Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 October - 31 November 2012
Issue No. 1120
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A city that will never die

Osama Kamal discovers how Port Said's heritage is threatened by illegal demolitions

In the early hours of the morning three weeks ago, the façade of the Athena Hotel in Port Said came tumbling down. The hotel, one of 500 listed buildings in Port Said, has been one of the landmarks of the city's Al-Nahda Street since it was built in the early 20th century.

The authorities wanted to pull it down a few years ago, but its heritage status protected it from the demolisher's wrecking ball. Now a piece of history has disappeared. The hotel, a two-storey building, was used to lodge British troops during their invasion of the city in 1956.

Because the building collapsed in the early hours of the morning, questions immediately arose. Many buildings seem to be coming down during the night these days, and they tend to be period villas, coveted by developers interested in putting high-rises up in their place. As a result, local conservationists were up in arms.

Port Said does not lack a vocal retinue of conservationists. One group that has been active in defending the city's architectural legacy is the city's Alliance Française, which has already issued a book about the city's heritage. Other groups include the Writers and Artists Association and the Coalition of Port Said Intellectuals.

Activists defending the city's architecture include Pierre Alfarobba, 34, director of the Alliance Française. Alfarobba, who came to Port Said three years ago, fell in love with the city at first sight.

"Before 2003, we had no documented research about the architectural heritage of Port Said, but then the Alliance Française commissioned French, Greek and Egyptian writers to write about the special architectural styles of the cities on the Suez Canal. As a result, three books were produced, one on Port Said (2006), another on Ismailia (2009) and a third on Suez (2011)," Alfarobba said.

The books, selling at about LE200 ($65) a piece, are too expensive for many people to buy, but at least it is a start.

The Alliance Française is an Egyptian-registered organisation affiliated with the Ministry of Social Affairs. It was formed in 1989 and is one of 1,000 local societies operating in 130 countries around the world. For the past three years, it has been celebrating the heritage of Port Said in a festival called "Heritage Days". This year's event, held from 24 September to 17 October, featured lectures, film screenings, roundtable discussions and a photographic exhibition in which 30 local photographers contributed works about the city.

As soon as he heard of the collapse of the Athena Hotel's façade, Ahmed Sidki, director of the Urban Monitor Project at the Heritage Programme, another heritage group, immediately rushed to the city. Sidki, a well-known conservationist, is especially interested in between-the-wars buildings, which he sees as symbolic of the country's liberal past.

"Many people of different nationalities came to Egypt between the two world wars and they interacted with Egyptian society economically, culturally and socially. As a result of this interaction, cosmopolitan cities emerged and Port Said is one of these. Its architectural legacy is varied and unmatched," Sidki said.

Sidki would like to see the city refurbished through a concerted architectural revival project, perhaps along the lines of Beirut's Solidere Project. Other conservationists also dream of a revival plan, but one along the lines of those implemented in Tunisia and Syria, where interventions have been more beneficial to the local community.

One of Port Said's most outspoken conservationists is Walid Montasser, a photographer who lives opposite the Arsenal Building, not far from the old Suez Canal Company Building and the well-preserved examples of the Company's staff housing.

"Port Said was not a city; it was a melting pot," Montasser said. He speaks fondly of the city's architectural attractions, citing their dates of construction from memory: the Suez Canal Building (1869) the Old Lighthouse (1870), the Greek Church (1864), the Tawfik Mosque (1882), the Eugenie Church (1890), the Bazaar Market (1891), the Cinema Eldorado (1896), the Abbas Mosque (1904), the Italian Cathedral (1934), the Italian School (1910), the Lycee Française (1910), the Italian Cultural Centre (1937), the Police Station (1932) and the Simon Arzt Store (1932).

Khaled Abdel-Rahman, who lives in Al-Talatini Street in the Arab Quarter, has been collecting old Port Said photographs. "Old Port Said is not just about buildings. It is a source of inspiration that one can feel deep inside despite the surrounding ugliness," he said.

Poet Ahmed Shalabi, active in the conservationist movement, is also fascinated by the city's cosmopolitan past. "Port Said is not just a city -- it is a state of mind," Shalabi said. "The stories older people tell of the city paint a portrait of a magical city, one that evokes the mood in port cities in France, Italy, Greece or Spain. Port Said was a city of the Orient, but it had a European soul. This is clear in its architectural heritage which mirrors many religions -- Islamic, Christian and Jewish -- and different cultures."

"Port Said will never die, because it lives through its old buildings," Shalabi said.

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