Rescuing Cairo's Lost Heritage

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By Rose Aslan

After centuries of neglect, historic Cairo is receiving a much-needed facelift. Here is an in-depth look at the past, present and future of the city of 1,000 minarets

Take a stroll into Historic Cairo and you will feel as if you have entered into a massive construction project. These days it seems as if nearly every historic monument, including mosques, madrasas and old palaces, are closed due to conservation projects. Workers, in their work-worn clothes and bare feet, can be seen climbing over precarious scaffolding and sitting on piles of stones sipping tea in front of many monuments in the area.


A huge stretch of Mu’ez al-Din Allah Street, the very heart of the old city, is being torn open to replace its sewage pipes. Neither cars nor donkey carts can pass through this street; even a short walk along the road is a challenge for pedestrians. Numerous Islamic monuments line this street, many of them already in the process of being saved and restored by various government projects and foreign missions.


During the past couple of years, a number of historical monuments have been re-opened after lying for years under layers of rubble and scaffolding. There are still several hundred either in the process of being conserved and restored or on the waiting list to undergo conservation and restoration. According to conservative estimates, about 450 monuments could be considered historic and would deserve restoration. Other estimates put that number at nearly 630. Monuments are added monthly to the records of the Ministry of Religious Endowments and the Supreme Council of Antiquities. In addition, more than 500 homes have received historic status.


It’s hard to imagine that such a small area of land, a little less than four square kilometers, could contain hundreds of landmarks, some neatly lined up one after the other. In fact, historic Cairo is not just another old city; it’s a living openair museum, more real and interactive than any one building museum, and the historic area of the old city is home to around 310,500 residents.

 



THOUSAND-YEAR-OLD CITY


Cairo is truly a unique city, and the thousand-year-old historic area (which actually consists of several separate neighborhoods) is one of the only surviving and intact medieval cities in the world. Many Arab cities, such as Damascus and Baghdad, have repeatedly been ransacked by invading armies, leaving them stripped of their original layout and structures. By contrast, historic Cairo still retains many of the same streets and buildings that were added to the city over the centuries. A traveler today can find many of the same monuments and landmarks mentioned in writings by medieval historians such as Ibn al-Battuta and al- Maqrizi.


The first settlement in Cairo was established in 641 by the Muslim military commander, Amr ibn al-As, who conquered and took control of Egypt. The original military settlement, Al-Fustat (which is in present day “Old Cairo”), was established on the eastern bank of the Nile River at a strategic location. It was here that the first mosque on the African continent was built and the foundations of modern day Cairo were laid.


Al-Fustat remained the Muslim army’s settlement for only a short time. In 750, the Umayyad caliph, fleeing from the Abbasid army, came to Al-Fustat only to be caught and killed. The Umayyad supremacy ended, and the Abbasids built a new city, Al-Askar, on top of Al-Fustat.


Ahmad ibn Tulun, a representative of the Abbasid caliphate, was sent as governor to Egypt where he set up his own military city. Just to the north of Al-Fustat, he established Al-Qata’i, near present day Al-Sayyida Zeinab, to serve as a residence and headquarters for the Muslim army. All that remains today from the legacy of the Tulunid dynasty is the mosque of Ibn Tulun, the nilometer and an aqueduct.


It wasn’t until the Ismaili Shiite Fatimid dynasty took control in 969 that the main area of historic Cairo as we know it today took its shape. The Fatimids built a well-organized walled city to the north of Al-Qata’i. It was originally called Al-Mansuriyya and then later changed to al-Qahira, or Cairo. Al-Qahira included many notable structures such as Al-Azhar Masjid and university and two now-demolished palaces that have left their name—Bayn al-Qasrayn—in the area they once stood. While Al-Qahira remained an enclave for royalty and the elite, the general population inhabited an area south of the exclusive city.


Only when Salah al-Din al-Ayubbi halted attacks by the crusaders and took control of Egypt in 1169 did Al-Qahira transform into a city of the masses. Fearful that the crusaders would overcome Al-Fustat and launch their offensive from the fortified city, the Fatimids ordered the complete destruction of the ancient city, sending its entire population to take refuge in and around Al-Qahira.


Through the centuries, different dynasties came and went, all leaving their traces on the urban makeup of historic Cairo. Each dynasty built new mosques and madrasas and sometimes tore down structures built by their predecessors. The Mamluks (1250-1517) and Ottomans (1517-1798) left behind hundreds of notable monuments.


In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte arrived with the French Expeditionary Army, which led to a new era of “modernization” and “reform.” With the subsequent rise of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Albanian officer appointed by the Ottomans to rule Egypt, great changes came to Cairo: streets were built and expanded, new cities for the wealthy created and lakes drained. Muhammad Ali’s successors followed in his enterprising footsteps, continuing the plan of modernizing the city. Developments begun by Muhammad Ali’s heirs along with dramatic changes brought by British colonial rule (1882-1922) deeply affected the status of historic Cairo. The wealthy who had occupied historic Cairo began a mass exodus toward new cities on the outskirts where wide tree-lined roads led to grand villas.


This massive flight of the wealthy led to a deterioration of the older areas, with government funding focused on developing the new “European”-styled neighborhoods. Urban blight in the old areas was exacerbated when large numbers of poor migrants from the countryside settled in these areas leading to the decline of the previously royal cities.1


Today’s historic Cairo is primarily inhabited by descendants of the craftsmen and merchants who have lived in the area for centuries, in addition to migrants who continue to move in from the countryside. Generally, many of the residents live below the poverty line and endure poor living standards. While many aspects of modern life have entered residents’ lives, vendors still peddle their wares from donkey carts through the narrow alleys of the old city. Next to them are young men dressed in the latest fashions sporting slicked-back hair who speed along on their motorcycles, radios blasting the tunes of popular singers. Craftsmen still use traditional tools while incorporating electrical ones, but their methods are largely the same as those passed from father to son, master to apprentice.


EARLY EFFORTS TO CONSERVE HISTORIC CAIRO


Although monuments in historic Cairo have never faced a full attack from an enemy force, they certainly have had to deal with many adversaries that led to their decaying states and sometimes complete collapse. These adversaries include the earthquakes of 1304 and 1992, and salty groundwater seepage in the soil slowly eating away at the foundations. Add poor maintenance, environmental pollution, a high population density and, sadly enough, government and general neglect and misuse by locals and we get few examples of the causes that have led to the poor condition of the area’s monuments!


That any historical monument still remains to this day is a miracle. The survival of most of these structures can be traced to a group of concerned Egyptians and foreigners more than a hundred years ago. This group created the “Comité” in 1881 with their aim to record and preserve more than 600 structures in historic Cairo.


The Comité prioritized conservation work in the historic city, putting the older Fatimid monuments first in line, and Mamluk and Ottoman monuments as second and third. Although the Comité was certainly up to par with contemporary conservation practices of the late 19th century, they committed themselves to “restoring” many buildings to their original forms, a method modern conservators would never dream of using. This included removing a minaret of a Fatimid mosque, Salih Tala’i, since it was added in the subsequent Ottoman period, although other monuments such as the mosque of al-Hakim were left basically untouched.2


Essentially, the Comité was responsible for creating historic Cairo’s “memory map” of remaining historical structures and for conserving numerous monuments. Precious cultural heritage would have disappeared if it wasn’t for the Comité’s concern for the future of the city and the huge efforts it made to realize this goal. Despite the fact that the group made mistakes in their conservation methodology, the Comité ultimately gave Egypt a priceless treasure waiting to be uncovered and appreciated.


Since the 1952 revolution, restorations slowed as the government shifted its interests to social and economic issues, almost completely ignoring the condition of derelict historic areas. Immediate realities crowded in and politicians were forced to prioritize necessities. Revitalizing a crumbling city was low on the list. It wasn’t until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War that awareness of the importance of preserving Egyptian heritage spread. In 1973, foreign missions began to move into the area and the process of bringing the historic city back to life restarted.


FOREIGN MISSIONS IN HISTORIC CAIRO


During the past 25 years, foreign missions have undertaken conservation projects on a variety of historic monuments. The French, Italian, Danish, German, Polish and American missions have all made their mark on the memory map of Cairo, leaving behind breathtaking monuments in their original architectural and artistic detail. All of these Western missions follow the purist methodology of conservation and minimal intervention. They try not to restore or renovate; they attempt to preserve the building in its original state, only restoring out of necessity. They use local and traditional materials as much as possible and try to avoid modern materials such as cement or metal beams.


However, in the 1970s, one foreign mission, the Bohra mission, chose to use a restoration method that was similar to complete renovation. Dawood Bohra is the imam of this branch of Ismaili Shi‘ism, which claims descent from the Fatimid dynasty and thus members have been traveling to Cairo in small numbers in search of their religious identity and origin. One of their major projects has been to restore several mosques, such as Al-Hakim and Al-Aqmar, built in the Fatimid period. They believed it was their religious duty to bring these mosques to their former Fatimid glory, ultimately leading to an imaginary re-creation of the mosques using many new materials and controversial modern techniques. Their beliefs also influenced their decision to remove a Mamluk tomb that did not fit their Fatimid ideals, having been built in a later period.


Responding in distaste to the Bohras’ restoration work, art historians and conservators exploded with criticisms and accusations resulting in the Bohras’ refusal to carry out further projects. They later worked on other historical monuments outside of Egypt.


A UNIQUE EXAMPLE: THE AGA KHAN TRUST FOR CULTURE


The Aga Khan Development Network is a massive funding network with agencies in Africa and Asia. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Cairo is part of the Historic Cities Support Program (HCCP), which “promotes the conservation and re-use of buildings and public spaces in historic cities in the Muslim World.” The HCCP follows a holistic approach to its projects by restoring historic structures while improving social and economic conditions of local communities in addition to cultural development.


Initially, the HCCP planned to reclaim a piece of hilly land that had been used as a trash dump and was a haven to drug dealers, and turn it into the new Al-Azhar Park, a huge green space in the middle of historic Cairo that would improve the image of the historic city and begin the process of development in the area. As fate would have it, during construction, they uncovered part of a 12th century wall Salah al-Din al-Ayubbi built as a defense against the crusaders, which they subsequently restored. The discovery led the HCCP to undertake additional research of the nearby neighborhood of Darb al-Ahmar. The study evolved into a major project encompassing the restoration of several mosques, palaces and historic houses. True to their holistic approach, the HCCP also established social and economic programs to provide a wide range of assistance for local residents. Interestingly enough, the Aga Khan Trust chooses not to practice the traditional conservation method but restore and rebuild where they feel it is necessary.


“We rebuilt the minaret of the mosque and madrasa of Umm al-Sultan Shaaban based on research and studies on the previous minaret, which collapsed during an earthquake. We rebuilt it in order to show people what it looked like, in order to re-create the past, which might be lost forever otherwise,” says Dina Bakhoum, site manager for the project. “We not only restore monuments, but we also aim to make them functional and beneficial for the users.”


The Aga Khan Trust’s design parameters combine traditional designs with new technology, unlike more conservative approaches followed by the western missions. For instance, installing modern-style glass windows is their way of improving the old structures by protecting them from the elements, increasing environmental comfort and energy efficiency while incorporating a more contemporary feel. The Trust’s ongoing innovative approach to solving age-old problems certainly calls for praise and encouragement.


THE POLITICS OF CONSERVATION


In 2001, Caroline Williams, a well-known art historian and author of Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide, addressed a letter, signed by many respected foreign art historians and restorers, Suzanne Mubarak, Egypt’s first lady. The letter called for a complete halt to the Historic Cairo Restoration Project (HCRP) undertaken by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and the Ministry of Culture since 1998. The letter lashed out at projects funded by the project and the Bohra mission. It pointed out large numbers of errors in the use of building materials, hasty construction methods and an incorrect conservation methodology along with inadequate historical background and research.3


In recent years, criticism of the Bohras and the SCA has died down. Most scholars working in the field in Cairo are reluctant to criticize the work at all. Many experts admit that while the Bohras and SCA have committed serious mistakes in the restoration process, at least effort has been taken to preserve historic structures and they are no longer under an imminent threat of disappearing. Nairy Hampikian, an architect and one of the top restorers of historic Cairo, believes that implementing such a program of restoration was desperately needed at the time, since it was on a “huge scale, and called for massive and immediate intervention.” Hampikian is optimistic despite all the criticism from the international community. She holds that “there is one big truth, that what is happening in Cairo today has never happened before, except for the work by the Comité in 1881.” In retrospect, if the SCA had never taken action, concerned Egyptians and foreigners may have had to continue watching the dilapidation and deterioration of many more monuments.


Hampikian argues that foreign critics sat around and told Egyptian officials how they were doing everything wrong but weren’t doing anything themselves to help.


“It’s as if you have a doctor who is full of compassion and is trying to cure his dying patient, while a specialist is telling him what he is doing wrong and yet won’t do anything to help the patient himself,” she said. “Cairo was sick and dying, and Egypt didn’t have an army of conservators and art historians, so the government agencies had to start from somewhere.” Besides that, she says, “everybody knows that when you do restoration, you always make some mistakes.”


COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT AND DEVELOPMENT


Residents of historic Cairo form an incredibly tight-knit community of co-dependence and support. This means they inherently distrust the government, foreign agencies and even Egyptians from outside their neighborhood.


Government agencies have yet to attack the social problems that abound in the area. Hampikian believes that NGOs are the best hope for spreading awareness and developing the communities. The problem is that most NGOs do not understand the communities or the right way to address their needs, Hampikian says. Therefore, “NGOs should pour all of their time and efforts into community awareness, instead of just money.” Egyptian NGOs will most probably be successful in addressing social problems, she says, but before they begin their work, “they must build an intimate relationship based on trust and mutual understanding.”


According to Emad Abd al-Azim, an antiquities inspector with the SCA in the ancient quarter of Darb al-Ahmar, the restoration of monuments such as Bab al-Zuweila, a Fatimid- era gate, by the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) has negative and positive aspects. Although the monument has been conserved and cleaned, making the area more pleasant, local residents have not benefited at all. They have been left behind to live in unsanitary, cramped apartments.


Abd al-Azim believes that foreign missions, with their large budgets, should not only put their money into restoring monuments but also into revitalizing the neighborhoods in their entirety. He would like to see both foreign missions and government ministries “study the society well to find out what kind of cultural and economic projects would be appropriate and to give unconditional grants instead of loans to eligible residents of the area to improve their economic status.”


Although restoring monuments is certainly not a bad thing, neglecting the needs of area residents, especially on the part of the Egyptian government, is inexcusable. Important issues such as faulty sewers, the lack of public toilets and general cleanliness and sanitation should be dealt with on a large scale side by side with current beautification projects. Maintenance of restored monuments is also nonexistent and government agencies need to develop a system to help prevent further deterioration.


In defense of the complaint that foreign missions tend to concentrate on the aesthetic qualities of buildings while ignoring the people who live among these buildings, one architect, who requested anonymity and works with the ARCE, argues that “it is not for foreign missions to interfere in Egyptian society. Grants, which are given by USAID to the Egyptian Antiquities Project of the ARCE to complete various conservation projects on monuments around Egypt, are just that—grants for conserving brick and mortar structures, not sewage systems or health clinics.”


ARCE and other foreign missions take similar stances in their approaches to conservation projects. Usually they receive a grant, which lays out very specific parameters for the budget and spending. Grants often require that funds be spent solely on the conservation of a particular monument and do not allow the grantees to use the money in other ways, such as fixing up nearby houses.


Thus, while foreign missions do a good job of conserving and restoring monuments, they do little else. Organizations such as ARCE believe that foreign missions should follow the philosophy of minimal intervention: they should not interfere with issues that fall under the responsibility of the local government.


Although government agencies are beginning to slowly improve the infrastructure with new sewers and trash collection systems, there is still a long way to go. A lack of funds, complex bureaucracy, sub-contracting problems and a lack of long-term planning hamper many of the efforts. The high water table that damages many of the monuments is one problem that the government has yet to address; so far the groundwater situation directly around monuments has been improved. However, this is a very short-term solution and will not have any long-term positive effects. Private homes in the surrounding area will certainly suffer ground-water problems in the near future. Social issues in the historic city must be examined and steps must be taken to ensure a problem-free coexistence between residents and historic structures.


THE FUTURE OF HISTORIC CAIRO


Things are only looking brighter every day for historic Cairo as more opportunities for studying and work in the field of conservation and restoration of ancient monuments continue to open up. Twenty years ago, there were very few Egyptians who had the appropriate skills to work on these projects. Foreign missions were relied on to conserve few monuments at an exorbitant cost. Yet now, Egypt’s stock of locally trained scientists, engineers, architects and art historians specializing in conservation and restoration, and progressive construction companies is growing. This means that many more conservation projects will be carried out on a massive scale reasonable budgets. Even big construction companies such as Aalam Sons have a special department in their business for the conservation of monuments and often hire foreign experts to train university students and recruits.


Perhaps in another 20 years, historic Cairo will finally be able to regain its timeless dignity and proudly show its renowned image among the great cities of the world. To achieve this goal, it is hoped by many that other benevolent organizations will adopt a similar model to that of the Aga Khan Cultural Trust. Their goal of improving the social fabric while restoring the historical side of the city will ensure its preservation and revitalization, thus breathing new life into a city that has been neglected for too long. ❖


References

1. Abu-Lughod, Janet. Cairo: 1001Years of the City Victorious, Princeton University Press, 1971.

2. Bierman, Irene. “Urban Memory and the Preservation of Monuments”, The Restoration and Conservation of Islamic Monuments in Egypt, AUC Press, 1995.

3. For further reading on Williams’ letter, see Williams, Caroline, “Transforming the Old: Cairo’s New Medieval City,” Middle East Journal, 56:3, Summer 2002.


Rose Aslan is a freelance writer currently based in Cairo.

 

 
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