Most cities grow from the centre outwards, but Cairo isn't like most cities. For 13 centuries, its inhabitants stayed comfortably close to the Nile, climbing its banks north and south. It wasn't until 1905 that an enterprising investor set his sights on the surrounding desert. When Belgian Baron Edouard Empain announced plans to build a 'city of luxury and leisure' in the wastelands 10 kilometres east of the capital, people thought he was crazy. Then he installed Egypt's first electric tramline, linking central Cairo to his new district of Heliopolis and they began to change their minds.
Empain chose a neo-Moorish architecture that suited the local climate and culture, paying heed to the social needs of the wealthy clientele he intended to attract. The elegant villas and apartment buildings lining broad, shaded avenues were equipped with multiple reception salons, lofty ceilings, parquet floors, balconies and servants' quarters. Boasting modern infrastructure (piped-in water and electricity) in addition to a golf course, race track and park, Heliopolis was soon fashionable among foreign residents and aristocratic Egyptians. By the 1970s, it was no longer a separate town or suburb, but a fully integrated quarter of Cairo.
Today's desert developments have much in common with Baron Empain's, but the scale and speed of the expansions are unprecedented, corresponding to the demand for housing as Cairo bursts at its seams. Egypt's capital is synonymous with chaos; its traffic, congestion, heat and pollution make even minor tasks like driving to work an effort requiring patience and stamina, leaving that much less to dedicate to jobs and family. Nor do people's homes offer respite from the constant noise or claustrophobic lack of green, open space.
Decentralisation is the only solution to Cairo's mega-malaise, and it is currently the goal of some of Egypt's most progressive developers. SODIC (Sixth of October Development and Investment Corporation), a public joint stock firm led by high-achieving Egyptian professionals, owns an impressive 3.85 square kilometres of land to the west of Cairo and nearly one square kilometre to the east. Some of these holdings are about to become city centres--Eastown and Westown--to serve the many disparate developments that have sprung up within an approximately 40-kilometre radius of the capital in recent years.
Cairo has experienced several phases of desert development. In 1970, President...