EGY.COM - LANDMARKS - CAIRO - HELIOPOLIS
by Samir Raafat
Egyptian Mail, Saturday March 22, 1997
Bravo for that ambitious scheme of cloning Palm Springs right here in the outback of Cairo, with championship 18-hole golf course, transposed palm trees, Atlanta turf, Bev Hills-type habitats etc... But have Katameya Heights' heavy investors pondered over access roads leading to their idyllic suburban development? Look again. Where are the trees, where is the landscaping, where are the sidewalks? All we see is desolation and debris. Or is that the idea so by contrast Katameya looks even better than it already does.
Of-course, Katameya Heights' promoters aren't expected to clean up an entire desert, nor are they responsible for Cairo's roads and bridges. Yet, bearing in mind their unprecedented media coup when an almost completed lower income tenement housing project was bulldozed because of its proximity to luscious Katameya, one hopes comparable inventiveness is exerted for the improvement of the access roads and other such things. But now that the undesirable housing project has been obliterated, Cairo's finest have other things on their mind. For starters they can freely cavort across the putting greens, speeding in their electric carts, pitching wedge and cellphone in hand, without having to feel guilty lest fat 'Um Mohammed' is gawking from her wretched council house window. Imagine the insurrection she could trigger off simply by mistaking modern sprinklers for outdoor communal showers!
Since, by improving Katameya Heights's access roads, the culture shock on arrival at the savory settlement could be reduced to acceptable psychological levels, why not channel that same imaginativeness --which simultaneously created a mirage in the desert and zapped nearby eyesores-- into the upgrading of an abandoned cultural landmark on one of the access roads?
As you drive along the autostrada towards Maadi, passed the Cairo Citadel, to your left, below the Tonsi flyover, lies a derelict railway station called Mowaslet Helwan (Helwan Junction). If you've never noticed it before, look again. It's there waiting for someone to restore it before it too falls into the dustbin of history.
The subject landmark consists of a quaint brick cabin surrounded on all sides by railway tracks and a wooden signal kiosk. A few meters away is the remains of water tower painted green.
Helwan Junction is the oldest suburban railway station in Cairo. It was also the first station travelers encountered last century en route to Helwan. Inaugurated by Khedive Ismail (r: 1863-79) on 21 January 1877, the state-owned Cairo - Helwan railway was Cairo's first mechanized transit system.
Situated on Cairo's then-desert fringe, under the shadow of the Mokatam Hills, Helwan Junction (or Mowaslet Helwan) was a an important rail connection. From there, in March 1890, a new track forked westwards to the quarries of Ain Sira. Four years later, an auxiliary line was extended to the township of Sayeda Zeinab. Another pair of tracks departed from Mowaslet Helwan for the quarries of Bassatine and those of Wadi Digla. The fourth and most important set of tracks however, went southwards through the desert towards Torah where Khedive Ismail had installed a fetishkhana and an artillery academy.
From Torah, the line continued to Helwan-les-Bains, the thriving thermal town created by Ismail in 1874. Situated on an elevated desert plateau, Ismail's winter resort was frequented by the world's café society which included much of Europe's fading aristocracy. In more ways then one, Helwan-les-Bains was not unlike the new settlement of Katameya. Built by a private concession, it sported handsome homesteads with lush gardens. It even had its very own golf course.
Going in the other direction from Mowaslet Helwan were two sets of tracks, both of them running northwards. The newer one contoured the Citadel and sped onwards to the Bab al-Hadid (now Ramses station) by way of Abassia. On its way it passed through a rocky tunnel dug out by the contracting firm of Gusman & Dentamaro. An older but much shorter track ended at Midan al-Ala'a (also known as Midan Salah al-Din or Midan Mohammed Ali) near the foot of the Citadel. From there commuters linked up with the Suares Brothers transport system consisting of horse-drawn omnibuses operating from Midan Salah al-Din to different parts of town. These were ultimately replaced by a modern tramway system in the late 19th century.
In November 1889, Mowaslet Helwan lost its strategic value when the same Suares Brothers inaugurated their new Cairo - Helwan railway line departing from Bab al-Louk. Henceforth, the desert line from Midan Salah al-Din to Torah was relegated to military and industrial purposes. Yet on feast days, Mowaslet Helwan would once again brim over with passengers on their way to pay respects to their dead, for the old line ran parallel to several important cemeteries including Imam al-Shafei, Bab al-Wazir and the ancient Rabbinical Cemetery of Bassatine.
During the second World War, Mowaslet Helwan regained its military importance when thousands of Allied troops arrived from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa via Suez. From the Red Sea port they traveled to makeshift army bases outside Helwan and Maadi using a designated diversion on the Cairo - Suez railway line. Seventy six thousand Kiwi soldiers from New Zealand alone passed through Mowaslet Helwan between 1939-45.
As Helwan became a giant industrial zone in the 1960s, surrounded by belching smokestacks, the thermal spa lost the little which had remained of its old charm and healing capacities. Conversely, the original Cairo - Helwan line became an important freight line with almost one century to the year separating it from the 19th century aristocracy that had traveled to Helwan in quaint wooden wagons. Now, it was the turn for Nasr cars and khaki-colored army trucks to travel to and from Helwan in long rail convoys.
As Cairo expanded in all directions, the tracks of the quarry lines disappeared. Yet to this day, solitary train signals stand askance in the middle of a souk. Gradually, the secondary tracks perished with the exception of the rickety Digla-Torah line. Giant Daimler-Benz trucks had come to replace the old rail system.
While no one will dispute the fact that the Heliopolis-Helwan autostrada relieves growing circulation pressures, yet to the discerning observer, this roadway is one of the ugliest sights ever. Hence the importance to restore Cairo's first suburban railway station as a worthy old landmark amidst this sea of repulsiveness. A few palm trees, a good paint job and an old locomotive is all that is required. Perhaps a couple of old wagons for the benefit of would-be trainspotters. The resulting outdoor museum would be our way of recognizing the efforts of those who launched Cairo's new frontier 123 years ago; a distant prologue to the resolute persons launching Katameya Heights today.
SOME CAIRO-HELWAN LINE MILESTONES
SOME KATAMEYA HEIGHTS MILESTONES
© Copyright Samir Raafat
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