Built from 1356 to 1363, the Sultan Hassan Mosque is one of Cairo’s greatest monuments. Its size is exceptional and makes it unique; Mosques in the city before and centuries after were not about scale but about the physical experience of space. What makes Sultan Hassan special to worshipers and visitors is that despite its size, it manages to maintain the spatial qualities of a spiritual experience: its layout of rooms unfolds from the entrance to its courtyard, surrounded by four towering iwans, deep niches where prayer takes place. The reverberation of tones, the precise animation of the various rooms with light, the interplay of light and darkness and the small-scale transitional spaces to large open spaces are valuable. The mosque still functions as originally intended. Long before – and probably long after – a carbon-based economy, the mosque could operate with little or no use of energy. Enamelled glass oil lamps that once lit rooms at night have been replaced by electric lightbulbs, but the electric bill is probably lower than that of the average suburban American home.
About 50 miles away and just over an hour’s drive on the vast Cairo Ring Road, the Masjid Misr (Egyptian Mosque) is among the largest mosques in the Middle East and is one of the first buildings to be completed in the new desert administrative capital. Its primary purpose is to house new ministry buildings, a business district with Africa’s tallest skyscraper, American-style gated suburbs, and a proposed “green river” bisecting the desert city, a simulacrum of the Nile along which Cairo will flow as the For thousands of years it was Egypt’s capital. The new mosque shares none of Sultan Hassan’s spatial qualities; It’s an energy-guzzling building filled with lights, and its vast interior relies on air conditioning. The building sits above a podium that houses an Islamic center and a mall-style parking lot for the more than 100,000 worshipers who must fill the space to park their oil-burning vehicles. This is not a walking town.
Architecturally, the mosque is neither innovative nor does it refer to the historic architecture of Cairo. Rather, it combines a mix of aesthetic elements haphazardly drawn from the long history of Islamic architecture, best exemplified in the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque built in Abu Dhabi in 2007. The new city (with its main mosque) not only turns its back on Cairo but looks toward the relatively new Gulf Emirates, where a carbon-based economy (and building trends) is being given new life by a political alliance with Western companies interested in resource extraction was awakened. In this new center, architecture is secondary to the manufacture of such buildings, which become hollow signifiers and spectacles manufactured with an Instagram-based media economy in mind. Which of the two mosques, Sultan Hassan or Masjid Misr, will prove timeless long after Instagram is gone and when the lights go out because the planet has run out of energy to burn?
Throughout its long history, Egypt has had many capitals: Memphis, Thebes, Tell el-Amarna, Alexandria and Cairo, which was founded in 969 and has been the country’s capital ever since. While an idea for a new administrative capital was on the table in the 1950s, the project became an extension of the existing city with a series of new government buildings to accommodate the growing government, then the country’s largest employer. Egypt’s new administrative capital was first announced in 2015. First renderings were offered by the international company Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which designed the tallest tower in the world, the Burj Khalifa, completed in Dubai in 2010, and has enriched its portfolio with numerous projects throughout the Arabian Region otherwise torn apart by wars and proxy conflicts. The renderings were never to be realized, but they represented a useful sales tool for the project to attract investment. Elements of the SOM vision remain, namely the water-guzzling “green river” in the arid country.
Masjid Misr sits at the southern end of a massive cross plan, probably influenced by Imperial French planning, which forms the main components of the new capital. It is similar to Washington, DC, but in Egypt, the architectural components are more directly related to Egypt’s 21st-century relationship with global capital and government, in addition to symbolic monuments created ex nihilo. At the north end of the cross is a huge colonnade called the Arc de Triomphe, a nod to the famous monument at the center of Haussmannian Paris, although architecturally the two arches could not be more different. At the center of the cross is a sun-drenched plaza called People’s Square with a 200-meter flagpole recognized by Guinness World Records in 2021 as the tallest flagpole in the world. (It took the title from a 561-foot flagpole erected in Jeddah in 2014.) East of the square is Egypt’s new parliament building, which has a Y-shaped plan with a huge domed space in the middle. a scheme reminiscent of the 1958 Maison de l’UNESCO in Paris by architects Marcel Breuer, Bernard Zehrfuss and Pier Luigi Nervi, albeit far less elegantly.
As part of the constant centering of Europe in the ideas of Egyptian modernism since the 19th century, Paris has always played a major role in the imagination of Egyptian architects close to the state. Interestingly, Egypt’s 56-year-old prime minister and former housing minister, Mostafa Madbouly, is an architect. Eurocentrism and a debt-based development economy have dominated forces worldwide for at least two centuries, and even more so since the 1970s with the full onset of neoliberalism championed by Henry Kissinger. Egypt’s architects tend to adopt the aesthetics of European/Western styles at the expense of local knowledge and history. Faint references to ancient Egypt can be found throughout the new capital, including the lotus flower appearing in the landscaping (visible only from above) and on some facades.
The long arm of the cross is a broad esplanade flanked by identical ministry buildings, an arrangement reminiscent of Brasília’s row of ministries. The architecture of these buildings consists of large blocks, with each cluster belonging to a ministry, arranged around an open interior space. At the end of this axis is the new headquarters of the Egyptian central bank. Across from the bank and a highway shamrock is the central business district with a series of corporate blocks and towers centered around the 1,293-foot Iconic Tower designed by Dar Al-Handasah Shair & Partners. South of this complex lies the Octagon, a vast military complex composed of eight concentric octagonal buildings for the various branches of the Egyptian armed forces. The complex’s name – and the architectural form of its buildings – is an improvement on the Pentagon outside of Washington, DC. The new administrative capital is not only home to one of the largest mosques in the region, but is also the site of what is now being dubbed the largest church in the Middle East. The obsession with size above all else – including a rejection of environmental realities – is reminiscent of Notre-Dame de la Paix, Africa’s largest church, which stands in Yamoussoukro, the relatively unpopulated Ivory Coast capital.
New purpose-built capitals have been common lately. A century ago, post-Ottoman Turkey built Ankara. More recently, Tanzania built Dodoma in 1996, post-Soviet Kazakhstan Astana in 1998, Malaysia moved its capital to Putrajaya in 2003, Myanmar moved its capital to Naypyidaw in 2005, and Palau followed in 2006, with Ngerulmud becoming its new capital. South Korea began construction of Sejong, a new capital, in 2005; Completion is scheduled for 2030. This trend must be understood in the context of the global geopolitical order. Architecture alone is not enough to understand the importance of these new cities. Perhaps a useful reference to this meeting of architecture and politics is the construction of the Rajpath in New Delhi in 1912 by British colonial authorities, designed by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. The room was imperial in size and architectural quality; From the Native American perspective, it was a depressing place where the plays of the Empire were staged. This drama continued even after independence. In 1961, 14 years after India’s independence, Queen Elizabeth II visited the country and attended ceremonies commemorating the famous imperial Delhi Durbar, a mass gathering organized by the colonizers.
The dimensions of the new administrative capital are comparable from beginning to end with the geographic location of the entire city of Cairo as it currently exists, which is currently home to over 20 percent of Egypt’s 106 million people. However, the first phase of the new city is targeting a population of about 5 million people, including 100,000 government employees who will be housed close to their new jobs. The city has a much-needed transportation infrastructure that was denied to the Egyptian capital, and a monorail connecting the new capital to Cairo’s still-limited metro system. Most of the housing development in the city consists of clusters of privately built complexes of single-family homes and low-density neighborhoods, the cost of which will be prohibitive for most of Egypt’s population, who have been left out of the massive construction activities, which is aimed at the wealthy class of the country. According to one estimate, the country’s top 10 percent receives about 50 percent of total income, with many more Egyptians working and living abroad looking to invest specifically in the new city’s real estate. Private lawns, golf courses and securitized housing continue an existing trend that has failed to respond to the realities of contemporary Egypt.
While Egypt’s new capital is unlikely to witness ceremonies similar to the Queen’s visit to Delhi in 1961, 2020 saw a tellingly unceremonial visit by a delegation from South Carolina to other treaties, like the CBD, being fulfilled by Chinese companies. The entire property, three times the size of Washington, DC, is administered and controlled directly by the Egyptian military, which combined with the new city’s distance from the existing city, makes it a difficult place for citizens to peacefully assemble or participate her reign. The South Carolina politicians were impressed by the architecture and scale of the new city and expressed their approval in statements to an Egyptian television station. “The Egyptians are known for doing amazing things like the pyramids and the Sphinx,” said Representative Richard “Rick” Martin.
That enthusiasm says more about Egypt’s new capital than its architecture suggests. Martin said, “It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
Mohamed Elshahed is an independent author, curator and architecture critic. He is the author of Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide (AUC Press, 2020) and was curator of Cairo Modern at the New York Center for Architecture (October 2021–March 2022). He lives in Mexico City.