Bringing downtown Cairo back to life

Friday 18/03/2016
A downtown Cairo building after undergoing restoration as part of the project.

Cairo - A year ago, a century-old building on Qasr al-Nile Street in downtown Cai­ro stood neglected and facing collapse.

The designs incised on the front of the building had almost disap­peared, the façade paint turned black — the same colour of the fumes emitted by thousands of cars running along the street — and the wooden windows were decay­ing.

Now, the same building is turn­ing into a work art.

The paint on the façade is back to its original condition, the designs are back and the windows are re­stored to their earliest pattern.

The building is one of about 500 in downtown Cairo which are part of a government project to resur­rect the city centre and turn it from an uncared for area of the metrop­olis into one pulsating with beauty and life.

As they do this, the municipal authorities hope that downtown Cairo, which has long been synon­ymous with overcrowding, traffic jams and street hawking, will turn into a magnet for tourists visiting the Giza pyramids — only 25km away — or the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square nearby.

“Downtown Cairo has never had its share of tourism although it contains some of this country’s most precious buildings,” tourism expert Reem Fawzi said. “Restor­ing the old buildings of the city centre will motivate everybody to visit it and encourage business.”

Some of the downtown buildings were constructed at the beginning of the 19th century, bearing witness to seminal moments in the history of Egypt and standing as living testament to the French architects commissioned to build them.

Modelled after Paris, downtown Cairo was home to the prosperous elite of the 19th and early 20th cen­tury.

However, more than 150 years later the city centre has become a mere shadow of its former self.

Bringing the buildings back to their former beauty is a tough chal­lenge, said Sohair Hawass, one of the engineers of the National Agen­cy for Urban Harmony, the govern­ment body responsible for restor­ing downtown Cairo.

Hawass and her colleagues have gone from building to building in their bid to spruce them up.

“Some of the designs incised on the fronts of buildings were oblite­rated a long time before the project started,” Hawass said. “To restore them, we had to look at the original designs in history and architecture books.”

The government is investing half a billion Egyptian pounds (roughly $625,000) in the project, which started in January 2015 with some of the nation’s banks contributing.

The project, which is almost completed, has also involved the restoration of downtown Cairo’s bridges, the redesigning of its streets and the creation of new parking lots. The aim of the latter is to encourage motorists to park their vehicles in the new mega parking spaces created on the fringes of the city centre and to enjoy walking through its streets, now lined with clothing stores, bookstores and eateries, some of them offering authentic Egyptian cuisine.

The restoration of the city centre is being accompanied by the re­vival of some of the area’s famous hotels, including what was once the Nile Hilton (now Ritz Carlton) after years of closure because of the turmoil caused by the popular uprising of 2011.

Downtown Cairo boasts relative­ly cheap two and three-star hotels that offer suitable accommodation for those who want to experience life among real Egyptians, shar­ing their traditional foods, such as beans and falafel and hanging out at well-known cafés such as Groppi — a relic of bygone times and once a favourite of Cairo’s nobility, Brit­ish occupation officers in the early 20th century, artists, intellectuals and writers.

The area’s renovation project also includes the restoration of its many statues, some of which are of people who changed Egyptians’ life for good, including Talaat Harb, an economist who founded the country’s oldest bank at the begin­ning of the 20th century.

“This will turn the city centre into an open museum,” Ayman Abdel Tawab, the deputy Cairo governor, said. “This precious part of Cairo is finally being rediscov­ered and given the attention it de­serves.”