Thursday,16 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1258, (13 - 19 August 2015)
Thursday,16 August, 2018
Issue 1258, (13 - 19 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Revitalising Khedival Cairo

Khedival Cairo in the capital’s downtown district is being renovated as part of a major revitalisation project to preserve the area’s historic character, writes Mai Samih

Al-Ahram Weekly

Khedival Cairo, the area of the city that corresponds to much of the downtown area today, originated in plans drawn up by order of the khedive Ismail in 1863 to turn Cairo, then still a largely medieval city, into the “Paris of the East.”

Ismail was determined to turn Cairo into “part of Europe” and wanted the city to look like Paris, which was being rebuilt at the same time under the direction of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann.

A new street plan was drawn up, canals were filled in and the work continued well into the next century, when Tahrir Square was designed by an Italian architect and, after 1913, Talaat Harb Square was built. Government regulations insisted on uniform heights for new buildings and a common ornamental and decorative scheme.

Some of the resulting buildings were very large, such as those in Ramses Street, which were built after 1900, after the filling in of the Ismailia Canal. They give the downtown area the character it has retained until the present day.

But time has taken its toll on many of the buildings, and in April the government announced a comprehensive renovation scheme to recreate the atmosphere of the Khedival City and to rescue the area from degeneration. Samir Zaki, the owner of a downtown clothing shop, said the renovations should help lift the fortunes of the area.

“I believe it is good that the government is paying for the renovation of these buildings,” he said. “This is a sign of civilisation.”

“I think they are doing a very good job, and the best example so far has been Orabi Square, where the buildings resemble those of 19th-century Paris,” commented another shop owner on Ramses Street. The next step should be to do more to enforce traffic regulations and to prevent the sometimes chaotic downtown parking, he said.

Emad Mounir, manager of the Antiquities Renovation Department at Arab Contractors, a partially government-owned company, is in charge of the renovation. “The Khedival Cairo project is being undertaken under the auspices of the governorate of Cairo, represented by Professor Soheir Hawas and the Cultural Co-Ordination Organisation,” said Mounir.

“We are renovating the buildings dating from the time of the khedive Ismail, starting the first phase by renovating the buildings in Al-Alfi Street and Talaat Harb Square. We are not just painting the facades. We are renovating the buildings themselves and restoring the ornamental facades.”

Arab Contractors is also renovating the Italian Consulate and the buildings that were damaged around it in the recent terrorist car bomb attack.

“We are working on the aftermath of the terrorist car bomb attack in the area, since some of the buildings were badly affected,” he said.

“We have renovated 54 buildings in the area, and the rest will be finished soon. The consulate building itself was severely damaged, and we are consolidating it and hope to restore the building to its original state with the help of engineering consultants.”

The team was assigned to start the renovation process before the Eid Al-Fitr holiday and has been working around the clock ever since. The deputy chairman of Arab Contractors, Imam Affifi, has been living near the consulate building to monitor the progress of the work.

Cairo Governor Galal Saeed told the CBC satellite channel in July that there are plans to renovate the Maspero district and that this will mean temporarily relocating the inhabitants.

He said that 14 buildings were damaged by the car bomb near the Italian Consulate and that these will be restored where possible, adding that those who were affected by the bombing will be compensated or offered alternative accommodation.

“One main problem that has been experienced in the past is that some building owners in the areas we have been working in do not want to pay for renovations,” Mounir said. “As a result, the governorate of Cairo, the Ministry of Endowments and the Misr Insurance Company are partly financing the project, along with other donors and the Egyptian Banking Union.”

Renovation expert Abbas Mahmoud commented on the downtown renovation process by saying, “The buildings are architecturally valuable, so when it comes to renovating them the renovators should work on exposing the architectural design, especially the artistic aspects of the buildings that may in the past have been obscured by dirt or paint.”

“However, it is also important to restore the buildings themselves from the inside and not just focus on the facades. The sanitary systems in these buildings should be fixed, as water leaks are beginning to affect the foundations. I am a downtown resident myself, and I am ready to contribute to the cost of the renovations as this will benefit the inhabitants of the area as a whole.”

“If someone doesn’t want to pay for the renovation of the building he lives in, the government should encourage him to do so. Renovation will help to guarantee a longer life for these buildings.”

Mahmoud added that steps should be taken to prevent workshops from being set up inside the historic buildings and regulations on electricity installations should be more strictly enforced, particularly because of the risk of fire.

“In many countries, there are restrictions on the signs that can be mounted on historic buildings for shops and other purposes. This should also be the case in Cairo,” Mahmoud said.

Referring to the work being carried out by the Arab Constractors, Mounir said, “We are only responsible for the work our company has been doing.

We are a specialised department in the field of renovation and we are registered with the Ministry of Antiquities and the Ministry of Culture as renovators. We have ISO certification in the field of renovation.

“We are working according to international standards, and in the past we have carried out other challenging work, such as moving the statue of Ramses II from Ramses Street to its current position near the Grand Egyptian Museum. We have also been responsible for the renovation of older historical sites such as Al-Ghouri Mosque, Al-Fath Mosque, Qalawon Mosque, Al-Mo’ez Street and Al-Selehdar,” he said.

Referring to the historic value of the area, Professor Soheir Hawas, a consultant to the project and author of Khedival Cairo writes that the Italian architect Antonio Lasciac built the Club Risotto buildings in Mustafa Kamel Square in 1929, architect A Castaman built the Groppi buildings in Talaat Harb Square, and Italian architect Mario Rossi took part in the building of the Omar Makram Mosque in Tahrir Square.

Architect G Balian built various buildings in Talaat Harb Street in 1934, and architect Mustafa Fahmy Bek was responsible for the Engineers Organisation building on Ramses Street.

“We are currently working on four buildings in Emad Al-Din Street, beginning by conducting research on the materials used such that suitable materials can be used in the renovations,” Mounir said. “Many of these buildings are historically unique and have significant historic features such as domed roofs.”

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