Save Cairo! The phrase relays a sense of panic that Cairo is under threat and needs rescue. This is no exaggeration; it is exactly what a group of young civil activists believe, so much so that they launched the ‘Save Cairo’ campaign in 2007. The aim was to come to the aid of Cairo’s cultural identity and architectural heritage which, despite the city’s placement in 1979 on the UNESCO World Heritage List, have come increasingly under threat.
Cairo owes its UNESCO listing to its varied and rich historic edifices and buildings with special architectural character. Yet it is as though there is a systematic targeting of Cairo’s historic buildings. The State, for its part, may be wittingly or unwittingly complicit in this because it issues demolition orders for dilapidated or life-endangering old buildings instead of ordering their restoration. In this it appears the State is oblivious to international treaties and accords signed by Egypt, which ban the demolition and random construction of buildings in historic areas and their vicinity, especially if the works threaten the cultural harmony and historic aspect of these neighbourhoods. Yet the fact that in Egypt such old buildings are in use for residential or commercial activity complicates the matter; the interests of the occupants and owners have to be considered, as well as the wider public interest. Not surprisingly, these interests frequently come into conflict.
Watani took the matter to Dr Omniya Abdel-Barr, the ‘Save Cairo’ coordinator and an expert in restoring historic edifices and cities.
What can you tell us about the formation of the campaign and its objectives?
We are a group of Egyptians interested in the architectural heritage of historic Cairo. Our campaign includes architects, historians and archaeologists. Our distress at what is happening to historic Cairo was what first brought us together. We meet to discuss projects conceived by members of our campaign and to exchange opinions.
The hardest attack on historic buildings took place during the months that followed the 2011 Arab Spring uprising; some buildings were demolished and others were built within heritage building boundaries, disregarding any technical requirements, especially in the area of ad-Darb al-Ahmar. While the law bans the construction of any buildings higher than three stories in the area, 12-storey towers were being erected.
The Darb al-Ahmar district, literally the Red Road, is situated in the core of Islamic Cairo and is more than 1,000 years old. It contains about 65 ancient Islamic and mediaeval structures from houses, shrines and public baths to buildings and mosques, most important of which is al-Azhar Mosque.
Presumably, under the pretext of ‘security reasons’ at the time, no official would listen to our calls for help to save ad-Darb al-Ahmar from the savagery that was ruining its old alleyways. A fortnight before the 30 June 2013 Revolution which overthrew the Islamist regime that had come to rule Egypt after the 2011 Arab Spring, we organised a sit-in in front of the Cairo Governor’s office demanding an immediate halt to all demolition and construction in historic areas because the situation had become grim and Cairo, which tells the history of Egypt, was being disfigured on a daily basis.
Why do you focus especially on ad-Darb al-Ahmar?
Ad-Darb al-Ahmar runs from Cairo’s 12th-century Saladin Citadel to Bab Zuweila, the southern gate of Islamic Cairo, and has narrow alleyways branching out of it. It was a favourite residential area for princes and the elite during the 14th century. The road ends with Bayt Madkour which sits opposite to the famous Mardini Mosque.
You have dubbed the decisions to pull down historic buildings “Daeshi decisions”. Why?
We denounce Daesh’s practices in Iraq and Syria, which involve smashing monuments. But don’t we realise that we are almost following suit when we destroy our heritage and obliterate our own civilisation? The government refuses to shoulder the responsibility of preserving historic property, let alone the prevailing gross negligence. Even the restored buildings are closed to the public, since the Antiquities Law prohibits the use of restored antiquities or profiteering on their account. Imagine having a partially restored mediaeval Islamic house such as Bayt al-Razzaz and not being able to generate a profit that would contribute in the cost of the completion of its restoration? Bayt al-Razzaz is a historic residential complex in the Darb al-Ahmar area. It comprises two houses that were originally separated by an alleyway. One was constructed in the 15th century and the other in the 18th century. Both houses were joined in the early 19th century, creating a complex of some 190 rooms. It has been unoccupied since the 1960s.The restoration of Bayt al-Razzaz began in the late 1970s, led by the American Research Center in Egypt. The award-winning restoration of the eastern part was completed in 2007. Yet the western half remains in urgent need of restoration.
Why did the threat to demolish Bayt Madkour gain such notoriety in the media, compared with many other historic buildings?
Bayt Madkour is on Darb al-Tabbana Street in the Darb al-Ahmar area. It enjoys distinct architectural characteristics, unmatchable in other neighbouring houses. It dates back to the 14th century and was expanded during the 19th century. It was owned by a prominent Mamluk and was named after him. Its façade was deliberately damaged and burnt until it was completely devastated. However the interior still has several exceptional architectural attributes. In 2010 Bayt Madkour was listed on the historic houses list, and there was a proposal to register it as a monument with the Supreme Council of Antiquities. However in post-Arab Spring 2011 the prime minister inexplicably delisted it from the historic houses list. During the same year a decision was issued to pull Bayt Madkour down because of its run down façade; the architect who supposedly inspected the house and wrote the report advising its demolition never made it past the front door.
This brings us to the dilemma of preserving historic houses versus the rights of their owners for compensation.
The problem with Bayt Madkour and other old houses in ad-Darb al-Ahmar is that they are not registered as monuments, and thus they do not fall under the Antiquities Law. Most of these houses are owned by the Ministry of Religious Endowments, so there is almost no one to call for their preservation even though a number of them are registered as houses with distinct architectural style. Thus they must neither be pulled down nor sold or purchased. But with no one to protect them, many of these houses have disappeared from historic Cairo. The historic Bayt al-Mohandes, also situated in the Darb al-Ahmar area and which was pulled down last year despite efforts to save it, is an example of these precious houses that Cairo is losing. The date of the erection of Bayt al-Mohandes in Souq al-Selaah (the Arms Market) Street—near Darb al-Tabbana which houses Bayt Madkour—is not clear, but it is believed it dates back to the time of the erection of the Saladin Citadel in the 12th century. The many houses that Souq al-Selaah Street boasts were mostly built right after the Saladin Citadel was built and became the seat of the government.
We would very much like to follow the British model. After WWII, the British government purchased historic houses and other buildings and restored them. These now generate huge profits from tourism. Here in Cairo we are lost between the local government units, the governor, and the ministries of antiquities, housing and endowments. None of these authorities has any clear vision as to how to deal fairly with the owners of these historic buildings.
Was ‘Save Cairo’ able to halt the demolition of Bayt Madkour?
Aided by local authorities keen on the preservation of historic Cairo, we were first able to obtain from Cairo Governor Galal Saeed a decision to halt the demolition of Bayt Madkour for one month. Of course this period was not enough. We demanded that the possibility to buy Bayt Madkour be looked into, but such procedures would take a long time to materialise. However we opened a bank account under the name of the ‘Egyptian Association to Save Heritage’ and we started collecting donations to enable us to buy the house and rehabilitate it in order to use it. There are currently four families, tenants, who reside in the house and utterly refuse to leave it.
Interestingly, an advertisement was recently filmed inside the house, which means that despite the damage to its main façade following the Arab Spring uprising, the film director must have spotted its special character. Now that the demolition of Bayt Madkour is halted for good, we are awaiting the funds to start restoration.
25 November 2015