Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1395, (24 - 30 May 2018)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1395, (24 - 30 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Why Cairo cannot wait

While the path towards the effective preservation of Historic Cairo may be long and hard, the dangers are such that the city cannot wait, conservation campaigner Galila El-Kadi tells Dina Ezzat



Cairo was established close to 11 centuries ago in 969 CE by the Fatimid Dynasty that ruled Egypt as part of the wider domain of this Ismaili Shia caliphate.

Cairo, or Al-Qahira in Arabic, was the third and most lasting capital of Egypt after the Arabs conquered the country in the seventh century CE. Built as an essentially royal city that added to the cities of Fustat, Al-Askar and Al-Kattaai that had been incrementally layered one on top of the other over three consecutive centuries, the city expanded further over the subsequent nine centuries.

In the late 19th century, the khedive Ismail decided to bring about yet another expansion that departed from the norms of the Fatimids, the Mamelukes and the Ottomans to resemble the city patterns of Europe.

In 1979, the UN cultural agency UNESCO proclaimed the 30 square km of Historic Cairo, meaning the mostly mediaeval city, a World Heritage Site. Yet, today, more than ever before “Cairo as a whole is in desperate need of help to preserve its heritage. And the people living in the historic quarters amidst this incredible wealth of monuments need to have better living conditions as well, with the two things going hand in hand,” Galila El-Kadi, a prominent campaigner for the conservation of Historic Cairo and an architect who knows the city like the palm of her hand, said.

“It is a very challenging moment for the city. Its heritage is at serious risk of either demolition or neglect, or rather demolition and neglect,” El-Kadi added. “There are also unfortunate and un-thought through decisions, like the recent one about dismantling and storing the pulpits from historic mosques. This would be a total mishap, or yet another mishap, for a city that risks losing layers of its heritage in a way that might even risk its place as a World Heritage Site,” she said.

Cairo, El-Kadi insisted, is too precious to let go. “This is a city that has seen the rise and fall of so many dynasties since its original construction as the imperial quarter of the country’s new rulers.” Fustat, Al-Askar and Al-Kattaai were all cities that “each new ruler built for himself, his army, and his entourage,” she said.

But Cairo survived to be more than this, even if it too was built for the country’s new Fatimid rulers and with their army camped around its walls. Perhaps this was due to the fact that unlike the previous three cities built to replace Alexandria as the capital of the country, Cairo “was the first city to be designed”.

This design was enlarged, but remained essentially intact, as was later reflected in the drawings included in the famous Description de l’Egypte produced by the French expedition to the country at the end of the 18th century.

Old Cairo

The expansion of Cairo took different forms, El-Kadi said. The first was vertical and took place during the rule of the Ayyubids, a Sunni dynasty of Kurdish origin that took over from the Fatimids in the 12th century. “The rulers again were to have their own space, but this time round the separation was executed on a vertical rather than a horizontal basis with the construction of the Citadel by Salaheddin,” or Saladin, she said.

Then, a few centuries down the road, with the rule of the Mamelukes who ruled the country from the 13th century onwards, there came another expansion, this time back to the horizontal scale. “These were the years when the construction of Cairo took a new turn with the building of schools, palaces, and mosques.

“This period was really the city’s peak, and most of the monuments that one sees today in Al-Muizz Street [which carries the name of the first Fatimid ruler] were built by the Mamelukes,” El-Kadi said. The subsequent rule of the Ottomans, and for that matter that of the later Mohamed Ali Dynasty, generally observed this horizontal expansion, despite the enlargement of the Citadel.

Old Cairo

GOING EAST: For the most part, El-Kadi noted, the Cairo, which was built to the northeast of the previous capitals, was expanding southwards. “When the inhabitants moved for the first time from the old city to the new one, they settled first in Azbakiya, Ismailia, Tawfikiya, Abdine, Shubra, Helmeya Al-Gadida, before expanding to Garden City, Heliopolis and Zamalek,” She explained.

This, she added, continued until the rule of the khedive Abbas in the late 19th century, who expanded it eastwards with the founding of the suburb of Abbasiya.

From then onwards, despite the wider expansion of the city on both sides of the Nile, the ruling elite was always based in the east — just like every new capital that followed Fustat was built further to the east. “This is interesting because even during the rule of late president Anwar Al-Sadat [from 1970 to 1981], the centre of power was never pulled out of the eastern part of the city even though Sadat himself lived in Giza. The top brass continued to live in the east of the city, and when they moved it was always further eastwards,” she said.

The ruling periods of Mohamed Ali himself and the khedive Ismail were particularly significant for the development of Cairo, El-Kadi observed. The cultural and economic boom the two rulers pursued allowed for waves of foreigners, mostly Europeans, to come to Egypt, and Cairo, like other cities around the country, started to see the development of foreign quarters where many of them chose to live.  

These quarters included Garden City, Zamalek, and to an extent Maadi, with the latter being more of a relatively remote suburb. However, foreigners lived all over Cairo during the later years of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century, including large parts of Heliopolis when it was built in the early decades of the 20th century.

“According to the 1948 census, the largest cluster of foreigners in Egypt at the time was in Tawfikiya in downtown Cairo,” El-Kadi said.

However, even at this time the old Islamic City remained central to the city as a whole.

Throughout its many expansions, development allowed for the introduction of different urban norms, including the growing interest of the middle and upper-middle class residents of Cairo to move from old-fashioned houses into more fashionable modern apartments and later into villas. This evolution also included the introduction of new architectural styles, from Ottoman to Islamic and then art nouveau and art deco.  

“But up until the late 1940s and maybe early 1950s almost all the new construction observed design norms compatible with the climatic requirements of the country and in which lighting and ventilation were incorporated into the designs to benefit from air circulation and light angles throughout the day and night,” she said.

Such construction indicated the changing preferences of the city’s upper classes. When the khedive Ismail started to build the European quarters of Cairo in the later decades of the 19th century, many members of the country’s upper classes moved to the new areas of Garden City and Zamalek. This brought about the destruction of earlier areas, including vast palaces. “One obvious example was the destruction of the palace of [Joseph Aslan] Cuttawi Pasha, which allowed for the construction of the entire stock exchange area today,” El-Kadi said.

Streets were widened to an average of three metres to allow two donkeys to walk next to one another and then to the passage of two carts. When cars and buses were introduced, the streets reached 20 metres wide in some cases.

More and more people were also trying to find housing, and this led to unplanned urban development and the subsequent flight of the upper-middle and upper classes from central neighbourhoods and the construction of gated communities on the outskirts of Cairo. “The rich always like to have new conquests,” El-Kadi said.


URBAN PROBLEMS: However, urban flight was not the worst thing that happened to the city in the 1980s and afterwards, El-Kadi said.

“What was worse was that many of the inheritors of the old buildings, including some built in the late 19th century, condoned their demolition to make space for the construction of tower blocks,” she added.

The lack of strict conservation codes was one reason for this, and another was that the state lifted zoning restrictions and height limitations. “This meant that someone who could knock down a four-floor building could then build a 15-floor tower, not just on the footprint of the original building but also on the land that had been allocated for the garden around it as well,” she explained.

It was not just a matter of the creation of structures with poor aesthetic qualities that failed to fit the environment, but also about “the savage erosion of layers of the history of the city and the changing of the profile of the city and its overall silhouette.

“This was all incredibly damaging because when we speak of Historic Cairo we are not just speaking of a particular set of monuments. We are speaking about roads, alleys, the gates of houses and the windows looking onto them. When these things are lost, or in some cases deliberately destroyed, then we are seeing the violation of the history of the city, or maybe even running the risk of seeing a city that has a few monuments scattered around but that has lost its texture and most of its features,” she said.

“The wider space is also part of the city,” she said. “The loss has been immense, and the authorities cannot be excused from their part in the responsibility for it,” El-Kadi said.

In 2010, UNESCO in cooperation with the authorities in Egypt started an initiative to underline the desperate need to preserve the city. “The UNESCO régénération project in 2010 was focused on the definition of the conservation perimeter,” El-Kadi said.

 In 2014, El-Kadi joined other conservation campaigners on a mission to save Historic Cairo. Their collective work allowed for the rescue of some historic buildings.

“However, it is still possible to knock down a building if it is not registered as a historic monument. After the 25 January Revolution, there was hardly any state interest in promoting the conservation of the city and incredible demolitions took place,” she said.

According to El-Kadi, research conducted for UNESCO revealed that Cairo saw huge heritage violations at the time. “The history of Cairo has seen major heritage losses before, and these have been registered by historians. They took place during epidemics and the falls of dynasties. But these things happened then. They should not be happening now,” she said.  

El-Kadi is hopeful that ambitious plans to encourage entrepreneurs to refurbish old buildings to allow for their present reuse may help save the historic city. A pioneer project has been initiated in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar in Islamic Cairo that could be expanded with state support and promotion, for example.

“Al-Darb Al-Ahmar project was launched in 2006, financed by the Aga Khan Foundation in relation with the creation of Al-Azhar Park,” she said.

In examining the history of Cairo, El-Kadi is not willing to ignore the ancient cemeteries either, the so-called City of the Dead. This is “as important to the history of Cairo as the city of the living,” she said. The subsequent dynasties that ruled Egypt were determined about the construction of the City of the Dead “as they enlarged the cemeteries built by the first Muslims near Fustat and incorporated the mausoleums of the members of the family of Prophet Mohamed into them.”

The Mamelukes later built larger and more spacious cemeteries. According to El-Kadi, the evolution of the City of the Dead went hand in hand with that of the city of the living, meaning the construction of vast cemetery areas.

“In other words, the value of the constructions in the City of the Dead is also very significant, including for aesthetic and architectural reasons,” El-Kadi argued, showing off vintage photographs of mashrabiya woodwork from her book Architecture for the Dead: Cairo’s Mediaeval Necropolis.

“The City of the Dead is now a World Heritage Site as it is a part of Historic Cairo included in the conservation,” she added.  

While heritage violations in the City of the Dead are fewer than those in the city of the living, El-Kadi is concerned about a lack of maintenance and the danger of development plans that might see parts of these historic cemeteries removed. “If this happened, it would be a huge loss. It should not be allowed to go forward, not under any pretext,” she said.

add comment

  • follow us on