Magazine article UNESCO Courier

UNESCO and the Conservation of Old Cairo

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

UNESCO and the Conservation of Old Cairo

Article excerpt

Unesco and the conservation of Old Cairo

THE inclusion of the old city of Cairo in the World Heritage List by the World Heritage Convention, in 1979, underlined the international cultural significance of historic Cairo. But with over six hundred listed buildings in an expanding city whose population is expected to rise from twelve million to between sixteen and twenty million by the year 2000 the problems of preservation are enormous.

In February 1980, in response to a request from the Egyptian Government, Unesco undertook to send a mission to prepare a report on a conservation strategy for the old city of Cairo. The members of this mission made a number of visits during the period February to August 1980.

The team concentrated its attention on a study area of some three and a half square kilometres (see map) containing 450 listed buildings. They found that the resources available for the maintenance of these historic monuments were totally inadequate to the magnitude of the problem. The area's narrow medieval streets are choked with traffic, new and unsuitable industrial and business activities are driving out the traditional craftsmen and small tradesmen, and building fabric is deteriorating due to general decay, inadequate maintenance and the ravages of a rising groundwater table.

The team's report proposed two levels of priority action for the study area. The first of these covers the study area as a whole and suggests a general programme of housing improvement, limitation of the size, speed and number of vehicles allowed into the area and improvement of road maintenance, street cleaning and rubbish collection.

At the second level of action the report proposes a five-year emergency programme for six priority zones containing clusters of monuments. Within each zone urgent action is required to deal with the restoration of monuments, to control the design and construction of new buildings, to rehabilitate and improve existing sites and buildings, to introduce new compatible functions for monuments and to improve and contribute to the social facilities of the neighbourhood.

The six clusters of monuments have been selected to form potential conservation and rehabilitation zones and are spaced out at almost equal distances between the northern gates and the lbn Tulun Mosque (see diagram), each focussing on a single street about 250 metres long. Each group is thus tightly integrated, yet they are spaced out in such a way that their upgrading will have the maximum impact on the whole of the central area of the old city.

The six priority zones or clusters and their general characteristics are as follows:

Zone One, centred on Sharia (street) al Muizz Il-Din Allah, covers the heart of Fatimid Cairo and is the site of the former Fatimid palaces which were replaced by other major buildings during the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods. Historically the zone demonstrates the development of the typical Cairene madrasa-mosque with attached mausoleum of the founder. Major public buildings and commercial structures prevail, with shopfronts often obstructing the view of important monuments. Due to the vicinity of Khan al Khalili and the Sharia al-Azhar, this zone is the most frequented tourist area and, with its unique architectural heritage, represents a showcase of Islamic Cairo.

Zone Two, centred on Sharia al-Gamaliya, represents one of the finest and most homogeneous street scenes of the old city. It includes fine wakallas (buildings facing on to courtyards and consisting of shops on the ground floor with living quarters above) and sabilkuttabs (buildings with a single ground floor room in which is installed a public fountain, with a balcony room above where young children are taught to chant the Koran) on the north-south spine of Fatimid Cairo, leading from Bab (gate) al-Nasr to the shrine of Hussein. …

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