Preserving Egypt's heritage – but at what price?

Daily News Egypt
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Preserving Egypt’s heritage – but at what price?

CAIRO: The complications over renovations in Islamic Cairo span beyond the conflicted attitude of its residents. Experts who study the old city have been up in arms on many counts. Caroline Williams, an Islamic Architecture specialist, had an article featured in the recently published book, Cosmopolitan Cairo, outlining concerns over flawed and even dangerous conservation practices and an over inflated concern for tourism gains instead of historical and cultural preservation.

Medieval buildings, such as Al-Azhar Mosque and the areas surrounding it, have been renovated by contractors hired by the government with no experience in historical conservation. Williams said contractors have sand blasted away many of the old artistic intricacies in the buildings, replaced old stone columns with inferior concrete imposters, and simply reconstructed parts of buildings with materials and styles unrelated to the original structure. Many specialists say that such buildings now have lost their historical or artistic worth.

Williams also outlined the overall goal of the projects in the old city to create a space likened to an “open air museum. The reference itself seems a far cry from the cramped, winding streets thick with the sounds of residents and vendors filling its streets. She describes the plan as one that would remove many of the ancient souqs and aging residencies to put in green areas and create breathing space around the monuments, damaging the tightly wound architectural style of the medieval era Islamic Cairo reflects.

Dr. Eleanora Fernandes, a professor of Islamic Arts at the American University in Cairo, also rejects the plan: “A city must not be a museum. Otherwise, it’s not a city. It’s dead, not alive. No heart, no soul.

Most architects familiar with the projects agree with such sentiments. But Salah Hagab, a local architect and current president of the Architectural Committee in Higher Council for Culture, said much of the problem is simply lack of coordination in the government. There is more than one government body dealing with restoration of the old city. The Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Housing and the Ministry of Economic Affairs all have roles in the renovations, each with different concerns and aims.

Now, Hageb thinks the situation will improve, as overall direction of the project has been allotted to the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), headed by Dr. Zahi Hawass. The Daily Star Egypt made repeated attempts to contact the SCA and Dr. Hawass, but was unable to reach anyone for comment on new developments.

Maneuvering through an office thick with aging maps and sketches of Cairo, Dr. Soheir Hawas lovingly points out different features of her city as it changed through the ages. Dr. Hawas, an architecture and urban design professor at Cairo University, has also been involved in historic renovations throughout Cairo, especially the downtown area. Among the many frustrated voices in the debate over restoration, hers is calm and assured.

“I can say it’s better now. She noted improvements in contractors, government coordination and renovation practices.

Whether or not the situation has improved in the conservation of the old city seems up for debate. Some feel they are still constantly fighting against corruption and counterproductive government practices. Dr. Mohammed Al-Kahlawi, professor of Islamic Arts and Architecture at Cairo University, recently won a tough battle to prevent the completion of construction of an eight tower high rise hotel between the citadels of Salah Al-Din and Mohammed Ali – a project that would not only spoil the skyscape of Old Cairo, he said, but ruin layers and layers of important archeological remains on the grounds between the citadels. Asked how he felt about his victory, Al-Kahlawi shrugs, “It’s stopped for now. But what can I do after another four months?

Comments from other specialists also reflect Al-Kahlawi’s skepticism. One employee with a foreign architectural restoration group commented that it would be difficult to find anyone to speak on the issue, especially private groups, for fear they would face pressure from the government, or perhaps be blocked from their work, if they publicly complained.

Others pointed out that a new law has been passed that should help protect ancient artifacts from destruction or removal. Law #144 for the year of 2006 forbids demolishing, changing, or adding elements to buildings with historical or cultural importance. But on reading the law, Kahlawi shook his head, saying that the second point in the law, which allows the government to remove or change buildings for historical conservation, only threatens buildings more. He says it gives people like him less power.

“Before this law, it was more controlled; no destroying any buildings. Now, “the government can break buildings, but the people can’t.

He thinks the law will serve to help businessmen, reflecting the suspicions circling among some specialists, and the people on the streets of Islamic Cairo, that luxury hotels could be built in the area. Even if the law is beneficial, Al-Kahlawi’s gloomy reception suggests that the promising appeal is nothing new to him.

“Maybe it will change in another month or two, he sighs.

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