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.
Sometimes it is difficult not to think that officials (state or city government) intentionally make the practice of everyday life for Egyptians more burdensome. Case in point is the current state of Azhar Street, specifically as it dissects Cairo’s historic Muizz Street. I say dissect rather than intersect because today Azhar Street severs the restored touristified north section of Muizz Street from the richly commercial, mostly used by Egyptians, yet to be repaved southern half. Crossing Azhar street is a dramatic experiences. To the south Muizz street is lined with monuments, historic fabric and an active market of textiles leading south to Bab Zuwyla. To the north, the street is also lined with monuments, and some historic fabric in addition to the maze of the touristy Khan el Khalili. The northern section has been repaved and underwent massive transformation that entailed the removal of many of the street’s original markets and stakeholders and replacing them with shisha shops and tourist-oriented products (instead of the onion, garlic and lemon markets which used to be at the north end of the street, for example). While the southern stretch lacks any police presence it feels safer, and the northern stretch has visible police presence yet that didn’t protect Sultan Barquq Complex from theft last week. Until today the most striking difference between the north half and the southern half is the social aspects of each. The southern half still feels like a neighborhood while the northern feels like an open air museum.
Despite the drastic difference pedestrians, locals and tourists, were able to cross Azhar Street via a pedestrian bridge which allowed for some kind of continuity between the two halves of the historic street. However in recent months the municipality erected a spiked metal fence in the middle of Azhar Street separating the eastward and westward directions. The green fence with golden spikes made crossing the street only possible via the pedestrian bridge. Sometime in the past two months the pedestrian bridge was removed. Apparently the necessary structure was removed due to an electrical explosion from a fuse box below the north end of the bridge which jeopardized its safety. However the bridge hasn’t been replaced since. This means that crossing the always crowded Azhar Street to link the northern southern halves of historic Cairo and Muizz Street is nearly a mission impossible. Not only is there a fence blocking the way on street level, the bridge is now gone with only the stairs remaining on either side of Azhar Street leading to nowhere.
With typical Egyptian resilience the fence now has an opening which was created by removing some of the metal bars. Still, pedestrians must run across a busy road and try to fit through the opening and run across the road again. Crossing the road, any road let alone one of Cairo’s most historic and important roads, should never be this difficult and inhumane. Are these obstacles put in place to intentionally humiliate Egyptians? In a time of budget cuts are extra fences placed at illogical locations serving any purpose? Does the safety of Cairo’s residents ever cross the minds of those in charge of the massive institutions with the budgets and manpower to actually enact improvements? Are they not aware of this invention known as the “traffic light” which could have made for a humane and orderly crosswalk at this key junction?
The present situation at this crossing in Azhar Street and Muizz Street is one repeated in different forms across the city. Not only is the municipality not doing any effort to improve the urban environment, it is actively making matters worse. Which raises a fundamental question: Are municipal officials that asinine or are they intentionally malicious? In either case their conduct is inexcusable and this snafu alone is good reason for someone to get fired and for the entire system of city government to be seriously challenged.
Difficult to photograph as it is surrounded by trees, Bulaq General Hospital was built in 1936 as a robust red brick streamline modernist three-story structure near the Nile in Bulaq. The hospital is among a series of what could be called “historic hospitals” that were built by the state in the first part of the twentieth century which have been decaying for decades and neglected by the state. Some of these hospitals have also been targeted by corrupt officials who have permitted the destruction of such hospitals and are selling the properties to real estate development (no health official should be able to so easily sell state property for use by private investment!). The most recent of those incidents was the Coptic Hospital in Alexandria.
Bulaq General Hospital was part of a hospital building program that took place during the reign of Foad and Farouk when the health ministry, which was also tasked with supervising urban development to ensure healthy living conditions, built hospitals throughout the city to service its inhabitants. Bulaq’s hospital was to serve Bulaq and Gezira (Zamalek). Today the building is nearly abandoned. The collapse of the state’s health services and the dominance of private and charitable medical providers coupled with the hollowing out of Bulaq (mass evictions and relocations have been occurring here since the 1970s to make way for international hotels of tourist developments) have led to the institutional collapse of Bulaq Hospital. The building, however, appears to be in near perfect condition, judging by its exterior. It is certain that the functions of the hospital are in desperate need for overhaul. This building must be saved for its architectural and historical value but also because Cairo needs more, not less, hospitals and medical facilities.
The building is located in the now prized location within the government’s (read business elite) plan to entirely redevelop Bulaq as a tourist and business hub. Directly across the street from Bulaq General Hospital is the construction site of the mammoth St. Regis Hotel. North of the hospital is another state-owned “public service” facility (كلية الاقتصاد المنزلى) that appears to share the hospital’s fate. Directly east of the hospital are two historic and registered sites (from among 15 registered historic sites in Bulaq): the sixteenth century Sinan Mosque (1571) and Tikiya Rifaiya (1774).
In July 2010, Al Ahram reported the plans to demolish the hospital to make way for real estate development:
كان المستشفي يعد من أفضل المستشفيات علي مستوي الجمهورية, وكان يسمي مستشفي المجموعة لتميزه بمجموعة من التخصصات الطبية, لكن الوضع الحالي أصبح يثير الجدل في عدد من المحافل المعنية ويثير كثيرا من الشائعات حول الخطط الموضوعة للاستفادة من موقع المستشفي المميز.. لأهداف استثمارية بحتة!!
في البداية يقول عبدالباقي أحمد عبدالباقي ـ من أهالي بولاق ابوالعلا ـ إن الفقير يستطيع أن يتحمل آلام الجوع لكنه لا يقدر علي أن يتحمل آلام المرض, لذا فإن تدهور حال مستشفي بولاق أدي إلي تدهور الحالة الصحية لكثير من مرضي المنطقة خاصة أنه كان يقدم الخدمة العلاجية, ويوفر الدواء بالمجان للآلاف لكنه يفتقر الآن لأبسط أنواع العلاج حتي أنابيب الأوكسجين وعبوات الجلوكوز منذ عدة أشهر وأصبح شعار لا يوجد هو الشعار الذي ترفعه أقسام المستشفي بداية من الطواريء إلي غرف العمليات والتحاليل والأشعات غير المتوفرة!
According to the report, there has been intentional negligence at the hospital since 2002 in what appeared to local residents as preparing the stage for dismantling it and taking it off Cairo’s list of hospitals. The institutional collapse of the hospital has had dire effect on the health of local residents. One resident is quoted as saying “It is easier to deal with hunger than to deal with the pain of disease and illness.”
The report also confirms the Health Ministry’s plans to sell the hospital property to a developer. The sale, it appears, has no preconditions for replacing the existing hospital with a new one to serve the area. Hospital staff amounted to 200 doctors and 150 nurses in addition to other staff, all of whom (until the publishing of the Ahram article) had no other job assignments if Bulaq Hospital becomes nonoperational.
ولأن العلاج حق دستوري للمواطن ـ يتابع ـ فنحن نناشد وزارة الصحة ـ رفقا بالغلابة والفقراء من أهالي بولاق ابوالعلا تطوير وترميم المستشفي بشكل فوري.
The Health Ministry signed a LE40 million contract with a construction company in 2003 to begin “renovation” and in 2004 the company destroyed an annex building which was built in 1995 and included 18 kidney dialysis units. Medical equipment was removed from the hospital buildings to begin the “renovation.” Nothing has come from the LE40 million contract since then. The government issued a demolition permit sometime after which was halted as local representatives and the community reacted against the demolition. Although the community was able to halt the demolition, the ministry has abandoned the hospital and has not included it in its annual “investment” budgets. The hospital is the main medical facility for the poor areas of Imbaba, Bulaq, Sahel, and Rod al-Farag.
يؤكد محمد حمدان ـ عضو مجلس محلي حي بولاق ـ لن نرضي إلا بتطوير وترميم المستشفي وإذا كان هناك مخطط آخر لاستثمار الأرض وبيعها لأحد المستثمرين كما يـشاع فسوف نقوم بالاعتصام داخل المستشفي.
إن هناك العديد من التساؤلات التي تطرح نفسها علي الساحة أولها كيف وصل المستشفي إلي هذه الحالة المتدهورة في ظل وجود هيكل إداري وطبي وأجهزة رقابية من وزارة الصحة؟ من المسئول عن قرار الهدم وعدم البناء مرة أخري؟ ولماذا لا يتم صرف المخصصات التي تم رصدها لتطوير المستشفي؟
Al-Ahram, a state paper, was not allowed access to photograph the inside of the hospital nor allowed to review the government’s or ministry’s proposal for the site.
This beautiful 1936 building is testament to a government that aimed to improve the lives and health of its citizens in a way that contrasts with today’s government response to the health and wellbeing of Egyptians, especially the poor. The building, so far, has survived, even though it has been hollowed. But Bulaq Hospital must be saved to fulfill its intended function. While the six star St. Regis hotel rises across the street, Bulaq General Hospital sits empty and ignored. Millions of dollars are poured into an exclusive facility that will cater to birds of passage. Not a penny from this or other investments benefit the community, not even towards fixing the hospital across the street.
[building detail: a stair]
[A side view of the hospital with the World Trade Center in the background]
[old sign on hospital fence: Planned Parenthood unit]
By Frederick Deknatel
The Sabil-Kuttab of ‘Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda is at the fork on Sharia al-Muizz just north of the monumental Mamluk funerary complexes of Qalawun and Barquq. It was built four centuries after those landmarks, in 1744, by an amir “noted for his high style of living and his liberal patronage of the arts,” in the words Caroline Williams, Cairo’s longtime architectural historian. It’s an epitaph that, I imagine, Farouk Hosny, the ex-Minister of Culture and Mubarak’s longest serving confidante, would like to own someday.
Hosny positioned himself at the head of the pyramid of ministries and bureaucracies that administered the Historic Cairo Restoration Project, the more than a decade long refurbishment of al-Muizz that was launched by presidential decree in 1998. The ministry of housing and the Cairo governorate were major partners in the project, but Hosny made sure he and his ministry had the most power over planning and especially purses. Numbers are vague, as with most things bureaucratic in Egypt. But the Historic Cairo project’s budget has been described at over LE 850 million, with al-Muizz getting the majority of that share for the restoration of historic buildings (as well as the stylistically bland beautification of Muizz’s modern, concrete ones), the leveling and repaving of the street, and the installation of the LED lights that now illuminate Fatimid Cairo’s historic avenue at night.
After January 25th the police enforcement of Muizz as a pedestrian zone, with heavily regulated car traffic, ended – police had other things to do. A walk down Muizz in the daytime now requires dodging busy car traffic, and risking having your foot run-over by a car wedging its way down the street, between the narrow sidewalk and a crowd outside a fish stand. When this happened to me last August, my foot was surprisingly fine – and the driver smiled sheepishly and threw up his hands in soft apology. A walk down Muizz in the evening is closer to Hosny’s vision, since the buildings glow every night in LED radiance, including a strange stream of purple outside the entrance to the madrasa of Barquq.
Early on in the Muizz restoration, Williams and other international architects and historians criticized the Egyptian government and its culture ministry for the project’s view of heritage tourism as “the ultimate panacea for the Islamic monuments in Cairo.” Williams spoke for many critics when she slammed the Muizz project: it wasn’t preservation but a scheme, she wrote, “of turning medieval Cairo into a sanitized tourist district featuring inauthentic but atmospheric monuments deprived of their living character.”
The ministry and the Supreme Council of Antiquities hosted a conference in 2002 to stem such bad press. The heavy text produced and published for the conference, called simply Historic Cairo, outlined the Muizz project monument by monument, since a lack of documentation was a unifying critique. But the language used by Hosny in his haughty introduction betrayed the government’s long-held view that Egyptians must be separated from their urban and architectural heritage. “It has been crucial to redress the afflictions that have debilitated Cairo as a result of the vicissitudes of its long history and the infringements of successive generations of inhabitants,” Hosny wrote. “Such transgressions have been due to the pressing need to gain a livelihood, impelling individuals to encroach upon the unparalleled monuments that history has entrusted us with.”
In other words, everyday Egyptians, particularly those working in workshops in Gamaliya, are a threat to Islamic monuments and their tourist potential, rather the living inhabitants, even the custodians, of an historic city. Public involvement was the last thing on the mind of the planners of the Muizz project. As a philosophy for preservation, and indeed urban and economic development, this idea of separating people from space and architecture, and relocating them altogether, spread throughout the Mubarak regime. The ministry of housing and its subsidiary General Office of Physical Planning, the force behind the fantasy of Cairo 2050, practiced urban planning as a tool for regime preservation and profit. Their “wide-range strategic plan for Greater Cairo” hinged on how to maximize the speculative potential of the desert cities and clear the informal, urban fabric near the Nile to make way for high-rises and elite real estate, while turning all of historic Cairo, from Gamaliya all the way south to Sultan Hassan and Ibn Tulun, into “The Open Museum, Fatimid Cairo.” Muizz was the model for historic Cairo in this authoritarian vision. The oldest quarters of the city – where workshops and craftsmen, some traditional, some not, cluster among medieval mosques, tombs, and forgotten palaces – would become an “open-air museum” home to streets “free from traffic and haggling,” as the New York Times wrote of Muizz after its reopening.
“To revitalise this street is to revive authenticity,” Hosny wrote proudly in the introduction to another book on the Muizz refurbishment, a glossy, hardcover text published recently by the ministry of culture, called simply The Great Street. But what was the regime’s idea of authenticity? Hosting the minister of culture’s galas and elite parties in the restored complex of Qalawun? Adapting every restored wikala into another “cultural center” that mostly sits empty?
The storefronts on the most northern stretch of Muizz, outside the mosque of al-Hakim and Bab al-Futuh, were cleared of their bustling onion and lemon markets, replaced with rows of shisha shops. To this an architect working in Muizz told me, “The entire street is a shisha market! The entire medieval Cairo of our times is a shisha market!”
Read more from Frederick Deknatel on his blog, Hidden Cities.
This article will be available in Arabic in a forthcoming Cairobserver print publication.
Update February 10: A water pipe burst on the evening of Feb 10 causing severe flooding in the historic street. Water pipes were replaced as part of the renovation project described above. The problem was later resolved.
By Yahia Shawkat
The Ibn Tulun Aqueduct is a rare public works structure that dates back 1100 years to the Tulunid Empire. The mudbrick and stone structure that uses to run south-north for about 4km from a desrt spring to the Tulunid settlement has largely been demolished as Cairo has expanded over the last century.
What has survived till the recent incident has been parts of the southern-most sector of the aqueduct of about 870m long where only 540m of that portion remain preserved, while the rest is merely below-ground remains. There is also the water-wheel tower in the community of Beir Om Al Sultan in Basateen.
Efforts by the local council to preserve what remains of the aqueduct have focused on the southern part of that sector where a “public garden” had been planted enclosed within a fence. The northern part of the sector lies in a main traffic artery where commuters traverse the aqueduct through a gap of about 20m between the north part and the south part.
The north part has lay under debris and garbage for most of the last ten years where occasional clean-ups by the local council have exposed parts of the ancient structure but somehow the heavy machinery has left it intact until the most recent of these cleanups in December 2011.
About 30m of the aqueduct were removed during that clean up by the front loaders and sent to the landfill along with the garbage. That amounts to roughly 6% of the preserved portion that is still above ground. It is not apparent whether this removal by the workers was deliberate – to free up the traffic artery – or misguided as only those familiar with the area understood what the debris covered, and at that point none of the structure was visible in that particular section except for three arches as shown in the photographs.
It is very regrettable that such an incident has been allowed to happen by ALL authorities involved in the responsibility of protecting that monument. I hope that these authorities will take sustainable actions to preserve what is left of this rare monument rather than merely reacting to the destruction. If it would be the latter, then they should not bother to do anything.
Read Environmental Voices: Of biohazards, 1100 year old monuments and participatory planning for more about the aqueduct.
For an archive of early 20th century photographs of the aqueduct, click here.
Read more from Yahia Shawkat on his blog, Shadow Ministry of Housing.
Excerpt from Al-Ahram Weekly:
Netherlands/Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC) and the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) convened a one-day Heritage Management Workshop on 22 November to review the current situation in Egypt and discuss a way forward. In her opening address Kim Duistermaat, director of the Netherlands Institute, which hosted the event, said: “Archaeology is no longer purely an academic discipline. Research and site protection are two sides of the same coin. Archaeology is a study of the past; site management relates to the present.”
The participants had this to say:
“Any project to save an historical or archaeological area is doomed to failure unless it takes into account that the monuments themselves form but an infinitesimal part of the social fabric of an area.”
“To revitalise and successfully conserve an area depends on understanding the forces that created it in the first place, the pattern of streets or waterways, domestic architecture, as well as commercial and manufacturing activities.”
“The further training of professionals is essential and so is community involvement.” “Something has to be done about the structure of politics and regulations.”
“The grassroots of society have to be taken into consideration because they are every bit as concerned about the country’s heritage as the policy-making segment of the community.”
“Education is vital.”
“Get more young students involved.”
“It is not possible to develop and implement long-term plans for conservation and to subsequently maintain sites, without qualified employees, and an educated populace.”
Read full report, here.
“Architecture is the expression of every society’s very being.… [But] only the ideal being of society, the one that issues orders and interdiction with authority, is expressed in architectural compositions in the strict sense of the word…. Thus great monuments rise up like levees, opposing the logic of majesty and authority to any confusion: Church and State in the form of cathedrals and palaces speak to the multitudes, or silence them. It is obvious that monuments inspire social good behavior in societies and often even real fear. The storing of the Bastille is symbolic of this state of affairs: it is hard to explain this mass movement other than through the people’s animosity (animus) against monuments that are its real masters.”— George Bataille
The increased presence of military personnel during the years of WWII intensified the awareness of the occupation which was not welcomed. Cairo was ready for revolution. Ismailiyya Square was the stage of the killing of thirty Egyptians who demonstrated at the steps of Kasr al-Nil Barracks, still occupied by British troops. The building and the square gained an increasingly negative image during this period and were seen as symbols of corruption, occupation, and injustice. When British troops left the Barracks in 1947, the King personally ordered the demolition of this grand building which was originally built to house the Egyptian army. the nervous king must have seen the destruction of the building as a message to the population that he too was anti-occupation. In reality, the building itself had nothing to do with the occupation and destroying it did nothing to change Egypt’s political situation or the role of the British in the country. but the visibility of buildings make them associated with the political powers who occupy them and therefore the stones somehow become politicized.
Imagine Tahrir Square if the barracks building was still there, of course its function would have evolved over time and most probably it could have been transformed into a municipality building or even a hotel with the two central gardens overlooking the Nile. It would have been amazing to be able to stand in Tahrir, look at the old barracks building and be able to trace the changing history that it has experienced from Egyptian Army, to British, to Independence then whatever functions it may have had. Adaptive reuse circa 1947 Cairo would have been a great argument to make rather than simply raze a building and with it erasing history. if people in power would always have their way to destroy buildings that occupied or housed or were used by opposing/colonial or disliked political symbols then our cities would never evolve and the memories and histories that are loaded onto buildings would be reduced to a few old pictures and anecdotes that survive those acts of revenge on architecture.
Now also in Tahrir Square another building is being targeted by the same destructive logic. The torched former headquarters of the National Democratic Party slightly north of the site of the former barracks awaits an order to raze it to the ground. As if all Egypt’s problems have been already solved this building has been recieving a fare share of discussion regarding its fate. all opinions agree that it must be torn down and the question is what should be done with its location. some have suggested a garden for the Egyptian Museum, others suggested offices for human rights organizations.
The building opened in 1958 along with the Hilton and the Arab League, all three buildings forming Nasser’s new Nile skyline. Initially the building housed the Cairo Municipality, later its function changed to house the Socialist Party and later yet it housed offices for various political organizations such as the Women’s Union before finally becoming the headquarters of the NDP. the buidling itself is a typical concrete 1950s slab with a regular facade and balanced proportions. it is part of Egypt’s history and part of the evolution of Tahrir Square.
Now, my guess is that the fire that broke out in the building on January 28 did not structurally damage the concrete monolith. However the fire did leave some very visible scars on the facade. while amatures and architects scramble to come up with a monument to place in Tahrir, the torched NDP building stands as the most visiually powerful monument to the revolution. Here was the symbol of the country’s untouchable ruling elite torched on the “day of anger.” so why the rush to tear down this most powerful visiual reminder of the people’s will and their ability to bring down a corrupt elite?
I think it is time to break the cycle of taking out our anger on buildings. There is no need to constantly “cleanse” the cityscape of “unsightly” reminders of aspects of our past some powerful politicians may not want to keep around. I think the best way to come to terms with what just happened to Egypt and its momentous revolution by keeping the torched NDP building as a reminder to us Egyptians of what people power has done but also as a reminder to politicians that they too could be swept away by the people.
How to keep the building is another question: I am not suggesting we leave this massive building in such a prime location vacant like Beirut’s Holiday INN. I can imagine the shell of the building remaining with the interiors renovated to house whatever institutions the city decides, perhaps human rights organizations as it has been suggested. but the skin of the building should continue to show proudly the marks left by the flames that toppled one of the most powerful and oppressive regimes in modern Middle Eastern history.
Related article, here.
Al Ashraf Street is slightly south and east of Ibn Tulun Mosque. Historic cemetaries fall in the area between Al Ashraf Street and Salah Salem (right of the image) while to the west of Al-Ashraf are Nasser/Sadat era housing known as al-Masaken (left of the image)
Al Ashraf Street leads to midan Sayeda Nafisa. The street is about 4 meters wide and on one side has little shops (barber, café, refreshments, etc) while on the other the street is lined by some of Medieval Cairo’s many shrines, mosques and historic houses in between more recent self-built houses. I went there last week with my friend Gamal who challenged me that he will take me to some beautiful buildings that I had never seen. Of course I said something along the lines of “I’ve seen it all.” I had never been to Sayeda Nafisa, Sayeda Roqaya, or even on that street all together. I don’t know about the history of this particular street but on the surface of things it is a typical “Islamic Cairo” street: there is a strong neighborhood feel, seems to be ignored by authorities and any updates seem to have been carried out with very limited resources by residents, there are amazing architectural gems and historic monuments, some of those such as the mosques of Nafisa and Fatma are in good shape because they are religious shrines and must have some kind of endowment or are looked after by the Awqaf ministry, other medieval or historic buildings are unlabeled, unidentified, neglected, some contemporary shanty structures have climbed over the historic fabric, utilities and basic services such as trash collection seem to not exist.
It was hard for me to pass through this street and not imagine what it so desperately wants to be. I couldn’t help but imagine cobblestones, a few trees, the neglected historic monuments restored and accessible. There are men hanging around on a few mended chairs with no skills or jobs. With little investment these men can be trained and given building and restoration skills that will be used to repave the street, rebuilt and repair the housing fabric, restore the monuments, refurbish the commercial edge and maintain the street. the commercial edge can be revamped and updated and micro-credits can allow those businesses to flourish. Neighborhood facilities can be updated with some state investment, some private investment, some micro-loans to the community and put people from the street and the neighborhood to fix and maintain the area. I know this is a bit romantic but I am allowed to fantasize.
A street like this has been neglected because the state is only interested to develop areas in historic Cairo if they have touristic potential, such as El-Muez Street. Besides the fact that El-Muez is a particularly significant street with a high density of historic sites along its route, it is also easy for the state to secure. And that is the key here; the state saw common Egyptians as predators from whom tourist must be kept away from. El-Muez Street has been transformed into Cairo’s version of main street in Disneyland, there is no sense of community or a neighborhood feel anywhere along the entire length of the street itself, despite the tightly knit communities that live just off the street. Those communities were not the intention of repairing El-Muez Street and putting it on the tourist map.
So if for once, tourists aren’t the only motive for Cairo’s development projects, rather residents and communities are the motive and they themselves become active participants in urban renewal I think the final result will be better communities, more people with useful skills, a much bigger tourist map within the city, as more back alleys and streets will open up to visitors both foreign and locals from other parts of the city, and ultimately it will have a positive effect on the economy and preserve some more thitherto neglected historic sites (not for the sake of tourism but because they are essential to national patrimony!)