Transforming the Old: Cairo's New Medieval City

Article excerpt

The Islamic architecture of Cairo, as monuments and as historic city, for the past fifty years undervalued, neglected, and increasingly beleaguered on many fronts, is currently the focus of a "massive", but little publicized, intervention by the Egyptian government. The "who," "what," "why," and "to what purpose" are some of the aspects of the Historic Cairo Restoration Program presented in this report.

For centuries Cairo's Islamic architectural heritage has lain like Sleeping Beauty in a deep and almost undisturbed slumber, virtually ignored except by 19h century Westem artists or by small groups of dedicated Islamic art specialists. Now, suddenly, the Prince of Tourism has kissed Islamic Cairo awake, and it is about to be transformed into a new urban artifact.

The parameters of this transformation are sweeping. In its furthest reach it is part of a global heritage enterprise; part of a wave to "valorize" architectural buildings and their urban contexts. For conservators the emphasis on a single monument to be valued and protected has moved, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, to the notion of an urban historic heritage whose social and historic value should be preserved as part of the collective life of the country or community.' Regionally, Egypt will join fifteen European and eleven other Mediterranean countries to become part of the Exhibition Trail, a project of the Museum Without Frontiers whose aim is to enhance understanding and appreciation of the cultural heritage of European, Middle Eastern and North African communities. 2

Furthermore, among Egyptians and foreigners there is an increasing realization that the importance of Egypt's cultural heritage extends beyond the Sphinx, the Pyramids, and the Pharaonic past; a case in point is the new library in Alexandria (in essence a nod to the Hellenistic past), and the Mahmud Said Center for Museums, (opened in 2000) honoring three of Alexandria's most famous Twentieth century painters, Mahmud Said, and the brothers Seif and Adham Wanly. Christianity and Islam are now also being highlighted. For example, Egypt is developing the area of Old Cairo around the Mosque of `Amr ibn al-`As, al-Mu`allaqa or the Hanging Church, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue as the world's first complex of monotheistic religions. 3 Coptic Churches are being restored as part of the Seven Site Holy Family Flight Trail through a private venture that emphasizes Egypt as part of the Holy Land.' The Mosques of Sayyidna al-Husayn, Sayyida Zaynab, and Sayyida Nafisa are being highlighted as part of a project to enhance the pilgrimage sites of the ahl al-bayt, (literally "people of the house"), meaning the family of the Prophet.5

The most far-reaching and spectacular of the development programs announced to date is the Historic Cairo Restoration Project, a plan that involves the Islamic monuments and the historic city. This initiative emanates from the highest governmental authority, President Husni Mubarak himself. It is the most expensive Egyptian plan so far announced, well over EEI billion,6 and the number of officials, supervisors, planners, workers, is the largest heretofore scheduled for an Egyptian restoration program. Finally, not only are hundreds of Islamic monuments involved, but the historic city7 itself is also being re-fashioned. Yet this is a project that has received very little public attention.

This massive intervention was launched in May 1998. Decree No. 1352 created an inter-ministerial institutional framework involving seven ministries and the Governor of Cairo, and shortly thereafter, under the patronage of First Lady Mine. Suzanne Mubarak, the Advisory Committee for Historic Cairo Studies and Development Center was launched with a staff of 250 people, congenial offices in a building in the Citadel, and the latest computers and equipment.

How did this all begin? As background, let us consider the Minister, the Means, and the Moment. …