Egyptian architect battles to preserve Cairo’s heritage

While co-operation between conservation organisations in the Arab world “is a bit difficult,” an “Egypt Heritage Network” was set up on the national level.
January 14, 2018
A view of old Cairo. (The Mosaic Rooms)
Lots of charms. A view of old Cairo. (The Mosaic Rooms)

LONDON - The whole of Cairo is under threat, paying the price of modernisation and ris­ing property prices, said Egyptian architect Om­niya Abdel Barr, co-founder of the “Save Cairo” campaign.

“What is happening in Cairo is happening to all the historic cities in Egypt,” Abdel Barr said in her lec­ture “The Cairo We Lost,” delivered in London.

She pointed out that in Egypt there was no equivalent to the United Kingdom’s National Trust or English Heritage dedicated to the preservation of historic sites and buildings and there was no political will to preserve the urban fabric of Cairo’s historic downtown and east­ern section. “The attitude among politicians is let it die, we will build another one,” she said.

Cairo was founded after the Arab conquest in the seventh century. Famous for its mosques, madrasas, hammams and fountains, Cairo became the centre of the Islamic world, reaching its golden age in the 14th century. In 1979, UNESCO pro­claimed historic Cairo a World Cul­tural Heritage site with 600 monu­ments.

“Cairo is many cities together, in­cluding Fustat, the Abbasid City, the Ayyubid City, the medieval city and the Ottoman City,” Abdel Barr said. She quoted 15th-century Egyptian historian Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi, author of “Al-Khitat,” saying: “Alas, everything is lost except for very little, deteriorated, ruined and de­stroyed.” Abdel Barr said the state­ment is as true today as it was when Maqrizi made it.

Other historians and architects lamented the destruction of old Cai­ro. In 1864, French architect Arthur Rhone said: “It is done, the most beautiful city of the old eastern world will become banal and Euro­pean like so many others.”

In 1840, British architect James Wild sketched the houses in old Cairo as he feared they would soon be demolished and, in 1843, Brit­ish painter Richard Dadd painted houses in the old city.

“I searched for those houses but did not find them,” Abdel Barr said.

In 1869, an Islamic museum was built and an index of Cairo’s monu­ments set up. In 1881, the Khedive Tawfiq established a committee responsible for the preservation of Islamic and Coptic monuments in Egypt as a body within the Ministry of Awqaf.

Abdel Barr described how the monuments were isolated in a no man’s land. “There is only one house left near the Ibn Tulun mosque. The government is saving the monuments but destroying the city. Moreover, banks are not giving loans for the restoration of historic houses,” she said.

The Save Cairo Campaign, which is fighting to prevent the further de­struction of historic Cairo, lamented in a statement that “the state issues demolition orders for dilapidated or life-endangering old buildings in­stead of ordering their restoration.

“The hardest attack on historic buildings took place during the months that followed the 2011 ‘Arab spring’; some buildings were demolished and others were built within heritage building bounda­ries, disregarding any technical re­quirements, especially in the area of al-Darb al-Ahmar. While the law bans the construction of any build­ings higher than three stories in the area, 12-storey towers were being erected.”

The campaign had some success­es, including saving Bayt Madkour historic building in al-Darb al-Ah­mar, which was listed for conserva­tion in 2010. A post-“Arab spring” government had inexplicably del­isted it. The house dates to the 14th century, the interior had several exceptional architectural attributes but because of its run-down fa­cade, a decision was issued to pull it down.

“Aided by local authorities keen on the preservation of historic Cai­ro, we were first able to obtain from Cairo Governor Galal Saeed a deci­sion to halt the demolition for one month,” Abdel Barr said.

“We inquired about the possibili­ty to buy Bayt Madkour and opened a bank account under the name of the ‘Egyptian Association to Save Heritage’ to collect donations. An advertisement was recently filmed inside the house, as the film direc­tor spotted its special character. Now that the demolition of Bayt Madkour is halted for good, we are awaiting funds to start restoration.”

While co-operation between con­servation organisations in the Arab world “is a bit difficult,” an “Egypt Heritage Network” was set up on the national level, Abdel Barr noted.

“We have Save Alex in Alexan­dria, then we decided we are going to call ourselves Save Cairo, then there was Save Minia and Save Port Saeed, then Save Assiut, so all these ‘saves’ are together under an independent network and we have meetings to discuss how we can help each other. Nonetheless, it is very difficult for civil society organisations to work in Egypt.” Abdel Barr added.

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