Egyptians Fight to Save Medieval Mansion Sewage, Air Pollution, Traffic and Red Tape Threaten Antiquities

Article excerpt

The sorry state of Egypt's antiquities is evident everywhere, but it is close to scandalous in the older parts of Cairo.

"Every day I pray for a miracle, that no monuments will fall," says architect Salah Lamei, whose work with Islamic antiquities won him the Aga Khan Award for excellence.

Crammed in crowded alleyways and water-soaked thoroughfares, Cairo's monuments include not only the world's greatest Islamic heritage but also some of Christianity's earliest churches and traces of the Jews' long sojourn in Egypt.

Typical of an endangered monument is Bayt al-Sihaymi, a medieval house in one of the most historic areas. Like many of Cairo's more than 500 registered monuments, trapped amid 14 million teeming people, the house is close to ruin.

The Egyptian Antiquities Organization recently announced a full-scale restoration plan for Bayt al-Sihaymi, one of only a few projects to save ailing Cairo monuments.

For others, the most common cure continues to be rickety scaffolding supporting leaning walls as antiquities officials dither over what to do.

Saving Bayt al-Sihaymi could become a first step toward saving many critical monuments. Or it could prove a fluke, one monument surviving to testify to Cairo's 1,000-year history among many that will fall.

Classics professor John Rodenbeck of the American University in Cairo, a resident for decades, heads a private organization for preserving Egypt's heritage. He expects Cairo's historic zone to last no more than 20 years.

"There will certainly be a few old buildings, as there are in nearly any ordinary European city," he says. "But they will be far outnumbered by new ones, laid out along new streets that are wide and straight...and specifically engineered to be motorcar-friendly.

The plight of Bayt al-Sihaymi says a lot about the plight of Egypt's monuments: why they're deteriorating, why it's so hard to save them, why the world should care.

Lacy wooden latticework balconies, a quiet inner courtyard, tile-lined rooms, lofty ceilings and elaborate fountains make Bayt al-Sihaymi an architectural gem.

Begun in 1648, the house is the only one left with all original elements of a traditional Cairo dwelling.

It clearly shows the ingenuity of Arab architects who crafted, without electricity, a city dwelling that was not only quiet but also cool in summer and warm in winter.

"You can look at religious monuments like old mosques and learn about beliefs, but this is real life," says Egyptian businessman Asaad Nadim, who's spearheading the conservation project. …