The Island of Zamalek in Cairo


By Jimmy Dunn

View of Zamalek, Cairo from a Helicopter

One of my favorite sections of Cairo is Zamalek, an island in the Nile that basically lies between modern downtown Cairo and Giza. It is an upscale, garden area with a number of attractions as well as many embassies, schools popular hotels and some of the better budget hotels. Here, one finds the Cairo Marriott, one of our favorite luxury hotels, the Gezira Sheraton which is a popular stopover for many tours entering Egypt, as well as our favorite budget hotel, the Longchamps. There is also the Gezira Club, a country club originally built by the British, the modern Cairo Opera House and landmarks such as the Cairo Tower. There are a number of fine restaurants, a lot of fast food western outlets and reasonable and interesting shopping. It is often a beautiful area with lush trees overgrowing streets, offering easy access to other important sections of Cairo.

Cairo Opera House in Zamalek, Egypt

It seems that Khedive Ismail popularized the island when he built his summer palace on there, and a number of royal families followed suite. There are several legend's surrounding Ismail's palace. One is that he built it to house three of his 14 wives, but probably the most popular story is that he built it to accommodate the Empress Eugenie during the inauguration of the Suez Canal. Certainly Eugenie, and other guests of the Suez Inauguration stayed in the palace.. Today, his palace is the Marriott. Other royal residences were also converted for other uses. These include the place of of Price Amr Ibrahim, which is now the Ceramic Museum, the palace of Prince Sa'id Toussoun that is now a branch of the Council of Ministers and the Royal Rest House near the Gezira Sheraton which is now a military establishment.

The island is well known for having a number of fine private schools. The first school we know of that was built on Zamalek was the Catholic Girls College of Bahgat Ali Street and St. Joseph Preparatory School for boys off Gabalaya Street which is today Brazil Street.

The island was also home to Egypt's first modern day fairgrounds that, a half century later, became the new Japanese contributed Opera House. Actually, some of the exhibit building remain. Today, these are the Nile Hall (Saray an-Nil) and Al-Mustadira (Artists' Synicate Building) that shows works by contemporary artists, and Saray an-Nasr, where the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art is located. Other attractions include the Ministry of Culture's Akhenaten Gallery that is housed in a villa on Maahad as-Swissri street, the Italian Cultural Center and a museum housing the works of Mahmud Mukhtar, one of Egypt's internationally known artists.

Zamalek Courniche

Prior to World War II, and ever since the construction of the original Gezira Palace in 1866, the island was almost exclusively known as Gezirat Boulaq (Boulaq Island). The name Boulaq came form thriving port by the same name on the Nile's eastern bank. During this time period there was a small bridge linking the island's midsection to Giza, along with the street that intersected the island's middle named Zamalek. This street later became Avenue Fouad, and after 1952 took its present name, 26th of July Avenue.

Actually, the bridge and street borrowed the name, Zamalek from a small village in Giza called Al Zamalek. This village was just southwest of Imbaba Village, and it is thought that the meaning of Zamalek derives from Zomlok, a Kurdish word meaning straw hut.

After World War II, during a time that Egypt remained under British control, the island's population grew rapidly. Soon the area north of 26th of July Avenue was commonly referred to as Zamalek, while the midsection of the island was referred to as Gezira Al Wasta. However, soon, the entire island became known as Zamalek. However, older residents even today sometimes refer to the area south of 26th of July Avenue as Gezira, but this is mostly due to the Gezira Sporting Club located there and established by the British in 1883. The opulence of the 1920 and British rule can be seen in the Amr Ibrahim House, located just opposite the main exit gate of the club.

View from the Gezira Sporting Club in Zamalek, Cairo

Even after World War II, the island's northernmost area was marshy and would completely disappear during high floods, therefore being mostly uninhabitable. The area was later built up, and due to the Great Dam at Aswan, no longer suffers this fate.

Today Zamalek is a thriving center for middle and upper class Egyptians, along with foreign dignitaries (there are more embassies in Zamalek than any other district of Cairo) and many tourists. It remains one of the most pleasant areas of Cairo. Indeed, it is Cairo's most fashionable residential district where one will find the BMW's and Mercedes of rich Egyptians, supermarkets that sell sushi or French pastries and always an upbeat take on Egyptian life.

Last Updated: August 21st, 2011