Who's afraid of Saladin?
Can UNESCO regulations bring the fierce debate over the Saladin Citadel project to a satisfactory close? Nevine El-Aref
investigates an issue to be reckoned with
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From top: the sketch provided by ALKAN outlining the Citadel opposite to the CFTC; the Citadel; the construction site; the rejected blueprint of the CFTC
The past three months have not been easy for ALKAN Holding Company (AHC) chairman Mohamed Nosseir, locked as he has been in a bitter feud not only with the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) but, equally, with archaeologists and intellectuals resentful of a LE2.5 billion project to build the Cairo Financial and Tourist Centre (CFTC), a 260,000-square metre business and tourism megacomplex overlooking the Citadel. An ambitious project for which land has been set aside at the foot of the Muqattam Hills, the complex -- initially scheduled for completion in 2002 -- includes eight office towers, entertainment and shopping facilities, a 600-room five-star hotel and -- the highlight, a CFTC donation -- a glass-domed trading floor modeled on those of London, Tokyo and New York for the Cairo and Alexandria Stock Exchange (CASE), which agreed to be headquartered there when the project was launched in 1999 but has, since the delay, reportedly backed out; rumour has it that CASE will move, rather, to the Smart Village on the Cairo-Alexandria highway.
Launched early February, the project was halted by Cairo Governor Abdel-Azim Waziri in response to a SCA intervention stating that the project, undertaken without the permission of the SCA Permanent Committee for Islamic and Coptic Antiquities (which refused to grant it in 2001 and again in 2005) constituted an encroachment on an archeological site, violating Antiquities Law 117 of 1983. Events took a new turn as the media cashed in on the debate, with two seminars held at the Press Syndicate and the Supreme Council of Culture, with numerous parties accusing ALKAN of blocking the view of the Citadel, posing a threat to Islamic monuments and using explosives, thereby undermining the Citadel foundations and damaging an Ancient Egyptian quarry. According to the SCA Islamic and Coptic Antiquities Department head Abdullah Kamel, the project threatens not only the eastern side of the Citadel but the Mohamed Ali Fortress and the neighbouring Jacob Shah Al-Mehmendar dome as well. He added that the Muqattam Hills are already fragile: "The vibration of bulldozers and heavy construction equipment are a daily threat. When the committee granted preliminary approval in May 2006," Kamel elaborates on the official dynamics of the procedure, "it was by proxy, as it were, among a handful of members awaiting the 70-member monthly meeting. At the meeting the verdict was to form another committee to study all possible damage and take legal action where necessary." However, Kamel added, the SCA found out that ALKAN had started the construction work before getting the final approval on the project. In fact by 5 June, the project had been officially rejected again and the SCA demanded that ALKAN provide the required technical reports and abide by stipulations that the building should not be higher than the Citadel's eastern wall in the area from Al-Mubalat to the Al-Remeila Towers and that the architectural style be in harmony with the surroundings.
At his chic Dokki office -- a well-preserved early 20th-century building in Al-Mesaha Square -- Nosseir's tendency to punch the air in response to accusations leveled against him betrayed his otherwise remarkable composure: "I am not violating an archaeological site. I'm an Egyptian who is keen on his country's heritage; this office is witness to what I say. We will prevent no one from admiring the Citadel while they pass. We are building on the rock opposite, opposite." Nor is the construction illegal, he insisted: it was undertaken by official permits according to SCA regulations including those pertaining to height, which is 14, not 40 floors. The land in question, Nosseir explained, was a 1960s stone quarry later converted into a combined rubbish dump and workshop and storehouse space. In the 1970s, to protect Salah Salem Road from casual expansion, the government divided the area and sold it to businessmen: "I was among three investors who purchased land by decree of the then Minister of Culture Mansour Hassan, who stated clearly that this was not an archaeological site. It's actually three kilometers away from the archaeological site. I worked hard to convert the area into automobile assemblage factories for Renault, Komatsu and Yamaha. I even purchased the two plots neighbouring mine." By 1998, he recalled, he had approval for the project from both the Military Forces and Cairo Governorate. "I brought over Rafael Vinoly, the world renowned architect who remodelled Chicago to solve its traffic problem and made his mark on Tokyo."
After four days studying wind, soil and light, Vinoly produced three designs, one of which, though superb, was too big for the view. The second, including eight Islamic towers and a Fatimid façade, was delayed due to economic depression even though it was approved for bank loans of LE400 million: "I am not one of those businessmen who borrow to cover up their debts." Besides, Nosseir declaimed, no explosives were used; all was carried out according to specifications: "My aim is to attract foreign investors to Egypt and provide up to 4,500 job opportunities as per President Mubarak's recommendations in his election campaign." Rather strangely, Nosseir denied any knowledge of the SCA rejecting the proposal; all he received, he says, were approvals. Seeing as there was no room for agreement between the two contending parties, by late June the issue had escalated to huge proportions.
To resolve the debate, SCA Secretary-General Zahi Hawass called for a UNESCO inspection mission to check the site. "The Citadel," he declared, "is Egypt's fourth pyramid. We could never subject it to any danger." The mission, headed by Islamic archaeologist Ron Van Oers, arrived in mid-July; they began inspections accompanied by archaeologist Mohamed El-Kahlay, secretary of the General Arab Archaeologists Union. In his report Oers wrote that, with a pit of several hundred square metres, tones of concrete and the first five floors completed, the project seems to have reached a point of no return. But to mitigate impact, the project, he added, should abide strictly by certain rules. He also remarked that due to its height and volume the CFTC, as projected on a sketch drawn to scale, is now in direct competition with the heritage site. Several factors should therefore be taken into consideration: the height of the CFTC -- projected at 59.9 metres -- should not exceed the height of the Citadel's watchtowers; the design of the centre, a massive conglomerate of eight towers, should be broken up into several parts, thus introducing space and variety; the building should not be made in glass and steel but should match the hues of the limestone desert surroundings.
The report has now been submitted by Hawass to Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni and the SCA; last Thursday the committee had an urgent meeting in which members unanimously agreed to implement UNESCO regulations, assigning yet another committee headed by Kamel to inspect the project's progress, making sure that it complies with them. Hawass stated that the documents will be submitted to the Cairo governor who will in turn hand them over to ALKAN. Until the time of going to print, Nosseir has not returned from his two-week vacation to offer comments; speaking on condition of anonymity, a close friend of his said that, though he will be concerned about height, Nosseir is likely to approve.