Middle East

Rescuing Cairo's Lost Heritage

A madrasa under restoration. (Photo: Rose Aslan)   :: More Photos

Take a stroll into historic Cairo, and you will feel as if you have entered into a massive construction project. These days it seems as if nearly every historic monument, including mosques, madrasas and old palaces, are closed due to conservation projects. Workers, in their work-worn clothes and bare feet, can be seen climbing over precarious scaffolding and sitting on piles of stones sipping tea in front of many monuments in the area.

A huge stretch of Mu'ez al-Din Allah Street, the very heart of the old city, is being torn open to replace its sewage pipes. Neither cars nor donkey carts can pass through the street, even a short walk along it is a challenge for pedestrians. Numerous Islamic monuments line this street, many of them are already in the process of being saved and restored by various government projects and foreign missions.

During the past couple of years, a number of historic monuments have been re-opened after lying for years under layers of rubble and scaffolding. There are still several hundred either in the process of being conserved and restored or on the waiting list to undergo conservation and restoration. Conservative estimates state that around 450 monuments can be considered historic and thus deserving of restoration. Yet more liberal estimates put the number of potential historic monuments at up to 630. Monuments are added monthly to the records of the Ministry of Religious Endowments and the Supreme Council of Antiquities. In addition, more than 500 private houses have received a historic status.

It's hard to imagine that such a small area of land, a little less than four square kilometers, could contain hundreds of landmarks, some even neatly lined up one after the other. In fact, historic Cairo is not just another old city with just enough sites to count on your two hands; it's a living open-air museum, more real and interactive than any museum enclosed in one building, and home to around 310,500 residents.

Thousand Year Old City

Cairo is truly a unique city, and the thousand-year-old historic area (which actually consists of several separate neighborhoods) is one of the world's few surviving medieval cities left intact. Many cities in the Arab world, such as Damascus and Baghdad, have repeatedly been ransacked by invading armies, leaving them stripped of their original layout and structures. By contrast, historic Cairo retains many of the same streets and buildings added to the city during the course of the last millennium. A modern day traveler can find many of the same monuments and landmarks as those mentioned in writings by medieval historians, such as Ibn al-Batuta and al-Maqrizi.

The first settlement in Cairo was founded in 641 by the Muslim military commander, Amr ibn al-As, who conquered and took control of Egypt. The original military settlement called Al-Fustat (which is located in present day "Old Cairo"), was established on the eastern bank of the Nile at a strategic location. It was here that the first mosque in the African continent was built and the foundations of modern day Cairo began.

The town of al-Fustat remained the center of the Muslim army for only a short time. In 750, the Ummayad caliph, fleeing from the Abbasid army, arrived in al-Fustat, only to be caught and killed. The Ummayad supremacy ended, and the Abassids built a new city, Al-Askar, on top of Al-Fustat.

Ahmad ibn Tulun, a representative of the Abbasid caliphate, was sent as governor to Egypt where he set up his own military city. Just to the north of al-Fustat, al-Qata'i (near present day Al-Sayyida Zeinab), was established to serve as a residence and headquarters for the Muslim army. All that remains today from the legacy of the Tulunid dynasty is the mosque of Ibn Tulun, the Nilometer, and an aqueduct.

It wasn't until the Shiite Ismaili Fatimid dynasty took control in 969, that the main area of historic Cairo as we know it today took its shape. The Fatimids built a well-organized walled city to the north of al-Qata'i. Originally it was called al-Mansuriyya and then later given Cairo's present Arabic name, al-Qahira. Al-Qahira included many notable structures such as the still functioning Al-Azhar mosque and university and two long-ago demolished palaces, but which have left their name (Bayn al-Qasrayn) in the area they once stood. While the city of Al-Qahira remained an enclave for royalty and the elite, the general population inhabited an area south of the exclusive city.

Only when Salah al-din al-Ayubbi halted attacks by the crusaders and took control of Egypt in 1169, did the city of Al-Qahira transform into a city of the masses. In fear that crusaders would overcome al-Fustat and launch their offensive from the fortified city, the Fatimids ordered the complete destruction of the city, sending its entire population to take refuge in and around al-Qahira.

Throughout the centuries, different dynasties have come and gone, each leaving their traces in the urban make-up of historic Cairo. Each subsequent dynasty built new mosques and madrasas and sometimes tore down structures built by their predecessors. The Mamluks (1250-1517) and Ottomans (1517-1798) left behind their memory in the form of hundreds of notable monuments.

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte arrived with the French Expeditionary Army, which led to a new era of "modernization" and "reform." With the subsequent rise of Muhammad Ali, the Albanian officer appointed by the Ottomans to rule Egypt, great changes came to Cairo, streets were built and expanded upon, new cities for the wealthy created, and lakes drained. Muhammad Ali's successors were to follow in his enterprising footsteps, continuing the plan of modernizing the city. Developments begun in Cairo by Muhammad Ali's heirs along with dramatic changes brought by the British colonial rule (1882-1922) deeply affected the status of historic Cairo. The wealthy who previously had occupied historic Cairo began their mass exodus toward new cities on the outskirts where wide tree-lined roads led to grand villas.

This massive flight of the wealthy population led to a decrease in the condition of the older areas, with government funding focused on developing the new "European" style neighborhoods. Urban blight in the old areas became further exacerbated when huge numbers of poor migrants from the countryside settled in these areas, which led to the deterioration of the previously royal cities.

Today's historic Cairo is primarily inhabited by descendants of the craftsmen and merchants who have made their home in the area for centuries, in addition to migrants that continue to move in from the countryside. Generally, many of the residents live below the poverty line and endure poor living standards. While many aspects of modern life have entered residents' lives, vendors peddling their wares from donkey-driven carts still pass through the narrow alleys of the old city. Next to them young men dressed in the latest fashions and sporting slicked-back hair speed along on their motorcycles, their radios blasting the tunes of the popular singers. Craftsmen still utilize traditional tools while also incorporating electrical ones, yet their methods largely remain the same as skills are passed on from father to son, master to apprentice.

Early Efforts to Conserve Historic Cairo

While monuments in historic Cairo have never faced a full-on attack from an enemy force, they certainly have had to deal with many adversaries that have led to their decaying states and even complete collapses. These adversaries of structural integrity would include the earthquakes of 1304 and 1992, and salty groundwater seepage in the soil, which slowly eats away at the building stones. Couple this with poor maintenance, environmental pollution, a high population density and, sadly enough, government and general neglect and misuse by locals — a small example of the causes that have led to the poor condition of the area's monuments!

That any historic monuments remain to this day is a miracle. The survival of most of these monuments can be traced to a group of concerned Egyptians and foreigners more than a hundred years ago. This group of Egyptians and foreigners gathered to create the "Comité" in 1881 with their aim to record and preserve more than 600 structures in historic Cairo

The Comité prioritized conservation work in the historic city, putting the older Fatimid monuments first in line for their work, and later Mamluk and Ottoman monuments as second and third priority. While the Comité was certainly up to par with contemporary conservation practices of the late 19th century, they committed themselves to "restoring" many buildings to their original forms. This is a method modern conservators would never dream of practicing. This included removing a minaret of a Fatimid mosque, Salih Tala'i since it was added in the subsequent Ottoman period, although other monuments such as the mosque of al-Hakim were left basically untouched.

Essentially, the Comité was responsible for creating historic Cairo's "memory map" of remaining historic structures and for conserving numerous monuments. Precious cultural heritage would have disappeared into oblivion if it wasn't for the Comité's concern for the future of the city and the huge efforts it made to realize this goal. Despite the fact that it committed mistakes in their conservation methodology, the Comité ultimately gave Egypt a priceless treasure waiting to be uncovered and appreciated.

Since the 1952 revolution in Egypt, restorations slowed as the government shifted its interests to social and economic issues, almost completely ignoring the condition of the derelict historic areas. Immediate realities crowded in and politicians were forced to prioritize necessities. Revitalizing a crumbling city was low on the list. It wasn't until the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that awareness of the importance of preserving Egyptian heritage spread. In 1973, foreign missions began to move into the area and began the process of bringing the historic city back to life.

Foreign Missions in Historic Cairo

During the past twenty-five years, foreign missions have undertaken conservation projects on a variety of historic monuments. The French, Italian, Danish, German, Polish, and American missions have all made their mark on the memory map of Cairo, leaving behind breathtaking monuments in their original architectural and artistic detail. All of these Western missions follow the purist methodology of conservation and minimal intervention. They try not to restore or renovate, rather they attempt to preserve the building in its original state, only restoring out of necessity. As much as possible they use local, traditional materials and try to avoid using modern materials such as cement or metal beams.

In the 1970's, one foreign mission on the other hand, chose to utilize a methodology of restoration that was close to complete renovation. This is the Bohra mission, whose leader is the Imam of a branch of Ismaili Shiism called the Dawood Bohra. The Bohras claim descent from the Fatimid dynasty and thus have been traveling to Cairo in small numbers in search of their religious identity and origin. One major project of the Bohras has been to restore several mosques, such as Al-Hakim and Al-Aqmar, built in the Fatimid period. In their view, it was their religious duty to bring these mosques to their former Fatimid glory; this ultimately led to an imaginary recreation of these mosques using many new materials and controversial modern techniques. Their beliefs also caused them to remove a Mamluk tomb that did not fit their Fatimid ideals, having been built in a later period.

Responding in distaste to the Bohras' restoration work, the academic world of art historians and conservators exploded with criticisms and accusations, which resulted in the refusal of the Bohras to carry out further projects. They later moved on to work on other historic monuments outside of Egypt.

A Unique Example: The Aga Khan Trust for Culture

The Aga Khan Development Network is a massive funding network that has agencies throughout Africa and Asia. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Cairo is part of the Historic Cities Support Program (H.C.C.P.), which "promotes the conservation and re-use of buildings and public spaces in historic cities in the Muslim World." Thus, the H.C.C.P. applies a holistic ideology to its projects, incorporating restoration of historic structures while improving social and economic conditions of the local community in addition to its cultural development.

Initially, the H.C.C.P. planned on reclaiming a piece of hilly land that had been used as a trash dump and a haven for drug dealers, and turning it into the new Azhar Park. They thought that creating such a huge piece of green space in the middle of historic Cairo would improve the image of the historic city and begin the process of development in the area. As fate would have it, during construction of the park, they uncovered part of a 12th century Ayyubid period wall that they subsequently restored. This discovery led the H.C.C.P. to undertake additional research of the nearby neighborhood of Darb al-Ahmar. The research evolved into a major project encompassing the restoration of several mosques, palaces, and historic houses. True to their ideology, the H.C.C.P. also established social and economic programs to provide a wide range of assistance for local residents. Interestingly enough, the Aga Khan Trust chooses not to practice the traditional conservation method, rather they restore and rebuild where necessary.

"We rebuilt the minaret of the Mosque and Madrasa of Umm al-Sultan Shaaban based on research and studies on the previous minaret which collapsed during an earthquake. We rebuilt it in order to show people what it looked like, in order to recreate the past which might be lost forever otherwise," says Dina Bakhoum, site manager for the project. "We not only restore monuments, but we also aim to make them functional and beneficial for the users."

The Aga Khan Trust's design parameters combine traditional design with new technology, unlike more conservative approaches followed by the foreign missions. For instance, installing modern style glass windows is their way of improving the old by protecting it from the elements, increasing environmental comfort and energy efficiency while incorporating a more contemporary feeling. The Trust's ongoing innovative approach to solving age-old problems certainly calls for praise and encouragement

The Politics of Conservation

In 2001, Caroline Williams, a well-known art historian and author of Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide, addressed a letter, signed by many respected foreign art historians and restorers, to the First Lady of Egypt, Suzanne Mubarak. The letter called for a complete halt to the Historic Cairo Restoration Project (H.C.R.P.) undertaken by the Supreme Council of Antiquities and Ministry of Culture since 1998. The letter lashed out at projects funded by the H.C.R.P. and the Bohra Mission. Large numbers of errors in their use of building materials, hasty construction methods and an incorrect conservation methodology were pointed out along with inadequate historical background and research.

In recent years, criticism of both the Bohra and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (S.C.A.) has died down; most scholars working in the field in Cairo are reluctant to criticize the work at all. Many experts admit that while both the Bohra and the S.C.A. have committed serious mistakes in the restoration process, they are relieved that effort has been undertaken to preserve these buildings and that they are no longer under the threat of disappearing. Nairy Hampikian, an architect by training and one of the top restorers of historic Cairo, believes that implementing such a program of restoration was desperately needed at the time, since it was on a "huge scale, and called for massive and immediate intervention." Hampikian is a true optimist despite all of the criticisms from the international community. She holds that "there is one big truth, that what is happening in Cairo today, has never happened before, except for the work by the Comité in 1881." In retrospect, if the S.C.A. had never taken action, concerned Egyptians and foreigners may have had to watch the continuing dilapidation and destruction of many more monuments.

Hampikian argues that while foreign critics sat around and told Egyptians officials how they were doing everything wrong, the critics weren't doing anything themselves to help. "It's as if you have a doctor who is full of compassion and is trying to cure his dying patient, while a specialist is telling him what he is doing wrong and yet won't do anything to help the patient himself," she says. "Cairo was sick and dying, and Egypt didn't have an army of conservators and art historians, so the government agencies had to start from somewhere." Besides that, she holds that "everybody knows that when you do restoration, you always make some mistakes."

Community Involvement and Development

Residents of historic Cairo form an incredibly tight-knit community of co-dependence and support. This means that they have an inherent distrust in the government, foreign agencies, and even Egyptians from outside their neighborhood.

Government agencies have yet to attack the social problems that abound in the area. Hampikian believes that nongovernmental organizations are the best hope for spreading awareness and developing the community. The problem is that at present, most N.G.O.'s do not understand the community or the right way to address their needs, thus "N.G.O.'s should pour all of their time and efforts into community awareness, instead of just money," she says. Egyptian N.G.O.'s will most likely be successful in addressing social problems, but before they begin their work, "they must build an intimate relationship based on trust and mutual understanding."

According to Emad Abd al-Azim, an antiquities inspector based with the Supreme Council of Antiquities in the ancient quarter of Darb al-Ahmar, the restoration of monuments like Bab al-Zuweila, a Fatimid-era gate, by the American Research Center in Egypt (A.R.C.E.) has both negative and positive aspects. On one side, the monument has been conserved and cleaned, making the area surrounding the gate more pleasant. Yet, local residents have not benefited at all; they have been left behind to live their lives in unsanitary, cramped apartments.

Abd al-Azim believes that foreign missions, with their large budgets, should not only put their money into restoring monuments, but also into revitalizing the neighborhood in its entirety. He would like to see both foreign missions and government ministries "study the society well to find out what kind of cultural and economic projects would be appropriate and to give unconditional grants instead of loans to eligible residents of the area to improve their economic status."

While having restored monuments is certainly not a bad thing, neglecting the needs of residents of the area, especially on the part of the Egyptian government, is inexcusable. Important issues such as faulty sewers, the lack of public toilets and general cleanliness and sanitation should be dealt with on a large scale side by side with the current beautification projects. Maintenance of restored monuments is also non-existent and government agencies need to come up with a system to prevent further deterioration.

In defense of the common complaints that foreign missions concentrate merely on ascetic qualities of certain buildings, while ignoring the people who live among these buildings, one architect who requested anonymity, works with the American Research Center in Egypt and argues, "It is not for foreign missions to interfere in Egyptian society. Grants which are given by the USAID to the Egyptian Antiquities Project of the A.R.C.E. to complete various conservation projects on monuments around Egypt are just that — grants for conserving brick and mortar structures, not sewage systems or health clinics."

A.R.C.E. and other foreign missions take similar stances in their approach to conservation projects. Usually they receive a grant that lays out very specific parameters for the budget and spending. Most often, grants specify money solely for the conservation of a particular monument and do not allow the grantees to utilize the money in other ways, such as fixing up nearby houses.

Thus, while foreign missions do a good job of conserving and restoring monuments, they do little else besides. It is the belief of organizations such as A.R.C.E., which is mainly a center for research, that foreign missions should follow the philosophy of minimal intervention, meaning that they should not interfere with issues that fall under the responsibility of the local government, in this case the Egyptian government.

While government projects are beginning to clean up their act through slowly improving the infrastructure by installing new sewers and setting up a trash collection system, there is still a long way to go. Much of these efforts are hampered by a lack of funds, complex bureaucracy, sub-contracting problems, and a lack of long-term planning. The high water table that affects many monuments is one problem that the government is yet to face; so far they have improved the groundwater situation directly around monuments. These methods are a very short-term solution, which will not have any positive effects in the long run. Surrounding private homes will certainly suffer groundwater problems in the near future. Social issues in the historic city must be examined and steps must be taken to ensure a problem-free coexistence between residents and their historic buildings.

The Future of Historic Cairo

Things are only looking brighter everyday for historic Cairo as more opportunities for study and work in the field of conservation and restoration of historic monuments continue to open up in Egypt. Twenty years ago there were very few Egyptians who had the appropriate skills to work on these projects; previously, foreign missions were relied on to conserve very few monuments at an exorbitant cost. Yet now, Egypt's stock of locally trained scientists, engineers, architects, and art historians specializing in conservation and restoration, and progressive construction companies is growing and that means many more conservation projects will be carried out on a massive scale and with a reasonable budget. Even a big construction company such as Aalam Sons has established a special department in their business for the conservation of monuments and often hires foreign experts to give the necessary training to university students and new recruits.

Perhaps in another twenty years, Historic Cairo will finally able to regain its timeless dignity and proudly show its renowned image among the great cities of the world. To achieve this goal, it is hoped by many that other benevolent organizations will adopt a similar model to that of the Aga Khan Cultural Trust. Their goals of improving the social fabric as well as restoring the historic side of the city will ensure its preservation and revitalization, thus breathing new life into a city that has been neglected for too long.

This article first appeared in Islamica Magazine.