The author of Architecture for the Dead, Galila El Kadi’s new book on Cairo’s central area and its development since the 19th century is a much needed addition to the literature on the city. The bi-lingual book, in French and English, combines disciplinary approaches such as history, social history, urban geography, architectural history and urban morphology. The Cairo central area “is composed of the medieval city, the modern city established in the mid-19th century, and the new district extensions dating back to the middle of the past century, which have received activities migrating from the original sectors as well as recent innovative technological activities. The CCA (Cairo Central Area) is the product of fusion of diverse areas that were separate cities in the past but have become central districts of today’s metropolis.” (14)
The area covered in El Kadi’s book is what David Sims referred to as the formal/historic core. It includes 1000 year old streets as well as more recent development dating from the 1970s. Districts included in this core are: Boulaq, Azbakeya, Ismailia (downtown), Daher, Old Town (a large area with several historic districts known as the medieval city, known touristicly as “Islamic Cairo”), Mounira, Garden City, Roda, Zamalek, Doqqi, Giza, and Mohandessine.
[Limits of the Cairo Central Area, according to El Kadi, p.15]
The book is divided into three well illustrated chapters each looking at the central area of Cairo with a different set of tools. The first addresses Cairo’s centrality within the national and regional contexts. The second provides an analytical approach to the city’s anatomical development over two centuries with particular attention to issues of urban form, pattern, landmarks, distribution of functions, and evolution of residential areas. The final chapter zooms in on a neighborhood, a square and a street to reveal further details about the layers of the city and its anatomy. In this final chapter architectural typology takes a leading position as the scale of analysis shifts from the urban to accommodate the architectural scale. Questions pertaining to urban morphology and fabric string the three chapters together.
[Ramses Street, an architectural catalogue, p. 157]
The third chapter is particularly interesting. The author identifies parts of the urban anatomy then follows three approaches in analyzing such parts to “grasp these spaces in their material and intangible dimensions.” The first approach is historical and aims to “grasp the initial moment of the urban project’s conception and its evolution.” The second approach is morphological and it “inspects the elements of urban make-up and analyses the interrelations between the hierarchy of thoroughfares, the forms of land division and the constructions.” And the third approach is what the author calls “sensitive” which “reflects on perceptions, impressions and illustrates the memories linked to specific place and imparts a new meaning to it.”
Galila El Kadi’s Cairo is a much needed, well researched, clearly written, and richly illustrated addition to the literature on Cairo. The book makes some significant departures from previous works on Cairo by demarcating the Cairo Central Area as a unit of analysis rather the conventional approach of focusing on parts of this central area (downtown, or the medieval city) severed from their context. The book also provides a wealth of new information regarding urban transformation of various districts over time. For example the district of Garden City is rendered in four maps on page 228 which show the development of this zone from 1930 to 2006. Such maps, and diagrams in addition to photographs provide an easy to read wealth of information that shows change over time rather than the conventional snapshot view of a particular location during a particular time. This is a book about Cairo as a changing and moving city.
The book concludes by suggesting that a close reading of the city’s development over the past several decades reveals the resilience of the central area as a focus of the city despite decentralization plans by the government. Perhaps this study will attract the attention of policymakers, and consultants who have mislead previous governments that moving away from the center is a worthwhile endeavor. It is time to reconsider plans to escape Cairo and to focus development and regeneration plans back to the center where the spirit of Cairo lives on.