Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Threats to Fustat?

Are the remains of Fustat, the first capital of Islamic Egypt, now in jeopardy?

Al-Ahram Weekly

When the Arab conqueror Amr Ibn Al-Aas entered Egypt in 641 CE and built the first Islamic capital of Fustat to the north of the Roman fortress of Babylon, he did not expect that this city would fall into oblivion centuries later.

However, writes Nevine El-Aref, under the Abbasid Empire Egypt’s capital moved to Al-Askar, and the Tulinid Dynasty also built its own capital of Al-Qattai. Al-Qattai was then destroyed in 905 CE and the capital returned to Fustat where it remained until 1168 when its vizier Shawar ordered it to be burned to keep it out of the hands of the Crusaders.

The remains of the city were absorbed by the new city of Cairo built by the Fatimids, and the area of Fustat, Al-Askar and Al-Qattai remained in disrepair for 1,000 years and was used as a garbage dump. In 1820, Mohamed Ali, Egypt’s ruler at the time, built the Al-Baroud Khana, a storehouse for gunpowder.

Because of its long history, the area is rich in archaeological remains relating to the history of Egypt from the beginning of the Islamic era through to the time of Mohamed Ali. Among the most important Islamic monuments are the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque, the Hanging Church, the Mar Girgis Church, the Coptic Museum, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue.

However, because of the lack of security that overwhelmed Egypt after the 25 January Revolution the area was subjected to looting and encroachment by armed gangs and vandals.

Today, thanks to the Tourism and Antiquities Police in collaboration with the ministry of state for antiquities (MSA) and the Cairo governorate, much of the area, known as Ezbet Kheirallah, has been cleared of encroachments and restored.

But earlier this week a dispute broke out between the governorate and a group of archaeologists who have established a campaign called the National Campaign to Protect Historic Cairo (NCOHC) over a seven-feddan area behind the Fustat Ceramics Centre called Osman’s Land.

This land is part of the Fustat archaeological site and was earmarked to be converted into a public garden by order of the governorate and with the approval of the MSA. A wall was built around the area and notices put up.

The NCOHC then organised a press conference on Sunday at the Cairo Library in Zamalek in order to discuss what it called a “catastrophe” and send a petition to the prosecutor-general against Cairo governor Galal Said and other top officials.

Journalist and author Gamal Al-Ghitany said at the conference that the area was in danger and that several areas had been subjected to encroachment. He said that there had been concerns about the condition of antiquities in Egypt for several years and that parts of Islamic Cairo had been subjected to looting.

He asked the Ministry of the Interior and Interpol to track any stolen artefacts in order to return them to their homeland.

Architect Galila Al-Kadi said that the petition and report to the prosecutor-general were not directed against governorate officials but were part of concerns about the fate of historic Cairo over the past three years. She said that the report asked for immediate intervention to rescue historic Cairo, which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Mohamed Mahgoub, former head of Al-Fustat Antiquities, said that the Osman Land was a protected area under law 117 of 1982 and according to article 20 of this law the land, like other land in Egypt, has to be excavated before construction work was carried out.  

He said that during the 1990s the land was used as administration premises for the Arab Contractors Company. The Supreme Council of Antiquities, now the MSA, had succeeded in relocating the company’s premises and carried out excavations in which it had unearthed a collection of Islamic and ancient Egyptian artefacts.

The area was then given to the governorate to build a school for handicrafts, but this was never done.

Mahgoub said that after the revolution the area has been turned into a garbage dump by vandals. “The site was like a bomb ready to explode because it is located next to an antiquities storehouse where a large collection of artefacts is stored along with objects meant to be exhibited at the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC).”

“Any burning of the garbage could reach the storehouse and turn the antiquities inside it into ashes,” he said.

He said that the governorate had cleaned the site five times over the past few years at a cost of nearly LE1 million, but vandals had returned to the site. “This stopped when Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb visited the site. Officials complained to him and he ordered the site to be cleaned and a wall built around it to prevent further encroachment,” he said.

Mahgoub said that the governorate had done a good job in cleaning the site, but that Fustat as a whole was still threatened by underground water. If the area was turned into a garden, he said, this would raise the level of the ground water, which would endanger the archaeological site.

The governorate, the MSA and other authorities now needed to sit together in order to find a solution, he said.

In response, Said noted that he had been expecting the archaeologists to be happy because the governorate had secured the area. “I am very keen on preserving Egypt’s heritage and archaeological sites,” Said said, adding that the Osman Land belonged to the governorate and was not MSA property.  

He said the governorate had helped to protect the Fustat site and had not damaged it. He also told Al-Hayat TV that the governorate was intending to develop the whole site and transform the street linking Fustat and the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque to the Hanging Church and the Coptic Museum into a pedestrian area.

Minister of Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim told Al-Ahram Weekly that a committee had been set up including the MSA, the governorate, the Ministry of Religious Endowments and the tourism ministry to protect historic Cairo and take the necessary measures to preserve its heritage.

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