, an arsenal, a fortress, the site of royal palaces, a rich garden and today there remains one of the oldest Islamic buildings in Egypt, the Nilometer on its southern tip.

Today Rawdah is dissected into four sections by its two main bridges and a central road. The two major bridges span Rawdah Island to connect Cairo's the east and west banks. The southern bridge, called Kubri Abbas, carries Rawdah Street (Shari Rawdah) and eventually turns into Shari al-Haram (Pyramid Road) which leads to the Great Pyramids. The Northern bridge is known as Kubrial-Gaamah (University Bridge) and carries Sayalat Street. In Giza the street turns into Nahdet Misrt Street and is the primary street leading to Cairo University.

Until the 1952 revolution, Rawdah remained mostly gardens as it has been described by historical visitors. Some of these gardens remain in the northern section, but after the completion of the Abbas II Bridge in 1907, the area south of Shari Rawdah gradually became a residential district.

The northern end of the island is dominated by the Meridien Hotel with its new towers, and a number of smaller buildings belonging to the Qasr al-Aini Hospital. However, most tourist's interest will be at the southern end of the Nile where the ancient Nilometer is located.

There has probably been a Nilometer on Rawdah sine pharaonic times and the current meter was in use as late as the British occupation. Nilometers were used to measure the extent of the Nile flood, upon which the success of farm harvests depended, as well as the taxes imposed by the government. The importance of the Nilometer is demonstrated by the name of the Rawdah residential area named al-Manyal, which means "measure of the Nile".

The current structure was built by order of the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil in 861 to replace an earlier Nilometer built 150 years earlier but that was destroyed by a heavy flood. The Nilometer itself is an octagonal column divided into cubits located in the middle of a square stone-lined shaft. Next to the Nileometer within the same enclosure is a pavilion belonging to the Manastirli Palace complex. The palace itself was demolished sometime after 1952 to make space available for a waterworks system.

One of the few other major attractions on the Island is the Manyal Palace complex on Shari as-Saray. The museum was set up by Prince " Mohammad Ali Tawfiq " in 1899 in the middle of a thirty feddan garden. The garden has a group of rare trees which the Prince had brought from various parts of the world. The palace's architecture, interior decorations and furniture are all modeled on the Arabesque style. The museum's collection is the most complete representative set of the "Ottoman" art. In addition, the museum contains early Islamic manuscripts and rare collections of embroidered textiles, carpets, crystal vessels and candelabra.

Rawdah is one of those place in Egypt that may not be scheduled within the framework of a normal tour. But it is a delightful place for a short visit and one is sure to leave with a a better understanding of both modern and medieval Cairo.