At the 1867 Paris Exposition Internationale, Khedive Ismail became obsessed with Baron Haussmann’s vision for a new Paris. Haussmann sought to clear the labyrinthine streets of medieval Paris to make way for a modernist urban scheme of broad boulevards radiating from roundabouts. Ismail returned home inspired, with plans to transform Old Cairo into a grand modern city to rival the capitals of Europe as part of his larger quest to “turn Egypt away from Africa, and toward Europe”.
Ismail’s infatuation with Europe is captured in a detail of Henri Baron’s 1867 “Dinner At The Tuileries”. The painting shows Ismail leering at the pearl-dappled nape of the aristocratic woman seated next him.* Perhaps unkind, it captures Ismail’s covetous—and ultimately ruinous—fascination with European splendor.
An incredibly industrious ruler who micromanaged his many projects across Egypt, Ismail bankrupted the nation in pursuit of his grand visions for the Suez Canal, military expansion, and a Modern Cairo. For Cairo’s new extravagant public gardens, replete with pavilions, ponds, paddleboats, and grottoes, Ismail contracted Barillet-Deschamps, the chief gardener of the City of Paris. For the inauguration of the Suez Canal, Ismail commissioned an opera by no less than Verdi. To showcase Verdi’s piece, Ismail constructed an opulent opera house modeled on La Scala in Milan. And for those neighborhoods that could not be refurbished in time for the lavish inaugural ceremonies, Ismail erected Potemkin facades to conceal Old Cairo from the delicate sensibilities of visiting dignitaries. [To clear the rich thicket of ancient Cairo, Ismail ordered his civil engineers to blast boulevards with canon fire—literally & figuratively laying siege to the Oriental past.]
Ismail’s massive—and massively expensive—ambitions were initially funded by a cotton boom. The American Civil War and the Crimean War had disrupted the global cotton trade, prices soared, and Egypt was in position to benefit. (The editors at Print inserted a fortuitous adjective describing Ismail’s modernist project: “bombastic”. Keen word choice, as “bombast” derives from an older word for cotton. (Thus, bombastic language is language that has been padded out, puffed up.**))
But cotton money wasn’t enough, and so Ismail borrowed heavily from British banks to cover the enormous expenses. As the banks eventually came calling, Ismail panicked. To hide his exploding debts, Ismail—remembered for his “terrifying sea green eyes”—ordered his Finance Minister Ismail Sadiq snuffed out. Sadiq—who, BTW, also happened to be Ismail’s son-in-law, married to his favorite daughter—was invited to discuss public finances and served coffee laced with poison. Sadiq, sensing something amiss, refused to drink. He was seized, the poisoned beverage was forced down his throat, and he was strangled. To cover his tracks, Ismail created a cruel charade, that Sadiq had been dispatched on official business to Sudan. Ismail then forged a series of letters from Sadiq reporting that he was having a grand time in Sudan; that he missed everyone terribly, especially his dear wife; that he’d be home soon. Finally the sad letter came from Khartoum that Sadiq had passed away…
Ultimately, Ismail’s grand plans bankrupted the state and lead directly to Egypt’s seizure by colonial powers. Ironically, Ismail’s dream to make Egypt European was achieved, as Egypt became a possession of Europe. Today, when discussing the proposed IMF “rescue” loans, foreign powers often frown at Egypt’s trepidation to sign on the dotted line. One must bear in mind that foreign debt once ruined Egypt and this remains a bitter national memory.
Among other texts, I am indebted to Trevor Mostyn’s wonderful “Egypt’s Belle Epoque: Cairo and the Age of the Hedonists”
* The woman in the pearl necklace is actually the Empress Eugénie, wife of Emperor Napoleon III, and Ismail’s infatuation with her was extreme. (For Eugénie’s visit to Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal, Ismail contracted German architects to construct a private villa for her on the banks of the Nile, and “when she sighed for the cherry blossoms of her beloved Spain, he is said to have had a spinney of them, in full pink blossom, planted beneath her window as she slept”.) (Related: Ismail erected only two statues in his Winter Palace—one of Marie Antoinette, the other of Eugénie.) While not getting 2 deep into the fascinating woman that is Eugénie, let us note a strange tangle of coincidences: As an independent young woman, Eugénie scandalously sported trousers after the fashion of George Sand (an intimate of Chopin) and chose unusually to take residence in a hotel—The Hôtel Baudard de Saint James (where Chopin would later die in the arms of his Polish mistress). This hotel was later the same location where Ferdinand de Lesseps would establish the Suez Canal Company. What the going on?!
** Cotton/Bombast: Bombace in the Old French is a cousin of the Iranian pambak, which became in modern Turkish, pamuk. Thus, the name of the famous Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, means Orhan Cotton. Huh!
Also, should you ever wish to own a keychain of “Dinner at The Tuileries” apparently the internet has everything.
Also, speaking of The City That Ismail/Haussmann Built: Overlooking Mohammed Ali Street is the beautiful, ruined Tiring Building. (Now a gothic shell filled with squatter merchants, pirated sunglasses, and downmarket seamsters.) 100 years ago it was a luxury department store that rivaled its Parisian counterpart Aux Galleries Lafayette, which still stands today on… Boulevard Haussmann! Because Victor Tiring decided to headquarter his department store operations in Vienna (bad luck), with the outbreak of WWI the Tiring Building was declared enemy property. After the Second World War the premises became home to the HQ of the Osiris Masonic Lodge(!?) Now there’s an obscure group we need to know more about / join.
Also, whereas Tiring was once a byword for luxury, the 1997 film Al-Tofaha, set in Cairo’s beleaguered downtown, exposes the reverse-side of that English word: tiring. Every morning in the film’s story the protagonist leans from the window of her shabby apartment and speaks to the four gilded Atlas figures who shoulder the mighty glass globe atop the Tiring. She is a beautful newlywed, whose new life is less than she had hoped. To her the (Tiring’s) once-splendid globe is now something more pedestrian, tofaha—one of the first words visitors learn in Arabic; the most popular flavor of shisha tobacco—an apple.
Also, on the above subject of the Nasserists overtaking Ismail’s Cairo, I could swear that Foxygen sings at :38 “She had on Nasserist-shaped earrings in her ears”
It took me 4 listens to realize the actual lyric: “She had rhinoceros-shaped earrings in her ears”. Too much Egypt ringing in my ears, I suppose.