Cairo, like many cities across the globe, underwent a significant process of urban transformation in the mid-19th century. At the core of these transformations, which can be traced in cities from Latin America, Europe, and Asia, are sewage systems, street lighting, and drinking water systems. Most of these major infrastructural changes happen below street level, which explains why commentators on the 19th century often look up at what is visible, buildings, and rarely look below their feet. Also important to note that contrary to the dual city narrative 19th century infrastructural changes were implemented in both new and old parts of the city, with varying difficulty and speed for obvious reasons. Cairo has fallen victim to urban history that has elided the complexity of the city’s urban transformation during that time. I have already argued before that Paris was never along the Nile. On a recent trip to Paris I walked down the uniform apartment blocks of Haussmann’s Paris and stayed in one such building where behind the homogeneous facades are often small apartments reached by rickety small wooden stairs. Cairo’s 19th century (and early twentieth century) apartments were often dismissed as hastily-built Parisian simulacra in analysis obsessed by reductive East/West dichotomies and which privilege the eye. A closer investigation of Cairo’s “Parisian” architecture beyond reducing architectural history to facade reading, reveals a different set of socio-economic constructs that produced these buildings.
The focus on the above-mentioned aspect of 19th century urban development in Cairo has kept the major changes of that era in the footnotes of the official narrative. Today, as the city is desperately in need of comprehensive urban transformation and upgrading it is important to highlight the less visible but major projects carried out 150 years ago around the reign of Ismail that continue to shape the city today in ways more fundamental than mere aesthetics. Here are 7 major 19th century projects that reshaped Cairo:
1. Stabilizing the Nile Banks: The Nile in Cairo shifted with season which made the prospect of urbanization Nile-side a difficult one. Stabilizing the banks of the river, completed by 1865 and filling the adjacent areas that previously flooded made urban development possible and added riverside properties to the city’s real estate. However before the prospect of real estate the first large Nile-side building erected along the newly stabilized river were the new barracks of the Egyptian army (1865-68) known as Qasr el Nil. Tahrir Square would have been underwater if it wasn’t for this major infrastructural project. Qasr el Nil Bridge was also erected following the stabilization of the river and was opened in 1871.
2. The Northern boundaries: The areas north of historic Cairo near the recently built train station (1854) consisted of small hills which were flattened and and used in the draining and filling of the city’s lakes further south. Near by there were fields of radish فجل which were removed to make way for a new neighborhood named Faggala فجالة and Sakakini further north. A square was planned fronting the train station as the city’s northern entrance and Shubra street (tree-lined and extending north to Muhammad Ali’s Shubra palace) was connected to this area directly.
3. Abdeen Area: To the west of the old city was a small lake fronted by the estate of Abdeen Bek. The area was surrounded by marches to the west and slums to the east. The estate became the location for a new royal palace (moving the seat of power from the citadel down to the level of the city) and the new palace was built in 1863. The lake and marches were filled and a city square and new streets extending from the new palace were planned. The neighborhood of Abdeen was born.
4. Azbakiyya: Another area that was radically transformed was the posh district of Azbakiyya which overlooked a lake. The lake was filled and transformed into a garden during the rule of Muhammad Ali and the garden was redesigned again during the rule of Khedive Ismail. The transformation of Azbakiyya included the creation of several small public squares such as Khazindar and Attaba as well as Opera Square. The famed Cairo Opera House (1869) was built along side the public garden and several hotels were erected on the west side of the garden which was a linking space between the edge of the old city and the westward urban expansion that became downtown.
5. The East Bank: Major avenues were planned to crisscross the city connecting the western edge of the old city to the Nile. Such new streets were Emmaddidin, Muhammad Farid Bek, Almalika (Ramsis), Merit Pasha and Qasr el Aini. Ismailia Square (Tahrir) began to take shape by the 1870s as well as surrounding squares such as Bab el Louk and neighborhoods such as Mounira, Dawaween. These newly planned areas were paved with water systems underground, sidewalks and trees above and street lighting installed before building lots were developed by individuals.
6. The West Bank: Also following the stabilization of the river the west bank, which was raised two meters above water level, was available for development. Although it largely remained agricultural several new projects were implemented: The Orman Botanical Garden and the Giza Zoo as well as the Pyramids Road. A new Giza palace was erected as well.
7. Gezira Island: Known today as Zamalek, the island was consolidated out of several smaller islands and was largely left as a retreat with a palace and garden erected to host the French queen during her visit (today’s Marriott). With the exception of the palace the island was meant as an escape, a natural landscape dotted with wooden shacks/huts which gave the island its name. Eventually parts of the landscape were formalized into gardens and later streets were implemented such as Gezira St., Gabalaya St., Nile St., and eventually Foad St. (26th July).
These major projects were initiated during the reign of Khedive Ismail, however earlier projects took place during his grandfather’s rule such as the opening of several streets through the old city and the legislation of Tanzim laws for urban management. Also other major transformation took place later in the 19th century such as the filling of Khalij al-Masri (1890s) and the creation of Cairo’s first tram line in its route on what became today’s Port Said St.
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.
Last month a historic villa from the early twentieth century with unique architectural eclecticism and which was filled with antiques and a rich art collection was looted and destroyed. Below is an article by Nevine El-Aref which first appeared on Al-Ahram Weekly on February 8, 2013.
The luxuriously furnished villa of Kevork Ispenian on the Pyramids Road was looted and destroyed despite being on Egypt’s heritage list. Nevine El-Aref mourns the early 20th century edifice
At the Giza Plateau end of the Pyramids Road, near the Mena House Oberoi Hotel, the neo-Islamic villa of Kevork Ispenian stands wretchedly, its Mamluk and Ottoman features revealing the extent of the damage to this beautiful, historic house.
The destruction is over; the house stands in ruins. The garden, once laid out with an immaculate lawn and decorated with rare species of plants and trees and graced by a ceramic mosaic fountain, is now embellished with lumps of limestone and fallen bricks; littered with Mamluk mashrabeya (wooden lattice work) that formerly covered the windows and balustrades. Rubble and rubbish are scattered over the ground among the dead trees and palm trunks.
The house itself is in no better condition; on the contrary it is in a terrible state. Heaps of rubble and sand are piled on the floors, making it hard to tread on and walk through the rooms. Parts of the walls and decorated marble rails and slabs were scattered all around, while wooden doors engraved with foliage and geometrical decorations and beautiful mosaics that once decorated the arcades are broken and missing.
“What a loss!” Ahmad Al-Bindari, a researcher and photographer at the Centre for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (CULTNAT), told Al-Ahram Weekly sadly. He went on to say that the villa, constructed and designed by architect Charles Aznavour in 1935 as a rest house or weekend retreat for the Armenian father and son team of Kevork and Paul Ispenian, both collectors, was a great piece of heritage and its loss was tragic.
As befitted the house of collectors, several Mamluk and Ottoman artefacts, including those belonging to French architect Ambroise Baudry, were woven within its interiors. Baudry moved in 1871 to Egypt where he spent 15 years, during which he received many commissions, both private and royal. He constructed the Matatia edifices at Ataba in Downtown Cairo, which was demolished during the 1990s. In 1873 Baudry was given responsibility for the decoration of the interior of the salamlik (men’s quarters), the façade and the marble staircase of Khedive Ismail’s palace in Giza.
Baudry built a very distinguished residential villa for himself in Abdel-Khalek Tharwat Street in Downtown Cairo, which he decorated with authentic Mamluk and Ottoman artefacts. By the turn of the 20th century, Ispenian had bought Baudry’s genuine collection along with others when all the villas in Abdel-Khalek Tharwat Street were demolished and replaced with huge apartment buildings as part of a plan to convert the area into a commercial and residential zone.
According to Al-Bindari, the Ispenian Villa stayed in the possession of the Armenian family until the 1960s when it was then sold to the Abdel-Nour family, who in their turn sold it to the Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA), now the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA). Meanwhile, the house contents were put on Egypt’s Islamic and Coptic Heritage List after that the house was abandoned. The doors were sealed in red wax, meaning that it was forbidden to enter and whoever stepped inside and removed the wax would be subjected to the law.
“I used to visit the house every now and then, but I have only seen it from the outside,” Al-Bindari told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that during his tour of office he had grown fond of the house and its distinguished architectural elements, and had even invited his friends to come so he could show them its wonderful design. “But sometimes the wind doesn’t blow the way we want,” he said. Last spring, when Bendari went for his usual visit, he found the Ispenian Villa was not the one he used to admire. The iron gate lay on the floor, broken in two pieces. The structure was partially demolished, and the house and garden were a total mess and in the worst possible condition.
Al-Bindari was told that the house, like many other monuments and archaeological sites in Egypt, had been looted during the January 2011 Revolution when security in the country was almost non-existent. However, he told the Weekly that there was no way of knowing for certain what had happened or how the destruction had come about.
“Whoever stole the contents knew what he was doing,” Al-Bindari insisted. “It was systematic. Everything from the ornamented roof, the ornamental screens, the marble floors and even a historic column supporting the balcony have been stolen. They took their time and took everything apart.”
Bendari pointed out that the condition of the villa was not unusual by any standards. “These things happen all the time because of negligence,” he said.
So what did happen to the villa? Why was it possible for it to be subjected to so much looting and destruction? Is it the property of the antiquities department or not? If so, where is the new antiquities law and its amendment? Why is it not being implemented? One of the law’s articles is one that prohibits any encroachment and destruction of archeological sites and a prison term for offenders.
Mohamed Abdel-Rehim, head of the Islamic and Coptic monuments section, told the Weekly in a telephone interview that the building was not on the Egyptian antiquities list and that the villa was still owned by Abdel-Nour family. It was not a historic house which must come under the jurisdiction of the Historic Buildings law affiliated to the Giza governorate, nor did it come under the antiquities law or the MSA. He insisted that the building was not a listed monument.
Meanwhile, archaeologist Ahmed Taha, an inspector at the Giza section of the MSA, laid all the blame for neglecting the building on the Tourist and Antiquities Police (TAP), who failed to protect the house even though there is TAP station not 10 metres from the Ispenian Villa. He also said that during the tenure of former MSA minister Zahi Hawass there was a project to convert the historic villa into a museum for Islamic art, but no steps were taken to implement the plan. Taha’s statements are verified by an MSA official, who required anonymity. The official said that the collection of the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Bab Al-Khalk was stored in the Ispenian Villa while the museum was under lengthy restoration. Some objects from this collection are now on display in the MIA while others were transported to MSA storage rooms in the Salaheddin Citadel.
Mokhtar Al-Kasabani, professor of Islamic monuments in the archaeology department at Cairo University, who was the MSA consultant for Islamic monuments during the Hawass tenure, also supports Taha’s statements. He says the house is an MSA property and should come under the new antiquities law and its amendments.
The empty 30 feddan plot neighbouring the Ispenian Villa is owned by former minister of tourism Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, who was willing to sell it to the MSA for a mega development project.
As a member of the committee who was in charge of the project, Kasabani said that the whole site in this prime area overlooking the Giza Plateau was earmarked to be transformed into a resort for tourists. It would include a small museum of Islamic art, a motel, bazaars selling replicas and souvenirs, a cafeteria and a bookstore for archaeology and art books. A parking area and a cinema would be also built as part of the complex. However, Kasabani said that regrettably the revolution had put the plan into jeopardy and it had been abandoned. The villa, he went on, was looted during the revolution and some of the mashrabeya and the mosaic fountain that once decorated the garden were missing.
“The current government and the MSA don’t care enough about Egypt’s history and its culture,” Kasabani told the Weekly. He added that a few months ago a contractor damaged the Ottoman warehouse and grist-mill of Madash-Merza in Boulaq Abul-Ela, and that even though he was caught red-handed he was set at large with a fine of only LE500. This contractor, he said, returned to Madash-Merza and resumed the demolition, and nobody moved a finger to save this great Ottoman monument, not even the MSA. Now he had built the first floor of his new building. What made things worse, Kasabani pointed out, was that all antiquities crimes were no longer prosecuted under the new antiquities law and its amendments which had priority on the court roll. Instead, they came under the usual criminal law, according to which a case can take years to be solved.
Kasabani suggests that to protect and rescue Egypt’s cultural and antiquities heritage, the MSA might be converted into an Independent Egyptian Authority affiliated directly to the president’s office rather than a ministry within the government echelon.
[the arcades in Muhammad Ali Street.]
By Joseph Ben Prestel
For many passers-by, the Southeastern edge of Ataba Square might be marked by the hustle and bustle from a myriad of shops selling electronic gear, household amenities, and other essential goods for everyday life. In this neighborhood with buildings packed densely next to each other, the view up Muhammad Ali Street is surprising. As if unimpressed by its crowded surroundings, the street runs for about two kilometers straight towards Sultan Hassan Mosque. Looking up from Ataba Square, the dome of the mosque is visible at the very end of the thoroughfare. This perspective bears witness to the building initiative that Cairo went through in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Khedive Ismail (1863-1879) ruled the country. Yet Muhammad Ali Street dodges the “Paris on the Nile” narrative often used by travelogues and guidebooks to describe this period. Instead, the street carries a multiplicity of meanings that have been attributed to the urban environment over time. Allusions to it associate the street with a range of topics, from nineteenth-century Paris to Egyptian folk music.
Construction of Muhammad Ali Street was completed between 1872 and 1874. The street was part of the large urban renewal program under Khedive Ismail, whose aim was described by his minister of public works Ali Mubarak as making “the streets and buildings ready for the expansion of trade, to align the cityscape to the prosperity of the country.” Whereas Ismail’s building spree focused mainly on new quarters of the city, such as Ismailiyya or the area around Bab al-Luq, Muhammad Ali Street was one of the few interventions in the old part of town. The street was designed to provide an important shortcut between the eastern and western parts of the city. Prior to its construction, Cairenes had to cross at least five other neighborhoods in order to get from the then thriving quarter of Azbakiyya to the citadel. After 1874, Muhammad Ali Street offered a direct connection between these two centers of urban life. With a width of twenty meters, the new thoroughfare meant a tremendous intrusion in an area in which streets had up until then not been wider than six meters. The project required cutting through two kilometers of densely populated neighborhoods. According to some statistics, the construction of the street resulted in the destruction or partial destruction of about 700 buildings. A few structures on Muhammad Ali Street still show traces of this process today. In order to make way for the new street, the front part of the fourteenth-century mosque of Qusun was destroyed. The remainder of the building, however, was left intact and only a new facade was added, leaving behind evidence of the demolition process. With its unique view, its arcades, and a boulevard-like width, Muhammad Ali Street represents to some scholars a prime example of the kind of intervention that urban historians associate with late-nineteenth-century Paris. To them, the street is merely a Cairo version of the famed Rue de Rivoli in the French capital. Often, such accounts deplore the present state of the street, implying that Muhammad Ali Street lost some of the grandeur it held in the past.
[Screen shot from the movie Sharia al-Hubb (1958), in which the street and its arcades are depicted.]
Yet the symbolism of the street was never reduced to a seemingly apparent allusion to Paris. Instead of turning into a mark of French-inspired urbanism, Muhammad Ali Street soon acquired an ambiguous reputation as a center of musical entertainment. As early as 1880, police reports warned that it attracted dubious women from the entertainment industry. At the same time, brass bands such as the Hasballah group started settling on the street. By the middle of the twentieth century, Muhammad Ali Street was well known as a center of Egyptian folk music. The street appeared in numerous cultural productions, such as the 1945 movie Sharia Muhammad Ali. In the 1958 blockbuster Sharia al-Hubb starring Abd al-Halim Hafez and Nagwa Fouad, the street serves as the backdrop for a story of social ascent. Through his musical talent, the poor Abd al-Munem finds his way to love and fortune, ultimately moving from Muhammad Ali Street to the opera house. The movie, which opens with a long shot of the street, exhibits Muhammad Ali Street as the place where musicians live, gather, and are contacted by potential customers, such as the hyped-up foreigner “Christo” who hires Abd al-Munem to teach music at a club for young ladies. According to studies on female dancers in Egypt, the entertainment industry on the street began to decline in the 1970s. Yet scholars were still referring to the street as a center of folk music into the 1990s. In his Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt, Walter Armbrust wrote: “Muhammad ‘Ali Street is famed as the street of traditional entertainers. Even today, when most of the entertainment business has moved to Pyramids Road in Giza, or other newer glitzier neighborhoods, Muhammad ‘Ali Street is thick with shops selling lutes and other musical instruments.” The number of music shops might have dwindled further since the publication of Armbrust’s book in 1996, but the name still conjures images of Egyptian folk music. Three years ago, a Cairo-based TV station produced a program teaching belly dance under the title Sharia Muhammad Ali.
It might be a telling irony that this street, which some historians like to refer to as Cairo’s Rue de Rivoli, is popularly known as a center of Egyptian folk music, thus linking characters as diverse as Eugène Haussmann and Nagwa Fouad. To the superficial observer, none of these references are immediately apparent. Today, Muhammad Ali Street is packed with furniture shops. Rather than recalling lutes or nineteenth-century Paris, it appears more like a place where you would buy an armchair along with a three-piece suit. Looking at Muhammad Ali Street from different historical perspectives illustrates that there is more to the streets of Cairo than meets the eye. Instead of one essential meaning, its history reflects the multi-layered symbolism attached to streets, squares, or buildings. Despite the intentions of political groups or planners, the meaning of these urban spaces can hardly be fixed.
One of the corners of the recently restored historic pavilion of Mohamed Ali in Shubra, has collapsed. A 55 million Egyptian Pound ($9 million) restoration took place 7 years ago and the building was “reopened” to much fanfare. In reality the “restoration” was a botched job using cheap materials (including low quality paint) and utilizing the services of contractors inexperienced in historic preservation/conservation. The Ministries of Antiquity and Culture both have a dismal record when it comes to successful restoration work and have failed to protect much of Egypt’s heritage under their auspices. Often “restoration” projects such as this become excuses for public funds to be squandered by officials, consultants and construction firms. A recent fiasco at Ministerli Palace in Manial revealed how corrupt the system is when scaffolding was put up, closing the palace for years, only to be removed after the beginning of the revolution revealing that no work had been conducted.
It is important to note that in 2009, after the pavilion “restoration,” rare paintings of members of the Mohamed Ali family were stolen from the Shubra Pavilion and the incident received nearly no press coverage and no officials were held responsible. This predates the theft of the Van Gogh painting from another Ministry of Culture museum in 2010.
The Mohamed Ali Shubra Pavilion is a unique structure combining late Ottoman, French and Italian as well as Egyptian influences in its odd design centered around a pool with an island and seating areas around its perimeter.The square building was a separate structure built in 1820 near a Shubra Palace which was built in 1912 by architect Pascal Coste and which was located along the Nile in Shubra and had been destroyed by its owner in the 1930s. Samir Raafat has the complete story:
Marveled by all who visited it during his reign, Mohammed Ali’s Shubra Pavilion consists of an artificial marble-lined pool with as a whimsical centerpiece, an elaborate octagonal Carrara marble balustrade surrounding a fountain-islet sporting marble statuettes; the whole resting atop 24 raised marble crocodiles spraying water out of their menacing jaws.
Surrounding the pool is a raised wide square gallery fronted by moresque wrap-around veranda with 104 slender load-bearing bronze-based marble colonnades.
Overlooking the pool from the interior of the gallery are 112 low-lying windows with bronze railings.
The gallery built in wood and plaster has four corner salons (diwans or kiosks). As though standing sentinel on these salons are four water-spouting marble lions.
Not unlike the interiors of contemporary palaces built in the Citadel complex including the Bijoux Palace (1814), the Harem Palace built in 1827 (now military museum) and the Daftarkhana (1828), the Shubra palace and its annexes included a melange of styles ranging from faux oriental to gaudy European.
[The central pool area of the pavilion, the corner which collapsed is one of the four partial dome structures such as the one shown in the background of this image]
[to see the pavilion in action, click on the above screen shot to watch a scene from the film Cairo 30, which depicts a party taking place in the pavilion in the early part of the twentieth century]
Although the collapse took place around July 2012 news of the disaster has been muted. An investigative report was published by Al Ahram months later and another critical piecewas posted on the news site Masress. More recently the story was published in the heritage news section of Al-Rawi, Egypt’s heritage review magazine.
The piece posted on Masress is particularly important because it puts the Shubra disaster in within a larger context of corruption by officials in the ministries of culture and antiquities.
د. عبد الفتاح البنا الأستاذ بكلية الآثار جامعة القاهرة يري أن انهيار احدي القباب التي تغطي أحد القاعات الركنية بسرايا الفسقية بقصر محمد علي بشبرا بعد أقل من 6 سنوات من استلام القصر من مقاول الترميم بتكلفة معلنة 55 مليون جنيه يضاف إليهم ماهو غير معلن من أعمال تكميلية قد تتخطى هذا الرقم، هي بمثابة كارثة ولن تكون الحادث الوحيد بل سيتكرر ذلك كثيرا ولن ننسي منذ أربعة أشهر ما جري لشارع المعز لدين الله الفاطمي الذي غرقت آثاره في “المجاري” وكم السرقات التي تحدث جهارا نهارا لوحدات أثرية بالمساجد والدور والأسبلة الإسلامية وكل هذا يجعلنا في إطار حملتنا ضد الفساد في الآثار بصدد فتح ملف مشروعات ترميم الآثار خاصة ما كان في حوزة السجين “أيمن عبد المنعم” وزملائه سواء من سجن معه أومن هم مازالوا طلقاء لم تقتص منهم العدالة حتى وقتنا هذا !! لاسيما وأن حواس وغيره تغنوا بإنجازاتهم المزيفة في وقت كان الفساد والزيف هو السمة السائدة.
صندوق التنمية الثقافية أو “مغارة على بابا ” في وزارة الثقافة كما يطلق عليه د. عبد الفتاح البنا، كان يتولاه أيمن عبد المنعم، هذا الشاب اليافع الذي تحول لمليونير خلال سنوات قليلة، ويتردد أن الشركة التي اتهم بتقاضي رشوة منها بأعمال الديكورات فيها وتأثيثها بأثاث جيد، شمل قطعا من السجاد الإيراني وتحفا نفيسة، هو كان المسئول عن مشروع تطوير القاهرة التاريخية، ورسميا تولى أيمن عبد المنعم إدارة صندوق التنمية الثقافية الذي يسمونه بالإضافة إلى أكثر من 10 مشروعات أثرية أخرى.
Last January the Gezira Art Center hosted an exhibition and a series of events about architect Hassan Fathy and his work. Hassan Fathy is perhaps Egypt’s most renowned architect from the 20th century, but why?
The exhibition was beautifully curated and organized with images, text, models, video projection, as well as samples of Fathy’s mud bricks, the most essential element of his constructions. Fathy’s 1945 housing project for the relocation of the village of Gourna in Luxor was his most famous and internationally renowned project. The village which has fallen into disrepair (watch video above) is currently the focus of a UNESCO rehabilitation and documentation project. Gourna was not a project free of controversy nor was it a success, at least for the intended inhabitants of the village. Fathy left no mark on Egypt’s urban centers: Cairo and Alexandria don’t have examples of Fathy’s architecture (with the exception of a mausoleum and few private homes), his ideas printed in his “Gourna, tale of two villages” (later published by the Chicago University Press with the condescending title “Architecture for the poor”) have failed to produce any practical solutions for Egypt’s urban and housing problems. Despite this underwhelming record, Fathy’s oeuvre is celebrated in the West as an example of “other/vernacular modernism” and is celebrated in Egypt mostly by his students as authentic modernity/spirited continuity with the past.
It is difficult to fully comprehend why Hassan Fathy overshadows his contemporaries who had successful practices, built many buildings and engaged in current discourses (Ali Labib Gabr, Antoine Selim Nahas, Mahmoud Riad). Fathy also overshadows his colleague Ramses Wissa Wassef (who like Fathy engaged with the question of vernacular architecture and perhaps was more successful in balancing modern practicality with vernacular identity without falling in the trap of essentialism). Finally, one of Egypt’s most influential architects of the modern period, Mustafa Fahmy, will never make an appearance in a Western curriculum of the history of modern architecture nor in an Egyptian exhibit, yet Hassan Fathy might. How can this selective celebration of a figure with little impact on his community and profession be explained?
The legend, the myths
Fathy had interesting ideas about architecture, there is no denying this fact. But he wasn’t the only one with interesting ideas in 20th century Egyptian architecture. Fathy had a strong following of students, particularly in the 1970s when the notion of vernacular modernism was emerging in Western academia coinciding with proclamations of the failure/death of high-modernism along with the birth of post-modernism. Egypt, like many countries, particularly those who had recently experienced heavy-handed state-led development in post-revolution or post-independence “third world” societies, experienced high-modernism withdrawal.
Over the past couple of decades there have been numerous articles keeping the memory of Hassan Fathy alive. Nearly every six months there is a new piece regurgitating a long list of myths and stereotypes about Fathy as the ONLY architect worth remembering, as a founder of green-environmentally friendly architecture in Egypt, as the symbol of authenticity and culturally sensitive design, and as the humble architect who worked with people to realize his designs.
[“An empty village like the tombs of the pharaohs and its called Gourna” from the popular magazine al-Musawwar, 1961. Note Hassan Fathy’s name isn’t mentioned, it only mentions “built by the state in 1945.”]
In a nutshell, the standard narrative, as stated in this 1999 discussion of Fathy’s legacy, argues the following “”The “modern movement” in the West, which aimed to use new architectural materials and technology to improve the life of the ordinary city-dweller, had foundered on aggressive stylistic innovation and an arrogant disregard of the past; Fathy showed how social needs could be met using familiar, vernacular styles, materials and techniques, and with the participation of the “consumer.” However, I have some reservations on nearly all of the points made here:
1) I find it extremely dated and naive to look through a narrow perspective at twentieth century architectural development and continue to argue that “the modern movement” was an exclusively “western” endeavor. Architects around the world, including Egypt, engaged in practices that responded to common developments and problems such as the availability of new materials and technologies and the pressing issues of urban areas particularly the need for housing. These were not “western” problems and in finding solutions, professionals across the world dealt with those concerns using the latest accessible designs and approaches. This is the 20th century and the world is to a large extent connected via new media and communications. Thus to expect a solution to modern urban problems in Egypt (or any other non-western country) to be drastically different from say Italy, Spain or France is to accept racist and orientalist notions that the non-western other is essentially non-modern (or their modern must be a different kind, more primitive modern), otherwise a pragmatic concrete housing block in Africa designed by a local architect using locally produced materials is at best viewed as “western.”
2) The claim that Hassan Fathy used “familiar vernacular” architectural language is far from the truth. Domed architecture in upper Egypt is funerary, not residential/domestic, hence the refusal of such form by villagers. Similarly, the claim that his materials and techniques were familiar and local goes against Fathy’s own description of the process of instructing builders how to create his mud brick and the many repeated attempts to perfect building his domes. This was instructed architecture as were the modernist designs he distanced himself from. Had this been truly vernacular, then the presence of an architect arriving from the urban capital hundreds of miles away should have been unnecessary. Fathy’s domes for domestic space were not traditional, rather they were an “invented tradition.”
3) The claim that “consumers” of Fathy’s spaces “participated” in the making of the architecture negates the stark difference of position between Fathy, as the knowledgeable professional, and the builders/villagers/dwellers as recipients of his expertise. In fact, the extent of participation was clearly defined along that line of expert vs receiver of expertise and Fathy is even documented in photographs, including one shown at the exhibition last year where he is clearly instructing, standing over builders, rather than the image propagated about the architect as working with, as equal, learning from as well as teaching the builders.
The other myth perpetuated about Hassan Fathy is that his architecture represents the “continuity of Islamic architecture,” an argument forming the spine of Ahmad Hamid’s 2010 book Hassan Fathy and Continuity in Islamic Art and Architecture: The Birth of a New Modern. In this book, Ahmad Hamid positions Hassan Fathy in relation to a long tradition of Islamic Architecture as well as in relation to the advent of twentieth century modernism. The book focuses on Hassan Fathy as “a condenser of an older intelligence” (45) and as an agent of reviving and creating anew an architectural practice that is connected with the essence of an Islamic architectural tradition.
I would argue that Fathy’s architecture is premised not on the continuity of a particular tradition, Islamic or otherwise, but rather as a reactionary response to modernism as a style and a project. In this sense his architecture is less about authenticity and more about romanticism, not unlike European architects and critics of the 19th century who reacted against new concepts of architecture by resorting to primitivism and revivalism.
[Streets in the Habous Quartier in Casablanca, Morocco built by French colonial architects in the 1930s in a madina-like “vernacular” mode for native, working and middle classes in contrast with the modern town center for European and upper classes]
Also, Fathy’s most famous project, New Gourna, is for me less of “architecture for the poor” than it is a colonial project. Not colonial in the sense of foreignness, but in the approaches and techniques of imposing on a local population the vision of an architect coming from the capital commissioned by a central state to build following state orders, rather than following the desires of the locals. In other words, the residents of Gourna did not commission Fathy nor did they seek his services. New Gourna brings to mind Habous Quartier in colonial Casablanca, a district built in the 1930s by French “experts” for the “native” population using what the French must have thought of as “vernacular” madina architecture.
[the 1964 film الجبل “The Mountain” is inspired by the story of Gourna and features an architect trying to relocate villagers away from the mountain where artifacts have been found. Scenes were filmed in New Gourna]
Vernaculars old and new
Hassan Fathy was certainly an architect who belonged to a particular moment in the twentieth century along with his contemporaries in Egypt, India and elsewhere who reacted to concrete and increasingly standardized architecture of the twentieth century. However, the pompous celebrations, flowery descriptions, selective admiration of Fathy in the last several decades since his international recognition in the 1970s has had negative consequences. Somehow the celebration of Fathy came at the expense of recognizing other architects from twentieth century Egypt, particularly the modernists. By promoting the legacy of Fathy the notion that Egypt’s modernists were merely copycats with little contribution of their own to Egyptian architecture or modern architecture in general has been fully ingrained and accepted. Additionally, the perpetuation of Fathy’s romantic ideals has failed to confront the realities in which we live: that his ideas and concepts fail to respond to the mass need for housing, and that his rejection of concrete and modern materials has not been heeded by the poor for whom he claimed to design.
Since Fathy’s 1940s experiment and 1960s book about that experiment, a new vernacular has emerged, one which academics, architects and casual observers continue to negate and choose to ignore. Egypt’s vernacular, what the masses are actually building and without the services of architects (architecture without architects) is reinforced concrete and red brick and it is eating up the country. The refusal of architects to work with this reality to theorize and conceptualize new approaches that accommodate the needs of communities and the available (not the most sustainable) materials has delayed the potential for something interesting to be created here. While some continue to dust off the figure of Hassan Fathy on the pedestal, millions of square meters of concrete and red brick are rising around Egypt, from the center of the capital to the rural outskirts and small villages. While Hassan Fathy’s “architecture for the poor” is exhibited in the posh district of Zamalek, the poor have been building in what is closer to Le Corbusier’s domino house than Fathy’s mud brick domed village houses. Pragmatism rather than identity-driven reactionary nostalgia is what drives the poor in how they build.
[Le Corbusier’s domino house, a basic structure using concrete slabs and minimal support]
Fathy’s reaction to modernism as a style was to create a style of his own, the poor however are not concerned with style as much as they are with shelter. For now Fathy’s legacy is retained in the rural “Hassan Fathy Style” houses for the urban rich designed by his students. And that is fine. But the rest of the profession must move on and confront the red brick and concrete and offer new solutions and designs that could be adapted by the masses to maximize the utility and sustainability of Egypt’s new vernacular, before it is too late.
Hassan Fathy and the Identity Debate, Nasser Rabbat
Heritage and Violence, Timothy Mitchell
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 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.
“An artist’s work is no longer of much use in modern society. Exhibitions in art galleries are visited by people as social events, like race meetings or cocktail parties. Basically, art is dying in the twentieth century because it has been torn as under from daily life. It has become part of the trade in rare, expensive luxuries, or else it is cast aside. It undergoes all day to day caprices of fashion and gains attention by being provocative or sensational, or even by making use of drugs. And then the works that have won fame, or notoriety, are put into museums to be admired” -Ramses Wissa Wassef, Woven by Hand.
Ramses Wissa Wassef (1911-1974) is the architect who best conceptualized and designed modern houses adapted from rural vernacular architecture in Egypt. His architecture is a direct result of his involvement with the social and cultural contexts that inspired him in the first place and the context in which he designed. Unlike Hassan Fathy, who was celebrated first in the West and later in Egypt and the Arab region for his mud brick architecture, RWW worked closely with people as partners, not as recipients of his wisdom. The legacy of Ramses Wissa Wassef lives on despite the lack of academic attention, particularly from the West (in contrast to Hassan Fathy) because of the humanist approach of his design process. The inhabitants and users of his buildings today praise RWW and share fond memories of their time with him as a member of the community. His architecture oeuvre is not limited to the domed village houses and includes private villas, public buildings and churches.
Below is a brief biography provided by Archnet.org
Ramses Wissa Wassef was an Egyptian architect and educator. He earned his BA degree from the Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1935. His graduation project “A potter’s house in Old Cairo ” received the first prize by the examination board. Upon returning to Cairo, in 1938, he was nominated as a professor of art and history of architecture in the college of Fine Arts in Cairo.
“One cannot separate beauty from utility, the form from the material, the work from its function, man from his creative art.”
In 1951, Ramses Wissa Wassef embarked upon an experiment in creativity which would become universally acclaimed. He set out to prove that creativity was innate — that anyone could produce art. He had become discouraged by the general decline of creativity in 20th century urban culture and dismayed by the deadening influence of mass production. He felt that routine education was stifling. For his experiment he chose uninhibited, free-spirited young children who were isolated from many aspects of modern civilization.
Wassef saw that the “modern architectural revolution”, which had hit Cairo, was producing a multiplicity of buildings constructed without any sense of aesthetics but rather for their fast rentability. From this point on, Wassef was firmly resolved to never sacrifice his artistic vision for current trends of construction.
For a list of buildings by Ramses Wissa Wassef along with a selections of related articles on the architect provided by Archnet.org, click here.
[Villagers of Haraneya outside of Cairo speak of their experience living and working with Ramses Wissa Wassef and his efforts to establish a the center for Egyptian tapestry. Video by Omnia Khalil & Tarek Waly]
Two recent exhibitions celebrated RWW, the first was hosted at the American University in Cairo’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library (February 2012) and the second was hosted at the Palace of the Arts – Cairo Opera House site, Zamalek (November 2012).
For further information, here are some useful links:
Built in the 1930’s, Cinema Radio is located on Talaat Harb St. (formally Soliman Pasha St.), the most frequently visited street in Downtown Cairo. The building is composed of two main elements: an office building fronting the street and a cinema reached through a passage. The office building is made up of over 120 rooms and the cinema building (originally one large cinema hall with Cairo’s largest screen which was later split into two separate levels) now hosts a cinema and a theater, each 1,500 sqm, which are both currently vacant. The passageway runs through the office building leading to the cinema, with commercial space lined on both sides. During the glory days of Downtown, Cinema Radio premiered Egypt’s most prominent movies and was frequently visited by the affluent society of Egypt.
No this is not about “westernization” or inauthentically copying some European monopoly on 20th century modernity. The cinema was among a series of large movie houses built all around Egyptian cities by Egyptian private investors who have built a great deal of wealth since the early 1920s following the 1919 revolution and the establishment of Egyptian financial institutions such as Bank Misr and its companies including Misr Studio (for film production). This was the golden age of Egyptian cinema and these deco movie houses were the spatial manifestation of that new form of public sphere, one that is rooted in the 20th century (the spirit of the time, zeitgeist) and not in the spirit of Europe as Eurocentrists propagate.
As the film industry suffered, the former capitalist elite was eradicated after the early 1960s nationalization of private wealth, the buildings that stood as testament of a vibrant private sector economy (office buildings) and active film industry (the large screen of Cinema Radio) deteriorated and were later occupied by new tenets who tried to use the space in ways that accommodated their needs. The building is emblematic of the disappearance of downtown’s prestigious status which is a story not unique to Cairo but one which can be found in downtowns all across the world from European capitals such as Lisbon to North European cities such as Detroit. Regeneration of these downtowns is a controversial proposition and is challenging.
The challenge: What to do with real estate which was built to fit a particular economic strata and architecturally and spatially reflects a level of grandeur? The other aspect is the historical value of this real estate, these buildings are not abstract square footage. This real estate has the additional value of heritage and history and acts as testament of Egyptian modernity and historical development. Losing this real estate is akin to losing the documents, the evidence and facts on the ground that showcase Egypt’s 20th century modernity IN SPITE OF colonialism not because of it.
Some have imposed a western-centric leftist critique of the idea of regenerating downtown Cairo. In western capitals, built with the wealth generated from two hundred years of colonialism, slavery and exploitation, the discourse of preservation is a right wing one. Rightly so anti-gentrification movements represent resistance to such approaches to urban development. However I would argue that this perspective is not universal and should not be applied wholesale outside the context of western metropolitan centers, particularly European capitals. In the Egyptian context, reviving a history of modern Egypt, spot lighting it and making it accessible to a wider Egyptian and visiting public could have the potential of resisting colonial and neocolonial narratives about Egyptian inferiority and “failed modernization.” This is a debate for another post.
[Video: Al-Ismaelia’s Karim Shafei takes al-Masry al-Youm on a tour of Cinema Radio]
Cinema Radio should be seen in this context. It is currently owned by Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investments and the company intends to bring the building back to life in its efforts to invest in downtown. The building had been largely vacant, like many downtown buildings and the company was able to reach deals with former tenents and buy the property. The property is challenging however because of the vast scale of the cinema which as I said above reflected a much more vibrant film industry in Egypt. Today it would be impossible to fill such a hall for film screenings everyday and therefore it will be difficult to be financially sustainable. The necessary approach is to think outside the box which led to a recent deal struck with the popular TV program El Barnameg to film its shows in front of a live audience using the theater space.
[Video: Teaser promo for Season 2 of El Bernameg TV show featuring Cinema Radio]
This intervention should be the first step in a longer process of renovation and revitalization that will utilize the office building as well as the commercial spaces in the passageway leading to the cinema. Architect Hassan Abouseda has created some preliminary proposals for the building’s revival featured on his website.
[Cinema Radio facade of the office building facing Talaat Harb Street with passage in the center leading to the cinema in the back. Before and after renovation image from Hassan Abouseda architects]
[Current state of the Cinema facade showing the original understated modernist 1930s facade and additional adjustments added by the previous owner, which will be removed during renovation]
[Interior of the cinema space, the upper tier, which sits above the theater space on the level below]
King Farouk built several rest houses/retreats for himself in 1940s. The most notable, and perhaps most audacious is the house built directly at the base of the great pyramid by palace architect Mustafa Fahmy. Another house from the period is on the Nile at Helwan.
[Farouk’s Helwan house was featured in Egyptair’s in flight magazine last November.]
Built in 1942, the house was designed as an intimate family residence, an escape from plush palace life. The house is set along the Nile near Helwan, the southern suburb developed early in the 20th century as a retreat boasting gardens, including the Japanese garden, and mineral baths. The house had been maintained as a museum open to the public. However, like many of Cairo’s museums pertaining to modern heritage it has been inaccessible and when last visited in November 2011 the grounds were occupied by military personnel who seemed to be based in the once royal residence.
Fahmy’s design for the house is restrained, cubic and modern with nautical references particularly on the Nile-facing facade. Set in a garden, the house is accessible from the Nile directly via two docks designed to receive King Farouk’s yacht.
The interior is intimate and decorated with pharaonic-inspired wooden furniture along with other styles. Replicas of furniture found in the Tutankhamen tomb in the 1920s are on display. Both the Giza and the Helwan houses, designed by Fahmy, respond to the royal family’s interest in Ancient Egyptian design motifs in different ways. While Helwan’s is modernist in inspiration with the ancient references retreating to decorative elements, Giza’s is more exuberant with its ancient inspiration due to its location. Helwan’s royal retreat has been restored but was inaccessible when last visited. Farouk’s rest at Giza however has been abandoned and is in need for restoration and could easily be given a new function. Both these houses are part of Cairo’s modern urban heritage and recent history and should be put on the tourist map and promoted to be used by locals, particularly the Nile-side garden at the Helwan house.
[Farouk rest house at the base of the Great Pyramid at Giza, designed by Mustafa Fahmy and built in 1946.]
In 2009 the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale in Cairo published a two-volume book by Istvan Ormos on the life and career of an important figure in modern Egyptian history and Cairo’s history: Max Herz Pasha.
Max Herz “was born in Hungary, studied in Hungary and Austria, spent his active life in Egypt, died in Switzerland and is buried in Italy.” Ormos’ extensive research pieces together the life and career of this exceptional personality so central to the study, conservation and documentation of Islamic and Coptic architectural heritage in Cairo following his first visit to Egypt in 1880.
In 1881 Herz was employed as a draftsman by Franz Pasha, the director of the Technical Office of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Waqf) and was later appointed as engineer. Herz subsequently held several positions including director of the Arab Museum in 1892 (Islamic Art Museum) and in 1901 became director of the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe. Throughout his career in Egyptian civil service Herz developed a reputation that led him to being honored with the title Bey in 1895 and later Pasha in 1912.
From the middle of the 19th century Cairo was undergoing mass modernization efforts and the Ministry of Public Works sought to improve the hygiene and safety of the city. In some cases this called for the demolition of historic buildings and monuments because they were structurally unstable (and therefore posed a safety threat to communities). What is important to remember here, and this is something the author explains at some length, is that the decision to demolish buildings that posed a threat even if they are several hundred years old, reveals a different conception of urban memory. The concept of “monument,” the author tells us, was a recent European conception where buildings were seen as carriers of memory. There are ancient monuments in Egypt that belong to past civilization and which were not part of daily life in the 19th century, such as the ancient temples or pyramids for example. However, in Cairo antique buildings, from the medieval period for example, were lived and used in daily life, unlike monuments of a more distant past. Therefore the concept of preserving buildings that may be posing a threat or are no longer fulfilling their functions, or are in the way of modernizing urban projects was relatively new. Hence the significance of Herz Pasha in saving many of Cairo’s ailing historic buildings by restoring and rebuilding, in addition to documenting and studying buildings that would have been erased by turn-of-the-century modernizers (as happened in many European capitals earlier).
[Left: The central court of the Maridani mosque after restoration; Right: same space before restoration]
[Left: Aqmar mosque facade in 1901; Right: Aqmar mosque facade after restoration]
Take for example the minarets above the famous Bab Zuwayla. What we see today is in fact the product of restoration and rebuilding supervised by Herz Pasha. Until the 1890s the tops of the minarets had been destroyed. Another example is the Aqmar Mosque (1125) which was reconstructed with particular attention given to the facade, which was later replicated in the Coptic Museum. St Mercury’s church (known as Abu l-Sayfayn), St Sergius (Abu Sarga), St Barbara (Sitt Burbara) are among the Coptic monuments restored under his supervision. The Maridani Mosque (1340) was in ruins before the Comité team arrived and rebuilt it. Sultan Barquq complex, Al-Azhar and many other mosques around the city were restored under the helm of Herz but his most significant work was on the Sultan Hassan Mosque (1356), Cairo’s iconic Mamluk monument for which he produced a monograph in 1899. Furthermore, many buildings lining the historic and now popular Muiz Street were missing domes, minarets or were near collapse due to the rise of the water table under that part of the city, however what we see today is in fact largely due to the works of restoration carried out a century ago by Max Herz. In addition to works of restoration Herz also designed several buildings and completed the architectural design of the Refai Mosque, Cairo’s royal mosque, after work had been interrupted for several decades and its original architect, Husayn Pasha Fahmi, had died.
[Left: Bab Zuwayla with minarets of al-Muayyad mosque in 1892. Sometime between 1860 and 1890 the tops of the minarets collapsed. Restoration of the mosque had already begun long before Herz appeared on the scene; Right: minarets after rebuilding as seen in a 1920s postcard. The minarets were rebuilt while Herz was in charge of the project.]
[Left: Rifai mosque before the resumption of work in 1906, Right: Rifai mosque in the 1930s with new minarets and dome designed by Herz.]
Herz was spending the summer of 1914 in Europe when WWI broke out. The British occupying forces in Egypt expelled all officials of Austro-Hungarian origins. Upon his return to Egypt in October 1914, British officials forced him into retirement and demanded he leave the country. The European war had direct repercussions on Egypt as the British interfered directly into Egyptian affairs and even deposed Egypt’s ruler Abbas Helmi who was in Istanbul on official visit and was not allowed to return. Herz Pasha left Egypt before the end of 1914, his family awaited him in Italy but in 1919 he went to Zürich for treatment and died during an operation. He is buried in Milan at the Cimitero Monumentale.
Arguably after Herz Pasha’s sudden departure the Comité and by extension the preservation of Islamic and Coptic monuments, which as a field developed almost entirely under his helm, were no longer the same. Although the Comité was not disbanded immediately, its budget was severely cut and no head architect comparable to Herz Pasha’s expertise headed the organization thereafter until it was officially inactive in 1953.
[Top floor of the Railway Museum photographed in 2009, before renovation]
[The museum in 2012, note the removal of the original 1930s light fixtures, as well as the removal of the original floor tiles which were in near perfect condition.]
In 1933 Egypt hosted the international railway conference. Egypt’s national railway history goes back to 1854 when Alexandria was linked to Cairo. Muhammad Ali had initially planned earlier in the 1830s to link Cairo with Suez but those plans were not realized. By 1933 Egypt was already celebrating nearly 80 years since the inauguration of the Cairo-Alexandria railway line. The museum, established for the occasion of Egypt hosting the 1933 conference, was the first of its kind not only in the region but in the world (Britain didn’t get its railway museum until 1975).
The museum consisted of two floors in a building attached to Cairo’s main train station at the end of platform 1. The bottom floor contained 3 restored steam locomotives and royal train cars in addition to models depicting railway networks. The top floor housed a large collection of photographs, posters, adverts, and architectural models of various train stations across the country such as Alexandria’s, Tanta’s among others. The museum also had a library and documents kept in bookcases out of public reach but potentially available to researchers. Other documents were put on display such as the letters between Khedive Abbas and Robert Stephenson about the construction of the Cairo-Alexandria line. This museum is not only of national significance but also significant in the history of railways worldwide.
Not only did the museum beautifully document and illustrate the history of the railways in Egypt from the mid 19th century well into the 1960s but it also displayed items pertaining to urban rail transport and aviation. Urban trams in Alexandria and Cairo were well documented in addition to the early years of Egyptian aviation.
[architectural model of the Tanta train station built at the turn of the century. The model is built for the museum in the early 1930s]
The museum was built by a state and railway company that were proud of Egypt’s railway history and sought to document and exhibit the company’s accomplishments. Alas, since the 1970s the museum fell out of the picture as local tourism dwindled and international tourism was directed away from sites that document Egypt’s modern advances and towards Egypt’s ancient history. The museum, like many others such as the postal and natural history museums, was frozen in time, preserved as an antique curiosity. It was still there at the end of platform 1 for anyone who wanted to see it until last year when the railway company decided to renovate the station.
The museum was ignored, forgotten and unmaintained but at least it was still there. In 2010 when train and railway enthusiasts complained about the conditions of the museum, the railway company decided to renovate the museum along with its renovation of the station. This has led to the overnight disappearance of this wonderful time capsule as the contents of the museum were removed to an unknown location, the original lighting from the 1930s seen in the picture above (installed at the tops and middle of the columns) was removed and air vents were installed on the ceiling which was painted a dark gray color. The beautiful and once perfectly intact original 1930s floor tiles were removed. Since then there has been no progress in the construction and renovation of this museum.
The questionable renovation of the station is already problematic because it altered the aesthetics of the station’s architecture rather than actually improve services. In addition the quality of the renovation construction work is embarrassingly off. Although it was opened last year, the station still looks like a work in progress with many of the building’s sections incomplete, and parts which are completed already look like they need a renovation. In this context the fate of the Railway Museum is not looking good. It is still unclear what the plan is for the museum, if professionals in museology are involved (doubtful), if historians are involved (doubtful) and if the unique collection is safe.
The railways have had a significant impact on the development of Egyptian national culture, economy, society and identity. Moreover, Egypt’s network being the first in Africa and the Middle East and one of the earliest national railway networks (not colonial, such as Pakistan or India) internationally makes it of major significance to the history of railways in general. The loss of this treasured museum which was fully intact until recently is a national catastrophe. This museum was taken apart by a decision from the heads of the railway company, the same heads who agreed to allow the disaster of a renovation that ruined the historic character of the capital’s main train station. If the country wasn’t experiencing so many other tragedies this story should have been a scandal as it underlines the problems with how Egyptian public institutions are managed but also how low Egypt’s cultural management has gone and further how Egypt’s modern history is being erased.
There is no set date for the museum’s reopening.
Al-Aqmar Mosque on Muizz Street is a small but not to be missed building. The original building dates from 1125 making it among Cairo’s oldest mosques. The building is notable for its symmetrical facade with the sunburst arch motif above the threshold at the center. It is also a notable example of the negotiation found in many of Cairo’s early mosques where the building negotiates the direction of the street, its immediate and worldly context, and the direction of Mecca, distant sacred context. The center of the mosque is a small 10-meter open court surrounded by roofed and semi-interior space.
[Aqmar Mosque plan, via archnet.org]
However what we are looking at is not a building from 1125, rather this is a 19th century reconstruction of the original twelfth century edifice. The Comite, founded in 1881, and tasked with the conservation and documentation of Egypt’s “Arab heritage” undertook this reconstruction project soon after it was formed. The mosque had been heavily damaged and what was left by the time the Comite members arrived on the site was a pile of stone, brick and timber with some parts still standing but others, such as the facade were entirely destroyed.
To rebuild this facade the members of the Comite had to closely study the site, document and collect fragments as well as study the building’s physical and historical contexts. This is a scientific engagement with the past. Based on these studies the facade (and the building) was reconstructed using new but similar technique to the original (brick walls and stone facing).
Of course the Comite which was composed of a diverse group of Europeans and Egyptians, had its politics and interests in the past. The Comite was formed by a decree from Khedive Tawfiq in an effort to piece together Egypt’s past, document it and narrate it. The Mamluke buildings received particular attention and the royal family adopted neo-Mamluke for many of its new buildings built at the end of the 19th century. In fact, these categories of “Mamluk” and “Fatimid” were created as part of this effort to categorize the past.
What interests me here for the purpose of this post is how this particular facade is replicated in the building of a new edifice across Cairo only a short time later. Al-Aqmar facade was rebuilt once more, this time in a new location, with minor decorative adjustments, and using all new materials in the construction of Cairo’s Coptic Museum in 1910.
The museum was founded by Markus Simaika after the approval of the Coptic Church. This was one of four museums established from the end of the 19th century and early 20th which were aimed to categorize, collect and display Egyptian history into four discrete eras: Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic. The flaw of these categories is that same as the flaw with the architectural categories created for different eras of Islamic art, things simply aren’t that neatly discrete and I think Egypt particularly with its diverse cultural history presents a serious challenge to such constructions of historical eras which are supposed to be associated with aesthetics, architecture and art of their own and not shared by others.
In any case, the Coptic Museum was the first attempt to collect and gather fragments from Coptic history from throughout the country and assemble them for public access in one institution in Cairo. The replica of the Aqmar facade was done by Italian architect Achille Patricolo (Italian, Catholic), who worked under the supervision of Max Hertz Pasha (a Hungarian Jew who was in charge of the Comite- tasked with the conservation of Islamic architecture). There hasn’t been research done on why exactly should the Coptic Museum have a facade that is a reproduction of a Fatimid mosque (from the early days of Islam in Egypt). Although some readings of this design choice by Simaika and the architects have suggested that it was a stylistic choice by Simaika to counter the Comite’s focus on Mamluk and its revival and adaptation by members of the royal family. There is no evidence to support this claim. I would like to offer a less sectarian reading of the choice to reproduce the facade.
As I tried to allude to above the team behind the building of the Coptic Museum was very diverse, nationally and religiously. The same goes for the Comite in general. I argue that what was celebrated in the Coptic Museum with Simaika’s approval of replicating the facade of Aqmar mosque was not the facade’s Fatimid Islamic identity but rather it was the facade as a symbol of the triumph of modern social sciences, the tools which were necessary to turn a pile of stone into a recognizable and readable document of the past. Making the past readable was in fact the mission of creating a museum of Coptic history. I think the choice to replicate the facade was about its reconstruction’s significance at the turn of the twentieth century rather than having to do with the original facade’s significance as Fatimid in the twelfth century.
By 1924 some of the features of Aqmar were separated and elaborated upon by architects creating new buildings for different functions. Here is the sunburst arch (from above the portal in Aqmar mosque) altered, and placed above the portal of the Royal Automobile Club in downtown on Qasr el Nil Street. This time Aqmar’s facade has become a source of inspiration for an inventive attempt at creating a Cairo specific deco facade for a building with no religious association what so ever. This hasn’t stopped the architect from inserting the name of god in the center of the sunburst motif. The Automobile Club was a social club for the elite where the best brandy in town was served.
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]