The French diplomatic mission in Egypt has occupied two notable houses of exceptional architectural appeal. Both houses utilized fragments from Mamluk and Ottoman decorative elements, which came from various houses and structures around the city. The decorative fragments were reused in these new settings around which the new modern houses were built. Architectural historian Mercedes Voliat and photographer Blas Gimeno Ribelles have documented and analyzed these two houses and their decorative features in the recently published book Maisons de France au Caire. Le remploi de grands décors mamelouks et ottomans dans une architecture moderne. The book (French/Arabic) is published and is available for purchase at the Institut Francais d’Archeologie Orientale (IFAO) in Mounira.
The French embassy building in Giza was built in the 1930s when modernist architecture was widespread in Cairo particularly in newly developed areas and among the bourgeois class in general. Yet the interior of the embassy is dressed in antique Mamluk and Ottoman patterns reused from older structures. The main hall of the building is impressively ornamented with a montage of historic Cairene interior architectural details including stone inlays, wooden ceilings, inlaid wooden doors, and brass lighting fixtures. The modern 1930s building was designed to accommodate these precious decorative interiors, which came from an earlier modern house built in 1880-85 for Gaston de Saint-Maurice (1831-1905).
The house of Gaston de Saint-Maurice was built on land gifted by Khedive Ismail located on what is today Sherif Street in downtown. The French government acquired the land/house soon after to establish its new embassy. The new house incorporated fragments of historic structures that were collected from Cairo. The urban transformation of the city throughout the 19th century meant that many older structures were demolished to make way for new ones. Sometimes state-planned projects such as the cutting of the avenue of Mohamed Ali through the historic fabric caused the demolition of hundreds of structures including houses and sometimes mosques. These demolitions led to a lucrative trade in building parts including entire wall panels, doors, and ceilings which were sold to collectors, aristocrats to decorate their new homes and sometimes shipped abroad for the homes of wealthy Orientalists. The use of historic fragments in new buildings was increasingly popular during the same time in France. The adaptive reuse of historic fragments became a new art as it required artisans to create new pieces that fill the gaps and correspond with the older pieces. This new art called for the study of ornamental motifs and gave rise to an increased art historical interest in oriental interior/decorative architecture.
The building on Sherif Street was neo-Mamluk with various details belonging to various architectural styles from Islamic architecture. The building built in the 1880s was not unusual for that period when many notables and aristocrats built in an eclectic historicist style. The new building was inspired by a collection of architectural fragments and the interior decoration was composed of actual fragments belonging to different eras, different buildings and different styles.
As the area known today as downtown developed rapidly in the 1920s onwards from an urban fabric of mostly palaces and villas to tall modern apartment blocks the French Embassy acquired land in the then newly developing areas of Giza near the Nile and a new house was built in the 1930s. Again, in the new house fragments which formed the interior of the 1880s house were removed before that house was demolished and the interiors were reassembled in the new modern understated structure. The new building set in gardens consisted of a modern Moorish inspired design, rather than Cairene palatial architecture. The architecture was designed to host the interiors from the 1880s house. The main hall (pictured at the top of this post) is particularly impressive. Of course, since the Giza building was erected some of its parts had been redesigned or redecorated with various elements including art deco. However, the main halls with the reused Ottoman and Mamluk decor remain the main features of that building.
The book is divided into five chapters with a particularly important conclusion that sheds light on the forgotten art of reusing old architectural fragments, a practice that had existed in Cairo for centuries. The book concludes with a question about such practices as seen in these two houses: is such reuse of building materials impertinent or is it a way of salvaging heritage?
Of course such a question has no easy or universal answer but the author makes the case that in these particular houses the reuse of decorative elements from demolished Cairene houses reinvents and in ways protects heritage that could have been lost. Of course such practices continue today in much more destructive ways as intact historic buildings (examples: Villa Casdagli, Villa Ispenian) get vandalized in order to feed the clandestine market for antique building parts the clients of which are mostly outside of Cairo and Egypt. The recent destruction of several villas is evidence that the market for building parts to be reused in new buildings for the wealthy elsewhere is a lucrative endeavor. Of course these recent developments are significantly different from the context in which these two French houses in Cairo were built.
On the first of February the long-abandoned and unused Villa Casdagli on Simon Bolivar Sq. was looted and its staircase was set on fire. The following day I visited the building after reading news that it was “burned to the ground” and found the fire department finishing its job in controlling the isolated fire. The building was standing strong but it had been stripped of any removable valuable ornamentation, or as the fire department officer called it, the building was “peeled.” What happened at Villa Casdagli is hardly something new nor does it have anything to do with revolution or the “security vacuum.” Historic buildings, particularly those from the 19th and 20th centuries have fallen victim to organized looting, vandalism and even official cover for their subsequent demolition by people as high up in the state as previous prime ministers (directly requesting the removal of buildings from heritage lists). Following this particular incident there has been no official response from the state and its institutions responsible while the most visible response from the cultured elite has been one of despair.
The latest incident at Villa Casdagli reveals the failures of the state in safeguarding and capitalizing on heritage as well as the failures of Egypt’s heritage society to take a leading role in creating awareness, creating proposals and offering alternatives to the fate of Egypt’s modern heritage and most importantly in making the heritage issue relevant to a wider audience outside the privileged few. Also, the incident makes certain the failure of Egypt’s professional cadre of engineers and architects who have not developed the professional environment and practices that prepare them to handle such heritage buildings regardless of their state in order to bring them back to life.
[As the burned and discolored plaster surface peels away it reveals a new modern, clean stone wall. This building is ready for a new life.]
The villa, which was built in 1910, under all the ornamentation, plaster, gilded frames, and wood floors is a masonry structure built with brick, stone and the floors and ceilings are of iron and concrete, hence it was little damaged structurally in the latest snafu.
The building had recently received some journalistic attention for its apparent neglect and need for restoration. Hidden behind trees, the villa had gone unnoticed to unknowing pedestrians until clashes in Tahrir Square spread to the nearby Simon Bolivar Sq. and led to the subsequent erection of a second wall on that square blocking off the street leading to parliament (the first wall was already erected blocking the street leading to the US embassy). The erection of the second wall had turned this important junction into a dead end and pedestrians had to get around the wall to go to their work in the area which led pedestrians to cut through the garden of the villa to jump its wall to make their way around the obtrusive obstacle course of walls. This was an unintended consequence of the road block wall, but it made the villa accessible and visible.
Of course not everyone was unaware of the building, it had been eyed for renovation, potentially paid for with a $5 million USAID grant to transform it into Cairo’s first Institute for Museology.
Government bureaucracy and conflict between the ministries of antiquities and education (the former tenant of the building until around 1999) delayed any possible progress in the status of the building which continued to be vacant and unused.
Then suddenly there was a night of renewed clashes on the last day of January during which a truck was loaded with large gilded frames, marble fireplace mantles, and extremely heavy ironwork that once lined windows and balconies. By morning the clashes had magically ended and the villa was “peeled.” This isn’t the first of its kind, the Villa Ispenian in Haram was given the same treatment recently. Looted items end up on the market for antique dealers and much of it ends up outside the country where it can be sold for a higher price. Whatever wasn’t removable was vandalized but with the exception of the staircase the building survived intact. Apparently the Education Ministry already has some kind of report of the incident.
This isn’t about this particular building, rather this recent incident could have been an opportunity for all those involved and those interested in heritage to raise pertinent issues that have been needing resolution for years: Why are such buildings, particularly those in state ownership and use, allowed to sit unused and allowed to deteriorate? How can the state capitalize on the historical and heritage value of this real estate? What is wrong with the current laws and regulations regarding heritage/historic buildings particularly those from the 19th century to the present? What are some proposals for legislation that could remedy the situation and save what is left and what are the benefits and who benefits? Villa Casdagli could be a visible and easy to understand illustration of why these are important questions to raise as part of a wider conversation that brings in a wider audience beyond the small group of heritage enthusiasts.
Additionally, once the fate of the building is saved from a potential demolition permit, the work should be carried out by a local firm, one that demonstrates that Egyptian practices are ready and capable of carrying out such work. Often such projects go to international architecture firms, denying Egyptian firms from building a portfolio of successful experiences of renovations/conservations of modern heritage buildings. One such local company more than ready to do this work is Takween, a group of talented young architects and planners who have experience working in Egypt in various contexts and with heritage sites.
This building was a victim not of the latest clashes, but of thirteen years of neglect following forty years of misuse. There is a cause here that needs to be perused regarding Egypt’s modern heritage buildings, but this cause will only be advanced if activists and heritage enthusiasts jump on an opportunity such as this to highlight the problem to a wider audience and to offer alternatives and make more people dream about the potential of these properties and their significance to the economy, to history, etc.
The building lost some of its decorative elements, but that hardly means it is “destroyed.” Think of post-WWII European cities, they were destroyed, and they have been rebuilt like new, some tourists never realize that many of the seemingly medieval city squares and surrounding buildings are in fact fifty year-old reconstructions. So, no one should put their hands up in despair because we lost a wooden staircase and some mirrors. With $5 million, if that money is still available, this building could provide a much needed institution such as an Institute for Museology, but it could also provide an excellent case study in architectural conservation in Cairo.
Visible slightly to the north from the narrow overpass that links Opera Square to Azhar Street is a corner building with four kneeling Atlas statues lifting a glass globe. This was the Tiring Department Store, one of Cairo’s many houses of early twentieth century shopping and consumption of modern goods.
The store was founded in 1910 by Victor Tiring, an Austrian merchant born in Istanbul who specialized in Turkish tailoring. The Tiring family had built its first store in Vienna in 1882. The building was designed by Oscar Horowitz, a Czech architect who studied in Vienna and who designed similar shopping destinations within the Austro-Hungarian sphere. The Tiring Store in Cairo was completed in 1912 and when it opened it was the city’s premier shopping destination for imported luxury goods. With the events of World War I, the British occupation in Egypt had deemed all Austrians and Hungarians as enemies and forced their departure from Egypt. The Tiring department store was only in business for few years and its business was interrupted due to pressure from the colonial administration which forced it into liquidation by 1920.
The five-story building was designed with open floors and an airy feel fit for modern shopping and it would eventually become the desired property by other department store owners but complications due to ownership led to it being abandoned. Shortly after the demise of the short-lived Tiring, the building became home to squatters, primarily small-business and workshops who set up shop in its vast floors. It has been used since by a variety of people for a variety of activities, there was a bar, a mosque, full-time residents, clothing workshops and a cafe occupying the building at one time.
This is the story of many buildings, perhaps hundreds in Cairo and other cities. At first it may appear that the main obstacle confronting any effort to save Tiring building is related to ownership. However, another building not far away, fronting Opera Square and the remaining parcel of Azbakeya Garden is the former Continental Hotel which is also occupied by small workshops informally, yet it is owned by the state. Other buildings around downtown and the surrounding districts have been undergoing a process for decades aimed at intentionally removing links to original owners. Those were the properties of owners who fled the country, were forced out either by the British or subsequent regimes, or properties where heirs immigrated and entrusted the property to a lawyer or anyone who later illegally sold it to themselves and obscured links to the original owners. This has led to legal disputes and often buildings have been “frozen” with no one to claim them as their own and thus they fall for squatters or idle eternally. What I am trying to argue, the Tiring Building brings attention to the legal dimension complicating the potential regeneration, maintenance and reuse of such properties. And this calls for a legal framework and carefully drafted policy.
The Tiring Building was built a century ago, yet it was used by its original owner for its intended use for less than a decade. Despite this, it has become part of the urban heritage of Cairo and its iconic Atlases and glass globe have become a landmark referenced in works of art, literature and seen in film. The building, and others like it, is part of Cairo’s cityscape and it presents us with a challenge of dealing with its complicated history, ownership issues, accommodate/legalize its current users, maintain its architectural heritage, make it economically sustainable and make it accessible to the public.
The building should also be seen in its urban and social context. It sits at a unique location linking old and new Cairo and near Attaba Square where other key buildings such as the fire department and the original post office stand. Near by is the Attaba vegetable market, one of downtown’s central markets, and surrounding streets are bustling with commercial activity. There is massive potential in this area to organize, develop, accommodate current commercial activities while diversifying the uses and users by inserting new ones. However, the scale of needed development in Cairo’s central districts needs new strategies that move beyond the approach of focusing on individual buildings and seeking the needed funds to restore them without considering their relationship to context and their potential new uses. Many of the historic buildings which have been restored by the state following this approach have sat empty for years or have been transformed into “cultural centers” where no real activity takes place.
The Tiring Building is desperately screaming for attention for the entire district to be revitalized in cooperation with its current users. However, with the current governance structure which does not align with community structures in the city there will be no revitalization. Communities in Cairo are full of buildings around which the various districts can develop, whether the Sakakini Palace in Sakakini or the Tiring Building in Attaba, those buildings can act as the starting point in a community-driven, government-led approach that integrates buildings of historic significance with the communities that live in and around them in ways that protect the architectural heritage, stimulate economic development and provide new opportunities. Such efforts need sound policy and such policy needs to build on a political structure that empowers communities rather than treat them as mere squatters to be removed.
The cathedral at Abbasiya is the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The main building, part of a campus including several churches, offices, library and official reception halls, became famous recently during the coverage of the passing of Pope Shenouda III. The new cathedral was inaugurated in 1968. At the time of its completion the new building was Africa’s largest church. Up until its move to the new location the seat of the church was at Masr el Qadima (Coptic Cairo).
The church owned the land since 969. According to the encyclopedia of Coptic history this is a brief story of the land where the cathedral is now built:
This land was given as a replacement for the land that was taken from the church to be included in building the Palace of Ma’ad al-Muizz Li-Deenillah as part of the planning of the new capital of Egypt, Cairo.
During the twelfth century the area contained ten Coptic churches, but during the rule of Qalawun on 18 February 1280 the churches were destroyed by the persecutors of the Copts. Two churches were subsequently built in the area under the rule of his son.
In 1943 the governerate of Cairo attempted to expropriate the area for public use. This was opposed by the General Congregation Council led by its secretary at the time Mr. Habib Elmasry; their campaign proved successful as the Coptic Church maintained control of the land under the condition that a non-profit building be built on it in the following fifteen years. This condition spurred the building of the cathedral.
A competition was held for the design of the new cathedral and in 1966 the winner was announced. The first prize went to Awad Kamel Fahmy dean of the school of fine arts in Cairo at the time. His brother Selim Kamel Fahmy was the head of the Masr Gedida Development Company (شركة مصر الجديدة للتعمير) and he oversaw the construction. The second prize went to Foad Michael and the third prize went to Adel Paul Maqar.
Thirty five design practices submitted entries for the competition, all were Egyptian. The Jury consisted of mostly Coptic officials representing the church such as Father Antonios, or representing official institutions such as Ibrahim Naguib from the ministry of housing, William Selim Hanna who was a former minister of municipal affairs, and Hanna Samika, former representative of the Coptic Museum. The committee convened two weeks after president Gamal Abdel Nasser laid the foundation stone in July 1965.
The June 17 1966 issue of the popular weekly magazine al-Musawwar includes interviews with key figures participating in the realization of the new cathedral. There are many insights here such as questions about why the competition was not international, as it was initially intended. The interviewed church official confirmed that this was an opportunity for Egyptian architects to showcase Egypt’s modern architecture. He also stressed that the current main cathedral at the time, which was built in 1800 was not large enough and was suffering structural problems (it was undergoing renovations in 1966). Church officials also added that Gamal Abdel Nasser dedicated a gift of 100,000 Egyptian pounds towards the project (the newsreel above says 150,000) and he laid the foundation stone on the occasion of the nationalist celebrations of the anniversary of the July 1952 coup/revolution. It is difficult to miss the conflation of issues of modernism, nationalism and religious community which come across in the interview with church officials.
Al-Musawwar’s headline proclaimed the new cathedral was “a masterpiece in the center of Cairo.” Of course it was a masterpiece considering 1960s Egyptian modernist architecture and it was in the “center” of Cairo in the sense that it was closer to the regime’s expansion of the city, not the city’s old center.
Important to note that the move of the seat of the church to the north was also presented as a move along Cairo’s development at the time. The building of the new cathedral was in the context of the government’s expansion plans for Cairo from Abbasiya to what became Madinat Nasr.
When asked about the style of the building, the church rep responded: purely Coptic style, even though the Pope is open to modernizing it a bit. “We have our Coptic church style for generations and we will build upon it.” Regarding the portrait of Jesus painted in the main space he said “why should we need international artists, Egypt has the talents we need… Jesus will be painted by our artists and he will have our features.” He added “Arab hands only will build this church with its mashrabeyyas (wood work), painted glass, murals, mosaics… these are skills developed together by Muslims and Christians throughout our history and we aim to preserve them. All the materials for the new building will be local and nothing will be imported.”
In a way the new building is a reflection of the state imposing its power over the church, as it did with Al Azhar. Incidentally the military headquarters are also in Abbasiya. It is no surprise that the contractor and the architect were both close to the state. Nonetheless the building and its story also reflect the struggle for the church to negotiate its place, identity and visibility in the context of Egypt’s shifting politics.
The cathedral also became home to some of Saint Mark’s relics. Saint Mark of Alexandria was the first to preach Christianity in Egypt and therefore is considered the founder of the Coptic Church. His remains were stolen and sent to Venice in the 9th century. The story of the theft is proudly depicted on the facade of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (pictured above). The story has it that the grave robbers wrapped the remains in pork as to avoid inspection by the Muslim port control in Alexandria. Pope Paul VI returned some of the relics to Egypt on the occasion of the new cathedral which is dedicated to Saint Mark.