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From the people who brought you the pyramids...

The new, roomier American University of Cairo campus is vast and architecturally ambitious. It was also a long time in the making.

CAIRO, Egypt — The desks are all now in place, the air-conditioning finally works and the gym equipment has even arrived.

The American University in Cairo (AUC) is at last fully operational, having realized a 15-year-old aim of moving its campus from an 8-acre plot in the heart of traffic-clogged downtown Cairo to a 260-acre site on a desert plain outside the city.

Go back to last fall — the beginning of the academic calendar — and the picture could not have been more different, with administrators, teachers and students alike struggling in their academic pursuits in less-than-ideal conditions.

With contractors significantly behind schedule, dorms were still under construction — the university put students up in hotels around Cairo. The Student Life offices had yet to open — they were given cramped office space in the corner of campus. And the promised world-class athletic facilities were just that — promised.

Undeterred, the institution forged ahead. Egyptians, after all, have thrived for millennia in one of the earth's most hostile environments, and this had been an ambitious project to begin with.

“It was a very complex project,” said Ashraf Salloum, director of the Office of Campus Planning. “No one had ever built a campus — all facilities — at once.”

AUC has long been viewed, along with its Beirut counterpart AUB, as the region’s premier university. But as universities around the world continued to expand and modernize, AUC found itself hemmed in by overcrowding in the downtown area of Africa's most populous city.

The university bought land to the east of Cairo in 1997. At the time, it was surrounded by the scrubby Saharan plains, but the land had already been marked as the site for a new satellite city, aimed at relieving Cairo of some of its congestion.

By 1999, 52 architecture firms had submitted bids to design the new campus. The list was quickly whittled to five firms, one of which was Egyptian. These five, university officials determined, would collaborate to build the project.

“We insisted on local architects in order to incorporate old Cairo to show the progress of time,” Salloum said. “We needed someone who understood the vocabulary of the architecture through the years. We wanted to take this vocabulary, translate it through our vision and use it to create a world-class learning institution.”

A decade later, AUC’s 5,500 students made the commute — which from some parts of Cairo topped an hour and a half — for the first day of classes.