How did Cairo’s most notorious street for prostitution come to be filled with mobile and electronics stores? What hidden tales are concealed behind the dilapidated walls of cafés, bars, and hotels located along the street that famously attracted Egypt’s pleasure seekers?
From 1882 until 1949, a street named Clot Bey was the official hub for prostitution, and selling alcohol in Egypt.
The street is located in Downtown Cairo, stretching from the Bab al-Hadid area (Ramses currently) to Khazendar Square, and the old Sednaoui department store in Attaba Square.
Clot Bey Street separates two historically-shaped areas in Cairo: its classical Fatimid style, and the area of Khedive Ismail’s vision for a modern Cairo.
“The street is a blend of two different eras,” Mohamed Refaat al-Imam, historian and dean of Department of Arts at Mansoura University, tells Raseef22.
Clot Bey Street is now flooded with electronics stores, spare parts, and street vendors. Chairs and goods are scattered on sidewalks, amid the voices of vendors calling out from their stores, inviting passers-by.
On both sides of the street are the remnants of cafés that once served alcohol to their customers, and hotels that were packed with prostitutes and pleasure seekers. The features of the street remain visible, even as the details have changed.
The neoclassical French design of the buildings has been replaced by new cement buildings, and their residents have forgotten, or tried to forget, the street’s history. A faint image of the street remains in their memories, due to a movie named Khamsa Bab, produced in the 1980s.
Who was Clot Bey?
Antoine Clot was the founder of the first school of modern medicine in Egypt in 1827. He was a historian and advisor to Mohamed Ali Pasha, the ruler of Egypt at the time. During his life in Egypt, he observed the nature and characteristics of Egyptians in his book Aperçu général sur l'Egypte (1840).
According to archaeology professor Hagagi Ibrahim, Khedive Ismail, Mohamed Ali’s grandson, named the street after Clot Bey during the planning of Khedival Cairo in 1875, to commemorate him.
Ismail envisioned the street to be a market for grains, vegetables, and fruits, as part of his development plan for Cairo, in which he hoped to build a new capital to resemble the most celebrated European capitals, in particular Paris.
However, over time, the conditions of the street began to decline, and new services started to appear to cater to the British soldiers: liquor stores, bars, hotels, and brothels.
Prostitution on the City’s Outskirts
Cairo had yet to be hit by urban sprawl, and what is now considered part of the Downtown area constituted its suburbs at the time. Thus, the location of the street at the edge of Khedival Cairo secured it a sense of privacy and remoteness, attracting pleasure seekers, according to historian Emad Helal.
“Prostitution circles usually thrive outside of the city or on the outskirts; Clot Bey Street was located on the outskirts of Cairo. Although the Maarouf area in Downtown was also famous for prostitution.”
Communities that felt marginalized in their countries due to the developments at the time immigrated to Egypt in the 19th century, founding new areas by Cairo’s borders, according to al-Imam.
“Foreign communities from countries like Armenia, Great Britain, Austria, Greece, Italy, France, and Germany settled in Egypt to live or to work. The street’s proximity to the main train station in Cairo helped attract these pleasure seekers and drinkers,” al-Imam tells Raseef22.
Once a hub for drunks and pleasure-seekers, Cairo's Clot Bey Street is now flooded with electronics and spare part stores.
In 19th century Cairo, there was only one destination for nights of drunken debauchery.
Soldiers of the British occupation were concentrated around that area after the Anglo-Egyptian war in 1882, which ended in favor of Britain, and marked the beginning of their occupation of Egypt, according to Helal. Prostitutes frequented Clot Bey’s bars and hotels to fulfill the soldiers’ desires.
The situation gradually took on a more official status; attempts to legalize and organize prostitution in Egypt kicked off during that era. The first law was introduced in November 1882, forcing prostitutes to undergo medical examinations, after the arrival of 13,000 British soldiers to Egypt.
“A prostitutes’ checklist was issued on 1885, forcing them to register their names and locations, and to undergo medical examination at al-Haud al-Marsoud Hospital in the Darb al-Ahmar district. They also had to pay taxes, or they would be penalized,” Helal says.
According to al-Imam, this was to prevent the British soldiers from contracting sexually transmitted diseases, for fear that they would later carry them back to Britain when their military service would come to end.
Protecting the Local Women
Modern history professor Wael al-Desouki says that the foreign presence in Egypt increased under Mohamed Ali’s reign, leading the government to permit liquor stores and brothels. The government argued it would protect local women from foreigners, as the brothels would draw the foreigners’ attention away from the Egyptian women. In addition, it was a convenient source of tax revenues.
In al-Imam’s opinion, the architectural design of Clot Bey Street helped make it the perfect spot for prostitution; the majority of the buildings were hotels, lodging houses, and apartments, meaning there was ample space to pursue illicit activities behind closed doors.
The different rulers of Egypt benefited from this profession, according to Helal. Mohamed Ali imposed taxes on prostitutes at the beginning of his rule, but the taxes were discontinued by 1834. Ali then forced all of the prostitutes to move to Esna, a city in the south of Egypt. However, the taxes, registration, and medical examinations imposed on prostitutes were reinstated from 1882 until 1949.
Life on Clot Bey Street
In a narrow alley just off of Clot Bey lies a row of two- or three-story buildings, constructed in simple, unembellished design, like many of the Khedival buildings in the main streets of Downtown Cairo.
But how did the residents of these buildings take to the nearby brothels and bars? How did they react to the stigma that was attached to anyone who was born or lived at Clot Bey?
“Al-Maqrizi, al-Jabarti, and other famous historians wrote that people fled the area or the city once Clot Bey turned into a hub for prostitution, leaving the street at the disposal of bars, seedy hotels, and cafés,” Helal says.
“Some intellectuals wrote about the importance of fighting this spread of legalized 'crime', which was later delegalized due to social pressure.”
Desouki notes that socially, the situation at Clot Bey Street was a source of shame, despite its legal status, and the residents were left with one socially-acceptable choice: to simply avoid the street. It was a street commonly visited by foreigners, travelers, or soldiers of the occupation forces, but shunned by the locals.
What of the Women of Clot Bey Street?
Bars and hotels buzzed with dozens of prostitutes before the abolition of legal prostitution in 1949, which drove many of the women to seek acting or dancing work opportunities—at the time professions reserved for women of “loose morals”.
“In the black and white films, you would find dozens of dancers behind the singer. These were once the prostitutes of Clot Bey Street,” Helal notes.
The street was kept alive by its residents and visitors, during its many distinct histories: from selling and purchasing grain and fruits, to consuming alcohol and sex, all the way down to the electronics and spare parts vendors that dominate the scene today.
Clot Bey was transformed completely. This was partially also due to the street becoming increasingly populous compared to other downtown streets, since it became a transit point for public transport coming from Attaba to Ramses.
Khedival Cairo still lurks in the corners of the street, reminding the visitor of the vestiges of 19th century Cairo. But the liquor stores of Clot Bey Street have long since closed, and the bars have been shut down or abandoned.
As for the street hotels, that once boomed with life and energy, they too declined and were shut down, or replaced by commercial storage spaces. Thus did an era of Cairo's history, with all its peculiarities, gradually fade away into the distant past.