We often take the streets we walk and drive on for granted. Their names become part of the scenery, and yet, if they changed, we would find ourselves out of place. Where would we be if Road 9 changed its name? Even if the street remained the same, there is something in the name that makes it familiar, that tells us where we are. The same could apply to any Main Street, in any town.
Sometimes, however, change is a good thing. In recent months, we’ve seen the power of a place’s name. We’ve watched the erasure of “Mubarak” from the metro system, and after a brief period of no name at all, the new moniker—Martyr Station. Each step in the station’s name represents a shift in the larger political story—from overthrow, to the uncertainty of Egypt’s new course, and now a new tone that has yet to define its leader, but recalls the loss of life in the struggle with a strong religious connotation.
This is not the first time Egypt’s street and place names have been overhauled. Ma’adi’s Port Said is one Cairo street that underwent repeated name changes as Egyptian politics shifted course during the twentieth century. When Ma’adi was founded in 1904, Port Said was Colvin Avenue. Today the name carries little meaning, yet to Britons, Egyptians, and Indians at the turn of the century, it referred to the strength of British imperial and commercial power in Egypt and South Asia.
The road was named for Sir Auckland Colvin, a stalwart member of the British imperial civil service, who worked in India and Egypt through the latter half of the nineteenth century. Colvin had an imperial pedigree. He was born in the Punjab of India’s Northwest Provinces on March 8, 1838, the third son of John Russell and Emma Sophia Colvin. His father was a governor of the Northwest Provinces under the East India Company, which ruled India until 1857.
As a child of an imperial civil servant, Auckland spent his early years in South Asia, and returned to England when he was of school age. He began boarding at Eton, one of England’s most prestigious boys schools, in 1850. These were the rhythms of imperial life—mum and dad remaining in India until the summer, when they would return ‘home’ for the hottest part of the year. Meanwhile, Auckland and his siblings straddled life between home at school and home with family abroad. The Britons leading these kind of imperial lives were called Anglo-Indians because of their blend of lifestyles, which was not wholly unlike the mixture of homes experienced by today’s expatriate community.
Colvin began his imperial career in his early twenties, in the wake of his father. In 1857 Indians in the Northwest Provinces staged a large rebellion against the British, and as result of the strain of event, John Russell Colvin suffered a nervous collapse. Auckland wrote in his biography of his father, “Exhaustion, sleeplessness, an overtaxed mind, combined with the strain of his position, the grief he suffered from the loss of his charge, and the death of so many about him, prepared him for the assaults of disease.” John Russell died on September 9, 1857, and Auckland entered the Indian Civil Service in 1858.
Colvin held a variety of administrative posts, finding his real niche in imperial finance. In particular, he worked on land value assessment—experience that garnered him the opportunity to work in Egypt. In 1878, Colvin landed in Cairo to head a survey assessing Egyptian real estate values for the purpose of taxation. At the time, Egypt was bankrupt and on the verge of revolution, after the Ottoman khedive, or viceroy, emptied the country’s coffers on massive new building projects and personal expenditures. The situation became Britain’s reason for invading in 1882, but when Colvin arrived it was an international fray of competing Egyptian, Ottoman, British, and French interests. Colvin got closer and closer to the complexities of the situation, going from head of the land survey to financial adviser to the khedive. He held the position until shortly after the British invasion, and returned to India in 1883.
Why would a street in Ma’adi be named after a man whose career in Egypt ended more than twenty years before the town was founded? Though Colvin returned to India, his involvement in Egypt did not stop. Rather than working for the empire, he found new commercial reasons for being there. He retired from the imperial civil service in 1892, and by the late-1890s, he served as the chair of several private companies abroad, including the Egyptian Delta Land and Investment Company which founded Ma’adi in 1904. Colvin navigated the complexities of Egyptian finance first as an empire builder, and later as a private businessman, and through his efforts became one of the founders of Ma’adi.
In the town’s early days, its streets were named after many of its founders, but focused primarily on the Egyptian Jewish landowners who partnered with British businessmen to establish the town. Midan Mustafa Kamel was previously Midan Menashe and Midan Suares still carries the Egyptian Jewish surname of one of Ma’adi’s founders. Other midans were called Mosseri, Cattaui, and one avenue was called Rolo — all after influential Egyptian Jews. There were a handful of Avenues named after Britons — Colvin Avenue being among the most prominent, was joined by Palmer Avenue and Williamson Avenue.*
Colvin Avenue survived the first generation of Ma’adi’s existence, but by the late 1920s, its reference to British imperial power was no longer popular. It became Abdelwahab Pasha and wasn’t Port Said until the 1950s. The name change marked a significant shift in Anglo-Egyptian relations. In 1919 Egyptian nationalists staged a nationwide revolution that successfully loosened the British empire’s hold over Egyptian affairs. Considering that Colvin was instrumental in shaping British policy during the invasion and subsequent occupation, residents could not abide his name on one of their main streets. Even though the street itself remained the same, the name change signified that Egypt itself, and with it Ma’adi, had undergone a profound shift.
*NOTE: Samir Raafat’s Ma’adi 1904-1962: Society and History in a Cairo Suburb (1994) was consulted on the changing of Ma’adi’s other street names.