(Originally published by Al Jazeera America.)
Until the 1800s, the land between the Nile River and Cairo's oldest settlement, a place called Al-Fustat, was a forgotten marsh.
Only during the final decades of the 19th century did Egypt's Ottoman khedives, its local viceroys, drain the swamp and begin to expand their capital in an obsessively European style.
Full of neatly radiating boulevards and named Ismailia in honor of the ruling khedive, a new quarter grew along the east bank of the river. A bridge, later named Qasr al-Nile, or Nile Palace, allowed tourists to cross between the burgeoning district and the pyramids to the west.
At the bridge's eastern end, where it met the outskirts of Cairo proper, Khedive Ismail donated a piece of his palace gardens to build a large roundabout named Midan al-Ismailia, or Ismailia Square.
When the British military arrived in 1882 to help put down a revolt against Ismail's son, soldiers commandeered a barracks in the square. It was there in 1946, as British influence in Egypt waned, that troops brutally suppressed a massive anti-British protest.
"When the demonstrators reached Ismailiya Square … four British army vehicles moved towards them and a barrage of machine-gun fire opened up," historian and activist Ahmed Abdalla wrote in 1985. Twenty-three people were killed and 120 injured. "The government disclaimed all responsibility and blamed students for allowing their 'peaceful demonstration' to degenerate into violence 'because of infiltration by a mob.'"
In early 1953, shortly after a cadre of Egyptian military officers overthrew the remnants of the old colonial order and set Egypt on a path to decades of autocracy, they renamed the roundabout Midan al-Tahrir: Liberation Square. Even then, the former marsh's mythology had begun to grow.Read More