Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 August 2003
Issue No. 651
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Reconstructing the past

The conservation and de-watering projects in Old Cairo are seemingly endless, Yasmine El-Rashidi visits the historic area and explores the latest steps being taken


Click to view caption
Restoration within the Roman fortress of Babylon are leaving the ancient city with an altered face. Clockwise from far left: work in Abu Serga; a renovated alley beside Ben Ezra; a main passage within the fortress, before and after
If whimsical could describe any place in Cairo, it could very well be within the walls of the Roman Fortress of Babylon to the south of the modern city. Within the looming brick walls and soaring castle towers, the cobbled streets and Roman arches blend intricately with the Coptic churches, Fatimid mosques, and surviving Ottoman structures. The words of Florence Nightingale's Letters From Egypt whirl in one's head, as ancient scenes are brought back to life in the hallways of one's imagination.

"We went through narrow, narrow streets, with threads, not gleams, of sun through them," Nightingale wrote, "where the Moorish balconies not only met, but overlapped, overhead, to a Coptic Church in the Roman Fortress, where a Coptic funeral was going on. From hence we went to a Coptic convent, still on the site of the Roman fortress, of which the church is of the third century, full of beautiful Moorish screens and ivory work with saints which work all sorts of miracles. After alternating Osiriolatry and Mariolatry, we took a third dose in the form of Amrou's Mosque, which he built when he took the Roman fortress sixteen years after the Hegira for the Caliph Omar, calling the place Fostat."

"Al-Fustat's" complex past is as evident above the ground as it is below, both providing soil for much controversy and concern in recent years. At the Church of Saint Sergus (Abu Serga) -- famous as one of the places where the Holy Family is believed to have hidden during their flight into Egypt -- the foundations on which the concern is premised are clear.

On a characteristically heated Cairo morning, the grounds of the fortress are serene -- disturbed only by occasional Spanish chatter, and the slightly louder echo of locals welcoming their guests to Cairo. Around some corners and down some narrow alleys, the hammering begins. Beside the Synagogue of Ben Ezra -- passed back from the Copts (who had converted it into a church dedicated to Saint Michael in the 10th century, and later reconstructed by Rabbi Abraham Ben Ezra of Jerusalem) -- limestone facing is being laid on a concrete wall, the almost- shimmering new cut stone standing in stark contrast to the mellowed surrounding historic structures. Behind it, sheltered within the walls of Abu Serga, another type of construction is taking place. In the far right-hand corner of the church -- in the area that houses the shrine, alter, and crypt -- a wooden barricade encloses the area from public access. Enquiries as to the whereabouts of the ARCE-EAP (American Research Center in Egypt, Egyptian Antiquities Project) director in charge, were met with silent nods -- chins pointing towards this barricaded area.

The signs of disruption and digging are evident, not only from the ropes and scaffolding, put also from the yellow construction hats bobbing above the wooden wall. At the top of one of several wooden ramps that bridge the isolated spots of church ground that have not been drilled into pits, the largest of the holes stands like a valley; the lowest point of which serves as an entrée to the crypt. Several metres beneath ground-level, surrounded by dark damp soil, Peter Sheehan documents the soil strata both on paper, and through a digital lens.

"Below ground is a very interesting place," Sheehan laughs, as he makes his little trek out of the ground, up a ladder and over some rubble. "Within the walls of this fortress is a history of different worlds," he continues. "The layers of the soil reveal the changes that have taken place over time."

Sheehan is the director of the ARCE-EAP archaeological project, which is aimed to monitor the USAID activities intended to lower groundwater levels around the monuments in Old Cairo.

"Archaeologically it's a big opportunity," he says. "The holes are being dug anyway, so we're sort-of tacking ourselves onto it. We are there to guide the digging of the holes and to document the process. The archaeological information we can provide, based on an understanding of the historical structures, is very important. We give guidance in that respect. In such an area, especially one like this in which you are restrained space-wise, and dealing with different foundation levels, wherever you dig you might hit something of historic value. We try to guide construction work to areas that have already been dug in the past, to areas that are archaeologically sterile."

Sheehan points to such evidence -- remnants of past digs.

"You can see the different ground levels," he says, pointing to materials that serve as archaeological landmarks. "The different pavement levels," he continues. "Soil reflects the changes in the activity of people digging and building. You can track the entire process back through the soil. We've established the Roman ground level, which is now the basement level of the churches in Old Cairo. The Roman fortress was well preserved underground, which is why the churches and mediaeval buildings have lasted in the way that they have, because they have a concrete, solid foundation."

But while nature and time have played their own role in preserving the past, the makings of modernity have fought against it in recent years. The rising water-table level has been a culprit in the demise of the old city, especially since the 1980s. But full-fledged restoration and conservation of the area had to be "put on hold" for several years until the Greater Cairo Waste Water Project was completed. The postponement proved disastrous. When the 1992 earthquake struck Cairo, the monuments most seriously affected were those of Old Cairo. The Hanging Church (Al- Moallaqa), precariously balanced on the two southwestern bastions of the Old Roman fortress, suffered most; great cracks appeared in its walls. The adjacent old wing of the Coptic Museum and the library were likewise affected; and the Church of Saint Sergus, restored in the mid- 1970s, was flooded. The outcome was long overdue attention. The following year the soil around Old Cairo and Al-Fustat was analysed, and experts confirmed what was long known -- that the problem stemmed from two sources: subterranean water seepage from the higher water table following the construction of the Aswan High Dam, and sewage from population density.

The earthquake paved the way for the restoration -- or "face-lift" as some like to call it -- of Old Cairo, its surrounding walls, and some of it most threatened monuments, including the Hanging Church. In tandem, much to the relief of historians and archaeologists, priority was given to the water-level problem.

"It's not the first time a project like this is attempted," Sheehan says as he climbs over debris atop the Church of Saint Sergus. "The holes we have already dug reflect past attempts to put in drainage pipes. But they were never completed, and were also problematic in many ways."

This project, he explains, is based on an entirely new and natural premise.

"The concept of this project is that there is no pumping involved," he says. "Our aim is to rely only on shafts and gravity. When you pump water out," he explains. "You drag water harder, so it takes the fine material with it. With time, this fine material [which holds the soil together] goes, and the soil folds. In Old Cairo, in a sense, there wouldn't be a problem if you pumped at a certain level, because the historic monuments are built above Roman ground level. It is all the modern structures that would collapse." Sheehan smiles at the thought, and continues. "The project consists of a series of shafts -- ten in Old Cairo -- which are connected by perforated tunnels," he says, pausing to climb a mound of rubble.

"Here," he says, picking up a 50-centimetre- long, seemingly equally wide black pipe sculpted with holes. "Groundwater level in Old Cairo has risen about two metres since the 1970s," he continues. "When the project is complete, these pipes will connect down from shaft to shaft in one line, eventually coming out North of Salah Salem Street."

The final outcome is that the water-table level around the monuments will be brought down by those threatening two metres.

While the project is expected to be completed by this time next year, time will only tell.

"We've already gone on beyond the initial timeframe projection," he says. "It would be quicker if we just dug where we wanted," he continues, "And some people argue that we should -- that no-one will ever know if we dig through a historic site, since we're going to cover it up again anyway."

The archaeologist in Sheehan, however, cannot swallow the thought.

"It boils down to perspective," Sheehan contemplates. "Certain things become artefacts and others don't. Something is either a monument, or it is not, or it's an object or it's not. I suppose you have to determine what's of inestimable value to you. It's not the most objective, honest field because of that."

Perched at the top of a narrow wooden ramp leading to the church's rooftop, Sheehan points to a narrow alley below. One of its walls is the back of the church, the other is a concrete and glass block. Flanking it is yet another newly constructed paint-washed wall.

"That," he says, pointing to the nondescript alley and shaking his head in evident despair, "was once the main street of Old Cairo. It's a major historic thoroughfare," he continues. "It's been blocked at the end with the back of public toilets," he adds, pointing to the beige wall embossed with pipes. "And this wall over here, is the extension of the tourist bazaar outside."

He alludes that this may be part of the problem.

"What is happening in Old Cairo is restoration with a view to more tourism," he says, touching -- after much prodding -- on the debate as to the integrity of those working in the area of Old Cairo. "The new look is a result of several things. For a start, people have forgotten how to build with stone, so they're tiling -- putting slabs of limestone over concrete in the desire to give an old look. The problem," he continues, "is that you only get an old look by building properly."

Numerous historians have expressed dismay at the happenings in Al-Fustat, saying that the so- called "restoration" is in reality the rebuilding of the city.

"Archaeology is the understanding of the way structures are developed," Sheehan says, diplomatically offering his perspective. "You cannot judge what a structure represents just by looking at it with the naked eye. Its phases of construction are important, and the context in which it was built. If you conserve and preserve, instead of looking at just one jewel of architecture, you can look at a series."

He pauses, opting -- after a deep breath -- to elaborate.

"If a building slips, you can't just pour concrete into the ground. You have to look at the whole context in which it was constructed and ask yourself; what will happen to that concrete? Where will it seep? What will it cover? Some of the more modern conservationists -- especially Europeans -- give value to all that is there. Others -- restorers, really -- come in, knock down the crumbling monument and rebuild it completely with cement walls and stucco tiles. It comes down to its value to individuals; whether the building is regarded as a physical link to the past and of symbolic as well as architectural and historic value, and should be conserved. Or whether, for the sake of tourism, rapid restoration of historical landmarks is necessary. I feel that if you just rebuild a monument, it shows a lack of interest for old buildings. What has become of the main street of Old Cairo shows that we have overlooked what to me is a historic landmark. Perspective? Mine is that it's of inestimable value."

Others would argue his point too.

In the recently published Historians in Cairo, Essays in honour of George Scanlon, Istvan Ormos contributes a piece entitled "Preservation and Restoration, The Methods of Max Herz Pasha, Chief Architect of the Comite de Conservation des Monuments de L'Art Arabe, 1890- 1914." Known to have been the pioneer in the conservation and restoration of Islamic and Coptic architectural monuments, Herz's work method has become, to many, the cornerstone of restoration and preservation ethics.

"Colleagues claimed that his method involved discovering the original form and condition of each architectural monument, and restoring only those elements on which reliable data was available," Ormos wrote. "He never created anything new that had no original in a monument."

In 1914, in an account of his travels, Alajos Hauszmann, Herz Pasha's former professor in Budapest, commented on the activities of the Comite: "They attach great importance to the conservation of the monuments above all; they do not restore but restrict themselves to the reinforcement of old structures, the repair of columns and pillars. Having cleaned the carvings on the ceilings and the ornaments on walls, they renew the painting and the gilding. The archaeological viewpoint is decisive in every case; their main objective is to preserve the original shape of the monument without the addition of new elements."

"In summary," Ormos wrote, "Herz Pasha generally preferred conservation to reconstruction, and when he resorted to reconstruction he was restrained and scrupulous. Within certain limits (the Mameluke period) he was a purist, but even his purism was controlled by scrupulous restraint and common sense."

A common sense that those purists in the field today allude is agonisingly absent.

"When does it stop?" Sheehan contemplates. "Where is the vision? The site has had at least one major project underway since the early 1980s. There's not a great deal of planning. It's hard to look at it returning to a 'normal' state."

He stops and sighs.

"Historic Cairo has taken on a momentum of its own," he adds quietly.

A momentum, unfortunately, which has spiralled out of control. While the initial plans were for a capturing of the past, the ethic of conservation and preservation evolved in tandem with modern times and needs. For the sake of tourism, the nation has opted, instead, to perfectly reconstruct its past, and the shape and spirit of the ancient city has been irrevocably lost.

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