A Supreme Council Court decision taken in January has thrust greedy developers into a fever. Without notice, the country s beautiful historic buildings, as well as turn-of-the century villas and apartment blocks, have become fair game for demolition squads. With so many of the country s architectural gems having been replaced by ugly high-rises, the court s decision which terms the 1988 Military Decree No. 7 as unconstitutional is nothing short of a tragedy waiting to happen.
The decision was reported in Al-Ahram and discussed in depth by writer and self-ascribed cultural activist Yasmine Dorghamy, in an article published in the March issue of the Community Times. Yasmine explained to me that although the destruction of historical buildings is still a crime under Ministry of Housing regulations, penalties for breaching such regulations consist of payment of fines, as opposed to jail sentences required by the now defunct Military Decree.
Although Yasmine agrees with the Court that Decree No. 7 is unconstitutional, impinging as it does on civil liberties, she believes it should, nevertheless, be reinstated until a better alternative can be found. And in the meantime, she is contemplating the establishment of an NGO to work with the government in preserving the nation s architectural heritage.
Yasmine is passionate about her cause and as a proud Cairene she is right to be so. The once gracious Zamalek has already been irretrievably scarred by pre-1988 development, although thanks mainly to a concentration of embassies housed in historic mansions, remnants of a bygone era are likely always to remain.
Last week I received a visit from an Australian friend, who marveled at the sheer beauty of some of Zamalek s grand villas. They re awesome. We have nothing like this on the Gold Coast, she said. How many of them will still be standing in 10 years time for visitors to envy, I wonder.
In Garden City, numerous old villas are up for sale, including the amazing home of former Wafd Party leader Fouad Serageldin, which still retains a faded grandeur. The family hoped that any buyer would retain the house intact for the enjoyment of future generations, but who can guarantee that now?
In 10 years time, we may only be left with Samia Serageldin s novel The Cairo House to transport us momentarily to a home where Egypt s history was carved. I recently toured the house with Samia, the Pasha s niece, who fought back tears as she revisited some of her childhood haunts in the knowledge that they may soon be turned to rubble.
In Alexandria, developers are already sniffing around likely targets, one of the latest being a wonderful 1930s built apartment building in the Sporting area, whose long-time protected tenants have been offered LE 500,000 each to move out, so that another scar on the environment can be constructed in its place. Lured by cash, tenants of neighboring buildings are openly canvassing for similar benefice, while owners are eager to rid themselves of the burden of repairs when old law rents are so derisory.
Many other countries have passed through similar trends. In the 80s and early 90s, Dubai set about destroying its wind-tower house heritage, which many now bitterly regret. The wind-tower houses were built long before air-conditioning arrived in the Gulf in the Shindagah and Bastakia areas of Dubai, and were the city s unique feature.
Today, there are only two standing in Shindagah, one of which was the home of the ruler s grandfather Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum. Many in Bastakia were leveled before their potential was understood. Word has it that a British architect David Otter, who had transformed the interior of one of the wind-tower houses in Bastakia into a modern dwelling, was so outraged over the impending further demolitions that he wrote to Britain s Prince Charles.
This communication resulted in Charles asking to tour Bastakia when he next visited Dubai. He enthused over the unique houses to his hosts and whether it was coincidence or not, the destruction swiftly came to a halt and now most of have been turned into art galleries, antique shops and museums. Bastakia today has become a favorite haunt of tourists, while young locals get to appreciate their fast disappearing culture.
Prince Charles is a well-known critic of modern day architects and planners. In 1984, he asked a gathering of architects What, then, are we doing to our capital city now, and complained that a proposed extension to Trafalgar Square s National Gallery was a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.
One can only wonder at his outrage now that Britain s Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell wants the lifting of preservation orders on historic buildings that she believes stand in the way of development . She proposes keeping a virtual moving image of such buildings before they are pulled down.
Robert Adam, a classical architect is furious. Would we burn the Mona Lisa and keep a digital record because it gets in the way? He asks, . This is barmy and dangerous.
Indeed, the way that Egypt is going is also barmy and dangerous. So many areas of its cities are already monstrous carbuncles with concentrations of ugly grey concrete monoliths with narrow stair cases and tiny windows, and without a splash of greenery in sight. How can children ever be expected to develop an appreciation of beauty or good taste brought up among such aesthetic nightmares?
Egypt is blessed with a rich and diverse architectural treasury, which deserves to be preserved at all costs. No-one would seriously suggest that the pyramids be raised to build a shopping mall or low-cost housing, so why would the tearing down of villas like the Serageldin house even be envisaged? They are surely as much a part of Egypt s history as the legacy of the Pharaohs.
One can only wonder why the government didn t learn a lesson from the demolition of Umm Kalthoum s Zamalek home on Abul Feda Street in 1975. In its place stands a hotel topped by apartments. The villa could have been a magnet for the singer s millions of fans throughout the Arab world and, thus, a huge tourist draw. Instead, an Umm Kalthoum museum was inaugurated some 25 years on, but this could never have the same emotional pull as her home, steeped in personal memories and with its furnishings and memorabilia intact.
This isn t to say that the need for housing shouldn t be a priority. People must have homes, but that isn t to say that gorgeous old buildings should be sacrificed, especially when there is so much available urban land, screaming out to be greened.
The government needs an urgent rethink on this issue. Surely, governments are required to legislate for the benefit of future generations as well as current. And, with this aim, they must resist catering to the demands of carnivorous big business or greedy developers, whose priority is the lining of their pockets.
In short, Egypt needs to adhere to strict planning laws governing the height of new buildings, the materials with which they are built and their aesthetic value. It should further set up a fund, perhaps with the help of the international community, to compensate owners of protected properties. The government might also consider buying some of them for its own use as government offices, art galleries or museums instead of constructing new ones. Alternatively, potential buyers could be lured by tax incentives or interest free loans to retain the buildings intact.
One thing is certain. There is no time to lose. With an army of developers and their bulldozers let loose to do their worst, it is up to all of us who care to block their path.