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Būlāq was, during its long history, the northern of the two river ports of Cairo: it
served vessels to and from the north, including Lower Egypt and the Mediterranean
ports, while the southern port, Miṣr al-Qadīma, served vessels to and from Upper
Egypt. Until the modern period, Būlāq was separated from Cairo by approximately
two to three kilometres of agricultural fields.

Būlāq was founded in about the seventh/thirteenth century. It emerged when the
Fāṭimid port of al-Maqs was rendered unusable by the deposition of alluvium; its
origins were in the new wharves built along the shoreline to compensate for the loss
of al-Maqs. Important developments began under Sulṭān al-Nāṣir Muḥammad b.
Qālāwūn (r. 709–41/1310–41), and Būlāq underwent a significant expansion in the
following centuries. Following the Ottoman conquest of Egypt (923/1517), commerce
with other ports in the Ottoman Empire increased considerably. As a result, the early
Ottoman governors of Egypt paid particular attention to the development of the port.
The buildings constructed by the governors Sulaymān Pasha (r. 931–41/1525–35),
Aḥmed Pasha (r. 1590–94), Ḥasan Pasha (r. 988–90/1580–2), and Sinān Pasha (r.
975–6/1567–8 and 979–80/1571–2) changed the layout of the port and added
numerous urban facilities, such as baths, mosques, and apartment buildings; they
concentrated on enlarging the port’s commercial structures, including a new customs
house and large wikālas (commercial warehouses). The port continued to expand in
the eleventh/seventeenth century, as it became more involved in the growing
Mediterranean long-distance trade. As a result, Būlāq became the main port of Cairo
and a major station for the collection of taxes on merchandise, gradually surpassing
Miṣr al-Qadīma in importance.

With the reform policies established by Muḥammad ʿAlī (r. 1805–48) early in the
nineteenth century, Būlāq acquired new functions, being chosen as the site of the
establishments that were part of Muḥammad ʿAlī’s cultural and economic reforms.
These included the first state printing press (est. 1820), which was to play a major role
in the cultural life of the nineteenth century, and several factories built under
Muḥammad ʿAlī’s programme of industrialisation, including one that produced the
popular cotton indiennes for export (1818), as well as an iron foundry (1829). The
educational reforms of the period also left their mark: Egypt’s first polytechnic school
(1821 or 1822) and first museum (1863) were founded in Būlāq.

Būlāq changed dramatically in the second half of the nineteenth century, as its
commerce was harmed by two developments in transportation: before that time, most
goods were transported by boat on the Nile, but the establishment of the railway
system in 1854 provided an important alternative, and the Suez Canal (opened 1869)
likewise created an alternative route for east-west travel. Many of the establishments
founded by Muḥammad ʿAlī were closed down or transferred to other parts of the
city. In subsequent decades, as the fields and gardens separating Būlāq from Cairo
were built up and the two cities coalesced, Būlāq became one of the poorer districts of
the city.

Nelly Hanna

Bibliography Edited works

Aḥmad ʿIzzat ʿAbd al-Karīm, Taʾrīkh al-taʿlīm fī ʿaṣr Muḥammad ʿAlī, Cairo 1938

al-Jabartī, Ajāʾib al-āthār fī l-tarājim wa-l-akhbār, vol. 1, ed. Abd al-Raḥīm ʿAbd al-
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al-Maqrīzī, al-Khiṭaṭ, 2 vols., Būlāq 1270/1853

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Concepcion Anorver-Tschirgi, The mosques of Sinan Pasha and Mustafa Shurbagy

Mirza as reflections of Bulaq’s socio-economic realities, 1571–1698, master’s thesis,
American University of Cairo, Dept. of Arabic Studies 2001

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Richard N. Verdery, The publications of the Bulaq Press under Muhammad ʿAli of
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