top of page


Parallel transformations in the architecture of texts and the city in late 19th century Cairo



Visual comparison between traditional urban mass and dense text (right) and modern urban fabric and punctuated text (left). Author’s composite image, 2020. Source of images: / Bibliothèque nationale de France - Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Sachsen-Anhalt - Wikisource.

Grids and Paragraphs brings together two distinct fields of research.

First, city as text. How the city is written and read, but also how text is built and meaning is embodied and constructed. The interrelations between architecture and language have been discussed in ways that lack neither variety nor range,[1] as Adrian Forty shows us in Words and Buildings (2000), and has existed ‘as long as we have had a modern city literature.’[2] It has been the topic of critical debates in architectural discourse, increasingly from the 1960s onwards, as well as in recent scholarship, including at UCL. Yet, as a field that is rooted in the study of architecture’s relation to language, its knowledge production has been written mostly in English, as lingua franca, and centred mainly around Europe. It has rarely engaged with other cultures and geographies, especially considering their own particular relation to language and architecture. This dissertation thus attempts to situate this discourse within the city of Cairo and shift its focus towards Arabic texts, which brings us to the other field of research that this thesis engages with.

Second, the Arab and Middle Eastern city in the advent of industrialisation, world market and modern nation states. As most other cities in the region, from Algiers to Beirut with varying degrees and circumstances, Cairo’s route to modernity was inextricably linked to the machinations of European colonialism, circumscribed from its beginning by the French occupation (1798-1801) and towards its end by British rule (1882-1952). Consequently, much of the knowledge produced about the city has been dominated and shaped by Eurocentric epistemic models, notwithstanding Orientalist tropes, often failing to account for local agency as well as cultural and geographical idiosyncrasies. This dissertation thus attempts to explore Cairo’s route to modernity as a locally situated and continuous process of development. Through examining archival maps and texts, it traces a parallel and analogous transformation of both city and text in late 19th century Cairo.

It is divided into two parts.

Part I, the City, begins with the map of Cairo introduced by the French expedition in 1809. It examines the map as a form of knowledge on the city, a legible document in which the city is inscribed, as well as a literary construction through which the city is read. Building on Timothy Mitchell’s Colonizing Egypt (1988), it then moves on to discuss the founding of the army (1820-1863) as the formative event, not only in the making of the Egyptian nation state, but also in devising a modern concept of disciplinary order that would be diffused and applied to the whole surface of society, including schooling, housing and state-building. It argues that this ‘new order’ took the form of the grid, a discursive formation and spatiotemporal ordering device that converged to organise and structure both city and society according to a system of straight, parallel and intersecting lines. It then explores how the grid as order came to shape the city (1868-1882) through examining the map of Cairo, commissioned by the state in 1874, tracing the transformations that the built environment underwent in the form of modern grid-planned developments built in stark contrast to the dense urban fabric of the old city. This exploration is hinged on the moment in 1868 when Ali Mubarak came to preside over the establishment of two newly founded state institutions, the Ministry of Public Works and the Ministry of Education. The dissemination of both buildings and words would be managed from the same office in old Cairo.

Part II, the Text, begins by exploring the proliferation of translation and print in 19th century Cairo as a transcultural space through which the scientific advancements of Europe were introduced into Arabic. It explores how Arabic writings struggled to digest and co-opt the modern city, and how Cairo came to accommodate a vibrant textual culture in which a burgeoning literate class engaged in conceiving and reproducing the city through the written word. These developments would culminate in later decades in the writing of Mubarak’s Khitat (1888), a voluminous text of traditional urban historiography documenting Cairo’s built form, narrating the account of its buildings, streets and monuments over time. Through examining the visual form of the Arabic text as an image, it then shows how written Arabic, traditionally composed of dense bulk text from beginning to end, underwent a modernizing transformation not unlike that of the city with the introduction of the paragraph and punctuation. Paragraphs divide the text in a similar way to the division of space to grid-planned land plots. As much as the page has a body and margin, land plots have built forms and retention spaces separating them. Paragraphs and grids can be both seen as parts of an otherwise extended whole-continuum; the text in the case of the first and urban space in the case of the second. Punctuation, on the other hand, regulates the flow of the text, as analogous to traffic in the city space. In other words, it brings together, separates and distinguishes texts in order to better perform the meaning.

It concludes that the introduction of paragraphs in dividing the space of the text echoed the transformation of the city as it came to be organized by grids. In as much as it is composed of and about texts as they relate to architecture, it looks at how texts conceive of and depict the city, as well as how texts are material products, built and populated with words and spaces, which are in turn shaped by the city.

[1] Adrian Forty, Words and Buildings: The Vocabulary of Modern Architecture (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000), 63.

[2] Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford & California: Stanford University Press, 2003), 50.

Copyright of image:

© Public domain, reproduced courtesy of / Bibliothèque nationale de France
© Public domain, reproduced courtesy of Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Sachsen-Anhalt
© Public domain, reproduced courtesy of Wikisource

bottom of page