Qasr Al-Nil Bridge: The Four Lions of Egypt

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The Qasr Al-Nil Bridge in Cairo has a long and illustrious history that continues until today. It is a story of progress, sacrifice, and a testament to the realisation of the dreams of the Egyptian people.

Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, built nearly 150 years ago, was a grand architectural achievement. However, it was not originally called Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, nor was it the first bridge to connect the downtown area of Cairo to Gezira (Zamalek) Island, which lies in the middle of the River Nile. In fact, it was built on the site of an older bridge, called Al-Gazira Bridge, built from 1869 to 1871 under the local ruler Khedive Ismail. The original construction of the bridge was commissioned to the French company Five-Lilles, under the authority of the French national Louis de Bellefonds, who was equally the chief engineer of Egypt’s public works, including the head engineer of the Suez Canal.

Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, 1890

The Gezira Bridge, opened to the public in 1872, was an immediate success, supporting approximately 30,000 cars every day. Additionally, it became a major part of public space, where pedestrians, camels and donkey carts alike would congregate or simply enjoy the walk.

photo: touregypt

After enduring over 40 years of incessant use, King Fouad declared his government would reconstruct a new bridge to accommodate the high usage. With an open international bidding for the job, Dorman, Long & Co. was commissioned to work on the project. This marks the birth of the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge we know today, although named after King Fouad’s father, Khedive Ismail. Its surface was widened, complete with retractable segments of the bridge to let through water traffic. The stone foundation was laid in 1931 and completed in 1933.

The true tour de force was the addition of the famous four bronze lions that mark the length of the bridge, two on either end. The lions, created by the renowned French sculptor Henri Alfred Jacquemart, were originally intended to stand with a statue of Mohamed Ali in the northern city of Alexandria, but at the behest of Bellefonds were placed instead at the site of the bridge.

An era of nearly 70 years of British occupation was brought to an end thanks to the voices and mobilisation of the Egyptian people. With the end of the British presence in 1952 and the simultaneous fall of the Egyptian monarchy with King Farouk, the Khedive Ismail Bridge was renamed Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, as we know it today.

Located in the heart of Cairo and a gateway to Tahrir Square, this historic bridge has served as a focal point of uprising and a symbolic reference as well to the pride and power of the Egyptian people against tyranny.

One year following the Egyptian Naksa (defeat in war with Israel)of 1967, students demonstrated on the bridge. They demanded various reforms of what they saw to be oppressive institutions within the university and also political mechanisms throughout the country. Additionally, they protested the detention of several of their colleagues, as well as laws that were seen to restrict freedoms. These student protesters were sometimes referred to during the 2011 revolution as “the generation in waiting.”

Again in 1970, the bridge appeared on international air waves, featuring the funeral procession of president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The procession was followed by Nasser’s myriad supporters, along with several international heads of state and government functionaries.

On 28 January 2011, known as the Friday of Anger

Without a doubt, the most momentous time in recent history witnessed by the bridge was the naissance of the great Egyptian uprising of 25 January 2001, where Egyptians took to the streets en masse, demanding their rights and the resignation of the then president, Hosni Mubarak. In one day, the bridge witnessed both violence resulting from clashes between protesters and the police, but also triumphant victory when the armoured police vehicles retreated, allowing protesters to enter and later occupy Tahrir Square. Qasr Al-Nil served as a major point of access to Tahrir throughout the revolution, in addition to a refuge for protesters to escape any threats, and drink some tea.

Protesters covered an eye of one of the lions to represent the hundreds of severe eye injuries resulting from clashes during and after the revolution (photo: arabist)

On 30 June 2013, Egyptians poured on Qasr Al-Nil Bridge in their millions in an awe-inspiring scene. The people wanted to oust Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, and his group the Muslim Brotherhood, which was later listed as a terrorist organisation, disempowered.

Qasr Al-Nil Bridge was and continues to be a potent symbol of revolution, also serving as a demarcation of territory that belongs to the people, where they are free to voice their opinions and express their demands.

The legacy of the Qasr Al-Nil bridge has a rich history of architectural prestige, political and social activism, but also a simply beautiful place to enjoy. Small cafes serving drinks and popcorn and families delighting in the sights line the sides of the bridge. A serene walk across also offers an enchanting view of the Nile, particularly at night when the water is illuminated by the surrounding lights. This seemingly simple bridge is anything but rather a window into the lives of all Cairenes.