Egypt restor­ing his­toric heart

The Phnom Penh Post - - LIFESTYLE - Em­manuel Parisse

WO R K E R S perched on scaf­fold­ing del­i­cately re­pair Cairo’s 13th-cen­tury al-Zahir Bay­bars mosque, a vi­tal restora­tion project in the Egyp­tian cap­i­tal’s ne­glected Is­lamic quar­ter.

Halted by the pop­u­lar protests that top­pled dic­ta­tor Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the en­su­ing po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic tur­moil which en­veloped the coun­try, restora­tive work on the Mam­luk-era mosque picked back up last month.

On the other side of the quar­ter, sim­i­lar work on the 14th cen­tury al-Mari­dani mosque has just be­gun.

The cap­i­tal’s Is­lamic quar­ter, a Unesco World Her­itage Site since 1979 of­ten re­ferred to as his­toric Cairo, boasts some 600 listed mon­u­ments.

But the task to patch up decades of di­lap­i­da­tion is im­mense, and Egyp­tian au­thor­i­ties are strug­gling to come up with the cash af­ter un­rest and ji­hadist at­tacks have driven away tourists and slashed cru­cial in­come.

Is­lamic Cairo is packed with or­nate mon­u­ments, mosques and mau­soleums, and its nar­row streets are punc­tu­ated with trin­ket shops, cafes and tra­di­tional old homes – an ur­ban fab­ric lay­ered in cen­turies of his­tory.

For Luis Mon­real, head of the Aga Khan Trust for Cul­ture, re­fur­bish­ing the area is a nev­erend­ing project.

“It’s like paint­ing an air­craft car­rier: when you fin­ish one side, you have to start over again on the other,” he said.

Part of the Aga Khan Foun­da­tion, his out­fit has been work­ing on restora­tion projects in the area since the early 2000s.

In the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of Mubarak’s 2011 fall, many of the area’s squat tra­di­tional build­ings were torn down and re­placed with struc­tures of six to eight floors.

Mean­while, ram­pant theft saw cen­turies-old ob­jects dis­ap­pear from mosques.

And even if loot­ing and il­le­gal con­struc­tion have since de­creased, ac­cord­ing to au­thor­i­ties, the his­toric heart of Egypt’s teem­ing cap­i­tal of 20 mil­lion is still choked with pol­lu­tion, its streets clut­tered with rub­bish.

Unesco has warned sev­eral times in recent years of in­creas­ing degra­da­tion in his­toric Cairo, rais­ing the alarm as it has for many other her­itage cities across the globe.

In 2017, its World Her­itage Com­mit­tee urged Egyp­tian au­thor­i­ties “to take all needed mea­sures to halt the rapid de- teri­o­ra­tion” of sites across the quar­ter.

In an Oc­to­ber visit to mon­i­tor new restora­tion work, An­tiq­ui­ties Min­is­ter Khaled el-Enany high­lighted bud­get is­sues as one of the cen­tral chal­lenges fac­ing the dis­trict.

“It’s al­ways said that Is­lamic an­tiq­ui­ties are in bad con­di­tion. It’s a fact,” he said, adding that fail­ing sew­ers and mon­u­ments in res­i­den­tial ar­eas had also cre­ated is­sues.

The an­tiq­ui­ties min­istry is fed by rev­enues gen­er­ated at Egypt’s wealth of his­toric mon­u­ments.

And while tourism has picked up since it dropped in 2011, the 8.2 mil­lion peo­ple that vis­ited Egypt in 2017 are still far be­hind the coun­try’s 14.7 mil­lion vis­i­tors in the year be­fore the upris­ing.

With earn­ings from the sites down, much of the restora­tion work has been de­pen­dent on for­eign fund­ing.

Kaza­khstan is putting up $5.5 mil­lion to fi­nance work on the Bay­bars mosque.

Mean­while, the EU is con­tribut­ing $1.3 mil­lion for the al-Mari­dani mosque, in tan­dem with the Aga Khan Foun­da­tion, which has put for­ward $151,800.

From his ren­o­vated home in his­toric Cairo, ar­chi­tect Alaa al-Habashi said time was of the essence in the push to pre­serve the area.

“It can­not wait . . . if we want to stay on the World Her­itage List, there is not a minute to lose,” he said.

The only way to ef­fec­tively com­bat the de­cay, he said, was “to get ci­ti­zens in­volved”.

From his 16th-cen­tury home, known as Bayt Yakan, Habashi runs an art col­lec­tive and or­gan­ises con­fer­ences around the “re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion of the his­toric city”.

‘A big chal­lenge’

The Aga Khan Foun­da­tion has de­signed a sim­i­lar project, al­though on a much big­ger scale, around the al-Mari­dani mosque.

It in­cludes the cre­ation of a touris­tic route through the neigh­bour­hood and train­ing for res­i­dents on ac­com­mo­dat­ing tourists.

“This will gen­er­ate eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity, tourism . . . but the project also has a so­cial di­men­sion,” said Ibrahim Laafia, head of co­op­er­a­tion with the EU’s del­e­ga­tion to Egypt.

But good work of­ten runs up against bu­reau­cratic hur­dles.

All projects have to nav­i­gate the labyrinthine over­lap of ju­ris­dic­tions be­tween lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in Cairo and the min­istries of an­tiq­ui­ties, tourism, hous­ing and re­li­gious en­dow­ments.

In 2015, Cairo au­thor­i­ties cre­ated the gover­norate’s first depart­ment for the preser­va­tion of an­tiq­ui­ties.

Its di­rec­tor, Ri­ham Ar­ram, said while the city is mak­ing slow progress, pre­serv­ing its his­tory is still “a big chal­lenge”.

“We have not man­aged to do ev­ery­thing. It’s true there is still il­le­gal con­struc­tion . . . but we will con­tinue,” she said, ex­plain­ing re­forms could in­crease fines for un­law­ful build­ing.

“Now se­cu­rity has sta­bilised, the coun­try is sta­ble,” she said.


Work­ers stand on scaf­fold­ing dur­ing ren­o­va­tion work on the 13th cen­tury al-Zahir Bay­bars mosque in Cairo on Oc­to­ber 16.

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