The Secret Lives of Cairo’s Embassies

No matter where you look in Cairo’s Nile-side Dokki district, the Czech embassy looms like a hulking rectangular shadow. Rising a dozen floors from a sprawling compound and arrayed across roughly 1,000 rooms, it dominates the approach to Cairo University.

For the 15 or so resident diplomats, occupants of what’s perhaps the largest embassy in the Egyptian capital, just filling their ludicrously oversized workspace can be a challenge. By leasing whole floors out to language students, visiting businessmen, and archaeologists, they more or less succeed.

And yet back when this was all built in the 1970s as the embassy of Czechoslovakia, the scale seemed much more appropriate. Prague was one of Egypt’s biggest arms suppliers in the 1950s and 60s (much of it funneled from Moscow), and then a major source of farm machinery and industrial expertise through the 70s and 80s. Amid decades of close military and economic partnership, Czech planners had little reason to believe that anything—like the fall of the Soviet Union or the break-up of their own country—might happen to render their colossal Cairo quarters obsolete. “Back then we had the numbers, with around 100 embassy employees stationed here,” said Ramzi Abu-Eid, the Czech deputy ambassador to Egypt. “Things are obviously a little different these days.”

They’re not the only ones to have fallen afoul of fast-changing power currents. Ever since modern diplomatic norms were formalized some 200 years ago, countries have often sought to project their clout or degree of interest in a host state through grand embassy buildings. The bigger and more prominently placed the mission, the more impressive the nation’s image, the reasoning went. From the Sir Edwin Lutyens-designed British residences in Washington, DC and New Delhi to the massive Soviet-era Russian embassies that dot former Warsaw Pact members, states have frequently gone by the same established playbook.

But just as the opening of imposing new digs can signify who’s on the up, so too downsizing or moves to less glitzy premises sometimes suggest a diminished status. And no city perhaps has seen more ‘statement’ embassies come—and go—than Cairo.

As the Middle East’s largest and historically most important capital, it’s long been a focal point for the great players of the day. So much so that after a century and a bit of geopolitical skirmishing, the city’s embassies have come to form a kind of timeline in bricks and mortar for ‘who’s hot’ and ‘who’s not’ in the Arab World.

“States haven’t always very subtle about expressing their power,” a senior Western ambassador in Cairo explains. “And for some, embassies are still seen as one of the best ways to show off.”

It was the British who fired the first shots in the Cairo embassy arms race in 1892. Having occupied Egypt since the previous decade, Britain’s then representative, Sir Evelyn Baring (nicknamed Overbearing due to his domineering ways), decided his country needed a building that was more becoming of its regional supremacy than an overcrowded downtown mission. On hearing that the walled garden of an old riverside royal palace just south of what is now Tahrir Square was for sale, Baring swiftly snapped it up and commissioned a handsome mansion among expansive gardens with a riverside dock and its own steam-powered generator. Until 1952, Egyptian affairs were to be heavily influenced from behind the residency’s tall whitewashed walls.

That was followed over the next few decades by a string of similarly striking European embassies, each in some way reflective of their governments’ Middle Eastern interests. The French ambassador watched over his country’s controlling stake in the Suez Canal from a sprawling Giza estate, whose previous aristocratic owner had won it in a card game. Mussolini assigned a young architect to build a gaudy pink stone embassy in 1927 on a triangular Nile-side plot just south of the British, a statement of sorts at a time when he was looking to establish Italy’s first colonies in Africa. And not to be outdone in the home city of Al-Azhar, the highest seat of Sunni Muslim learning, even the Vatican got in on the act, erecting an elaborate copy of a Florentine palazzo in the affluent Zamalek island district.

“The Europeans dominated, and through the special privileges, embassies, the military presences in some cases you couldn’t forget it,” another Western ambassador says.

But neither that preeminence nor some of these lavish missions were to last. Because as colonial influence collapsed from 1945 onwards, the grandeur ofmany Cairo embassies shrank with it. The French, Italian, and British embassies were stripped of much of their gardens in order to build riverside corniches in the early 50s. The Italians now face directly onto a traffic-clogged road. Soon afterwards, President Gamal Abdel Nasser ratcheted up his extreme nationalist policies, driving out most of the foreign and minority communities, and establishing Cairo as a capital of the liberation movement. In some instances, delegations from newly independent African states moved right into recently vacated Greek, Jewish, and Armenian villas; in another, Henri Curiel, an Egyptian Jewish communist, supposedly gave his family’s Zamalek mansion to Algeria for use as its embassy in a gesture of solidarity during its war with France. The city’s diplomatic landscape had changed almost overnight.

It wasn’t long, however, before a new superpower emerged to leave its mark on Cairo’s skyline. After seeing off the US in the Cold War battle to entice Egypt into its sphere of influence, the USSR quickly realized that its existing mission wasn’t large enough to accommodate the thousands of advisors it had ferried into the country. And so, in 1961, Moscow greenlit a huge expansion along the Nile in Dokki. With an elongated concrete façade, the embassy was built to look even bigger than it is, a monument to communist might.

“We wondered if they were going to extend it across all of Cairo,” says Mohammed Abdel Rahman, whose family has operated a barbershop across the road since the 1950s. As it was, not even this kremlin was sufficiently large to accommodate the massive tide of incoming Soviet personnel, who did everything from assisting in the construction of the Aswan High Dam to instructing Egyptian tank crews. By the early 1970s, the embassy had swollen to include at least eight nearby annexes.

But eventually the USSR, too, lost sway, and in its stead, Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, threw his lot in with the Americans. Again, the increased spatial and security requirements that came with newfound importance in Cairo called for a much larger embassy, and a DC firm duly delivered. Beginning in 1981, the new US representation—next to the British and almost directly across the river from the Russians—rose and rose until it reached 14 stories, an elevation so conspicuous that many observers imagined that it was designed to impress, though the architect insists otherwise.

“The only way to accommodate that much office space on the site.. was a high rise building of the height you see now,” said Andre Houston, the building’s architect. In any event, it was built to be strong. The US embassy in Beirut was bombed mid-Cairo construction, prompting the State Department to reassess its precautions and, in Egypt’s case, to reinforce the blast walls and roll out tougher new window glazing. As an easily-identified lightning rod for local anger at US policies, those defenses have been put to the test on several occasions since.

And now, perhaps more than any point in recent decades, the Middle East—and its Cairo embassy barometer—are in flux. Because as Washington slowly retreats from the region, a slew of other actors are looking to fill at least some of the void.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia put the finishing touches to an ostentatiously swanky, glass-paneled skyscraper embassy near Cairo University, replete with a neon-lit helipad on the roof. Though still looked down upon by some Egyptians as arrivistes from the desert, the Gulf’s oil riches have enabled it to surpass—and in some recent instances, dominate—the historic Arab capitals. Many older Zamalekites have yet to forgive the Saudis for turning the elegant Doss mansion, once home to a prominent land-owning Coptic family, into an ungainly gold-gilded ambassadorial residence in the 60s, like “a White House-sur-Nil,” writes Samir Rafaat, a historian of 20th century Cairo. The villa’s nude statues didn’t last long either, he notes.

China, for its part, has supposedly increased its Cairo personnel by a third as it massively expands its Middle Eastern economic presence, turning its embassy into a hive of constant construction work to accommodate the new arrivals, almost all of whom eat, sleep, and work inside the compound. The number of Chinese tourists in Egypt doubled to 300,000 between 2016 and 2017 alone. And in a dramatic change of fortunes, the Russians appear to be making something of a comeback, echoing their success in Syria. They recently secured the right to operate out of Egyptian military bases, a move that triggered a corresponding increase in the number of Russian army and air force staffers at their Cairo embassy, according to a Western military source.

Weighed down by its own troubles, Egypt no longer has quite the pulling power it once enjoyed. As if to illustrate this, some embassies have shifted staff to the new regional trade hubs, like Dubai. While, fearing terrorism, others, such as Canada and Israel, have ditched their central Cairo digs in favor of offices in more distant districts or in more defensible tower blocks. But as the capital of much the most populous Arab state, with mastery of the Suez Canal and a strategically crucial location, Cairo will likely remain an inadvertent architectural tableau for some years to come. If you want to know who’s on the up, you could do much worse than to regularly walk the avenues of the city’s leafier districts.

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