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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (513)

Rampant on the streets

Dr Yunan The beginning of urban sprawl saw Cairo enjoy a construction boom, but building was often without rhyme or reason. Al-Ahram had one particular concern: the fate of historical sites which it feared would become a victim of modernity. As Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* writes, not all architecture was triumphant


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Over the decades, Cairo's urban development schemes have taken several routes
The rapid transformation of Egyptian society during the first third of the 20th century left its imprint on many aspects of life. The most visible manifestations were in fashion, with the spread of European style clothes among the urban upper middle to the rural gentry, then downward through the middle classes; in home furnishings, as gilt-laden living room suites à la "Louis XV and Louis XVI" replaced the wooden kanaba and long dining room tables and high-backed chairs superseded the low round tabla; and in eating customs, as diners began to be served on individual plates and to use knives, spoons and forks instead of reaching out with the hands or serving bread in the centrally placed angar, a large copper shallow serving bowl.

Social transformations also left their mark on the architectural design of the home. On the way out was the traditional "family home", with its distinct demarcations between public and private spaces, or the salamlek -- the rooms on the ground floor used for dining and entertaining guests -- and the haramlek, the rooms on the upper floor where family members engaged in their routine day-to-day activities. The public spaces were decorated to impress, with arabesque designs created through the use of carved stucco, colourful ablaq masonry and delicate mosaics. The traditional home was an enclosed, virtually self-sufficient entity. In addition to storerooms for foodstuffs, they generally included a garden, water pump, a mill for grinding grain and poultry pens.

The disappearance of this style of home began gradually at the upper end of the social ladder in the age of Khedive Ismail (1863-1879), to which testify that monarch's luxurious Italian and French style palaces in Cairo and Alexandria. The pace increased with the massive influx of Europeans and consequent growth of European expatriate communities, giving rise to villas and residential quarters inspired by architectural concepts of Latin or Anglo-Saxon origins. Cairo's Garden City, which arose around the British high commissioner's residence (later to become the British Embassy), is the most salient example of a distinctly European quarter of the Anglo-Saxon variety. In the 1920s and 1930s, European architectural trends spread downwards through the middle classes, as is evidenced by the emergence of residential apartment blocs. Consisting of relatively small units, these dwellings were designed to accommodate relatively small families, reflecting the decline of the extended family.

In tandem with these developments, the city expanded, randomly, more often than not. The beginnings of urban sprawl naturally attracted widespread attention. Although it met with some approval, the general opinion was disparaging, especially with regard to some of the new developments which one writer to Al-Ahram described as "rampant streets".

For its part, Al-Ahram was concerned over the fate of the old, historical quarters which it feared would fall into ruin because of the "precipitous haste" with which Egyptians were moving out to new apartments and villas, "leaving the fires in their hearths to turn to ash and their homes to be inhabited by the destitute or to be infested by rats and insects". This anxiety prompted a series of articles on the changing face of Cairo, appearing in the autumn of 1932.

The opinion of the author, who signed himself writing only his initials, M S, is readily apparent in the headline: "Cairo crumbles -- How did our forefathers build their cities and what have their descendants done to this heritage?" Clearly a devotee of the historical quarters he summons his lyrical skills to describe them: "Narrow streets, houses nestled up against one another, you push open their doors to peer at spacious courtyards, elaborately decorated skylights, delicate lattice work, and finely carved divans and mastabas. The house is situated next to the mosque, the khanqah, the store and the fountain, forming a vista akin to a magical portrait whose artist invested it with abundant charm and fascination."

The magic of Cairo, M S continues, is such that it has enchanted the hearts of tourists, explorers and those with wanderlust. But one had to visit the city in order to experience its wonders, absorb all that one could recount to others and delight in the sights one sees.

Against this sense of awe, all the more acute was his dismay at the changes in the character of the city resulting from contemporary architecture and modes of construction imported from Europe and the US. "Multi-storey buildings constructed from reinforced cement and paved streets have virtually eradicated tourism," M S writes. He further deplored the "nouveaux riche" who were so keen on the new styles of architecture and who he described as having "shunned those who have left their imprint on all our traditions and time-honoured values". But what most disturbed the author of "Cairo crumbles" was that cement block architecture was encroaching on and supplanting the traditional homes and buildings in the old quarters. "Those ancient structures, with their characteristic structural harmony, are rapidly disappearing, never to return," he grieves. "For the sake of that perverse urbanisation, the health of these quarters' inhabitants is at jeopardy, dust blinds their eyes and disease abounds due to the accumulation of refuse and the rubble of demolition." Moreover, he was entirely dumfounded that government authorities could leave that rampant construction unchecked, "as though on the outskirts of Cairo and along the banks of the Nile there is not enough space for them to build cities and suburbs without taxing the national treasury those millions of wasted pounds in brick and mud and without causing such damage to the Egyptian people and their heritage."

In his second article, M S focusses on a single development project: Al-Khaleeg Street. Although that area had only been inaugurated recently, the idea of developing it dated to Lord Kitchner, British high commissioner from 1911 to 1914. M S credits Kitchner for having restricted work to barren sites near Ghamra and Al-Sudud. "However, those who inherited the project from him were in a rush to open the area in between, at the cost to the national treasury of half a million pounds." Many antique buildings were destroyed in the process. Citing an expert in antiquities, he relates, "Walls of coloured tiles, inlaid fountains, windows and lintels of intricately worked carved and lathed wood -- all these treasures fell before the levelling machines or slipped through the hands of ignorant construction contractors into the hands of petty merchants. Then the experts got hold of them and smuggled as many of these priceless objects as they could to Europe. Our loss from that destruction was thus two-fold: the beautiful buildings and the treasures they had once contained."

It was a black day when those "simpletons" decided to fill in the canal that had once run through the street "in order to make way for the tramway instead of the picturesque boats and dhows that had once graced that waterway, which had linked the homes that overlooked it like the thread in a necklace." What possible advantage would that construction work bring? "Once there were two parallel streets with a row of houses in between. These houses were not overcrowded or cramped together. There was air and sunlight. Now it is a street gone out of control!"

It was mad because it was destined to become another one of those overcrowded quarters whose inhabitants have packed on top of one another in rows of apartment blocks like sardines in tins. Kafr Al-Zaghawi, Kafr Al-Tama'in, Boulaq, Al-Turgoman -- these were only a few of the new random developments in the malignant urban sprawl. "Were these rubbish heaps to be swept off the face of the earth, history would not shed a tear. It is though a demonic hidden hand has selected our historical quarters and our streets of great renown and heritage for destruction and obliteration."

One of the projects that had run out of control was Al-Azhar Street. The original conception was to construct a broad and straight thoroughfare so that a person standing in Ataba Square at one end could behold the façade of the venerable Al-Azhar Mosque at the other. However, the project was handed to a "lame-minded man" who ended making a street that "twisted like a snake". Not only had he failed to realise the original objective, perhaps never having intended "the straight path", but "he constructed that street in the 20th century -- as you can see -- as a lasting shame and embarrassment for the people of this century."

In his third article, M S dons the cap of an urban planner and offers Al-Ahram readers a lesson in how cities should be designed. The area where Cairo was situated, with the cliffs to the right, the Nile to the left and fields to the north and south, was perfect for building the ideal city. This terrain "demands the simplest geometric forms, which are the most suitable to human nature", M S writes. To him, this meant a grid pattern. "The original and most beautiful plans for Cairo called for intersecting parallel streets, permitting the northerly and southerly winds to race through them and allowing in the light of the sun as it rises and sets. And wherever an inhabitant would stand he would be able to see the city's four vistas: the Nile, the cliffs, the fields and the desert."

The planners of medieval Cairo did not quite implement this vision. Major thoroughfares ran north to south, but the streets that intersected with them dwindled down to a maze of lanes and alleyways. Ultimately, however, this turned out to be a virtue since the narrow streets "protected the shops from the heat of the sun and their products from the destructive power of its rays". In addition, "fate at that time had destined Egypt to a dry climate. The Nile only visited Cairo in the flooding season. Then the waters withdrew, leaving the sun to dry up and evaporate the remaining moisture. For this reason, they made streets narrow and covered them with wood. Also, they constructed their buildings so as to include vertical shafts that included air vents in their upper portions. In so doing, they were applying the principle that hot air rises and cold air sinks and that the shafts were the best means for increasing the circulation of the air."

However, there was no reason why Egyptians of the present day had to adhere to the former precautions against heat and aridity. Indeed, quite the contrary, "Egypt today has irrigation throughout the year, the Nile no longer poses a problem in this regard and irrigation canals ensure that its waters do not deplete. Because of dams, barrages and bridges, the Nile has been able to augment its bounty." At the same time, the water table rose to barely a metre below ground level, transforming the once dry riverbed into a veritable swamp. As a result, "rheumatism runs rampant, even in the depth of Upper Egypt, and people have had to purchase fans in order to lessen the intense humidity that has begun to subject the buildings to erosion and decay."

Not surprisingly, in view of his fondness for geometric symmetry, M S strongly disapproved of the European quarters such as Garden City and Zamalek, which he compared to "a maze in Luna Park -- once you enter you need a guide to help you out". In addition, that maze blocked all possible view of the Nile. But more was involved than aesthetics; urban planning, or the lack of it, had a profound impact on character and behaviour. In his opinion, whoever laid out the streets in those quarters did so blindfolded. "How rare it is that one finds a straight street, even though long. Extended straight streets have a great effect on the psychological development of their inhabitants and the inculcation of rectitude." The behavioural effects of the environment were readily apparent among the Bedouin, "who dwell in the natural simplicity and naiveté of the desert, which has left an imprint on them with its nature and its morals".

As an example of a naturally and morally salubrious street, M S points to Mohamed Ali Street. Built by Ali Mubarak, this street, in its uniformity and precise linearity, was a model of refined taste and rectitude. Moski Street was of a similar nature, while the modern Farouq Street (present-day 26 of July) "comes close to the mark".

In all events, the expansion of a capital city should not endanger its ancient monuments and its flavour of antiquity. The solution was to emulate the French in Fes. This historical Moroccan city, located in a mountain valley, was built on an incline and, with its narrow, tortuous alleyways, was "unsuitable as their capital and could not accommodate their needs". Moreover, the French regarded the city as a vast buried treasure, "every building in it a treasure in its own right", and they realised that "were they to carve new streets or alter the layout of the city, they would obliterate those treasures forever". Their solution was to leave the old city intact and, on a nearby hill, construct "New Fes" "in their manner and in accordance with the needs of their rule". The experiment was a success. "Those who wanted to flee the old to the new fled. Thus old Fes survived, the new Fes grew and the state was enriched by two thriving cities instead of one."

M S goes on to point out that the Khedive Ismail did something similar when he transferred the seat of government from the citadel down into the valley. Leaving historic Cairo intact and beginning to the west of the old city, he initiated a massive development project that extended across both banks of the Nile. "The paradise he created consists of eight feddans on the west bank, in which are located the zoological gardens, palaces and parks, and the wing on the east bank that extends from Qasr Al-Aini Street to Abdeen. Then, Ismail turned his attention to Al-Gazira, which he intended to transform into Egypt's jewel." Sadly, however, Ismail's successors failed to see his plans through, with the results that were readily apparent.

Naturally, any discussion on urban development in Egypt would have to include Alexandria. Al-Ahram entrusted this task to a staff writer who preferred the pen-name "Khaldun". In August 1932, Khaldun undertook a visit to Egypt's second biggest city, which he followed through with three articles appearing under the headline, "Observations on the Bride of Egypt, the city of Alexander the Great." If these articles reflect many of the same opinions and sentiments in "Cairo crumbles", they also indicate that their author was perhaps more concerned for the city's human inhabitants than for the artefacts of stone.

Khaldun was immediately taken by Alexandria's beauty and order. "The son of Cairo cannot help but be in awe when he discovers something that he had never before experienced in the capital," he writes. This "something" was the "splendid harmony and consummate symmetry between the buildings facing one another on either side of a street," qualities that gave the spectator the sense that there was "some form of control over construction, compelling property owners to observe certain simple rules of the arts of architectural design and embellishment." What a contrast this was to Cairo, where all was left to the whims of individual developers who "make their buildings as tall or as short as they want," which was why "you will find adjacent to a lofty high-rise a hut or garage and facing it a villa of no more than two or three storeys."

Public transportation was also much more sensible in Alexandria. Not only were the facilities clean, orderly and punctual, they were varied. In addition to private vehicles, there were taxis, tramways, public buses and carriages, all of which were relatively inexpensive compared to their counterparts in Cairo. But it was when one took a walk along the Corniche that one could truly appreciate the charm of the city, which Khaldun likened to an elegant, svelte woman who availed herself of all the possible adornments modernity had to offer.

Nevertheless, lest readers think he was overly romantic or had succumbed to a blind infatuation, Khaldun points out the reverse side of the coin. Addressing the Mediterranean, which he accuses of corrupting people's morals on its golden sands, he writes, "On your shores, people have come to have more in common with barbarians than with human beings. If you reject this analogy, then one can say no less than, due to you, they have become closer to the inhabitants of equatorial jungles. They promenade on the beach almost naked, concealing only those parts of their bodies that those primitives might cover." Not much better were those men, young and old alike, who walked from their hotels or holiday homes to the beach wearing no more than their swimming costumes. "If the advocates of the new freedom excuse such behaviour on the beach, how do they justify this horrendous mockery far away from the beach in the heart of residential neighbourhoods?"

Another flaw of the "Bride of the Mediterranean" was the acrid taste of its drinking water. It was a phenomenon he found incomprehensible given the millions that the Alexandrian municipality spent on urban projects that were "closer to luxury than to necessity". How was it possible, he asked, that the city could be so lax about drinking water "and allow such a shortcoming"?

On the upside, Khaldun was most impressed by the indications Alexandria showed of the cooperative spirit among its inhabitants. "There is a great inclination for organised activities, cooperation and order, as is evinced by the many successful companies, societies and literary and artistic clubs. This success is epitomised in the Philanthropic Society which has acquired national repute and which is currently engaged in the construction of what is to become the largest and best equipped hospital in the country."

As it was August, still the height of the tourist season, Khaldun could not help but notice the effect the international economic crisis had on the city. The Egyptian wealthy who would have ordinarily taken their summer holidays in Europe or Lebanon were instead vacationing closer to home. But according to Khaldun, Alexandria offered everything holiday- makers could possibly want, such as "a broad range of entertainment and a vast selection of sporting facilities". He was thus not surprised to find the city crowded and "the most telling sign of this is that you can rarely find an available room in a hotel".

Nevertheless, not all was well as it appeared. Khaldun explains what had been the custom: the less well-to-do among Alexandria's expatriate communities would take out leases on flats which they would then equip with basic furnishings in order to let them out to tourists in the summer. That many of those flats were empty that year was "proof that many families have refrained from taking their summer holidays due to the current crisis".

Al-Ahram's survey of urban development extended beyond the major cities to include various provincial capitals. Among these the newspaper dwelt at length on Mit Ghamr, and what it found particularly impressive there was Nile Street. "This street curves around the east side of the town, then proceeds westward along the course of the Nile and continues to follow the river as it bends northward until a kilometre beyond the northern border of the town." Curiously, at the time, Cairenes had nothing comparable. It would take another 20 years before Cairo had a Corniche on the scale of that of Mit Ghamr, an achievement that would be associated with the many other achievements of the 1952 Revolution and with the name of Commander Abdel-Latif Baghdadi, minister of municipal and village affairs.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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