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.
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.
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.
On the morning of 1 March, two historic and valuable pieces of embroidered cloth, Kiswa, hanging in the mausoleum of Khedive Tawfiq, were stolen. The Kiswa is a ceremonial decorated cloth, often with gold threads, offered by the Egyptian ruler to cover the Ka`ba in Mecca. The stolen objects, although have historical value, are not registered with the department of antiquities. The building from which the objects were stolen, however, is registered. The site is managed by the Awqaf Ministry. Such disputes between Awqaf and Anquitities authorities have been to blame for the loss of countless buildings and objects in the past. This theft was the third attempt by robbers. The first attempt to steal the objects was sometime in the late 1990s when a Saudi princess commissioned the theft. The ordeal was covered in a 2002 investigative report on Aljazeera. The princess was allowed to flee along with other historic objects without facing charges. There is no evidence if the same person who attempted to possess the items in the past is responsible for this theft.
The two historic Kiswas were restored in 2006 and 2008 along with the entire building in which they hang. The building is the mausoleum of Khedive Tawfiq known as Qubbat Afandina.
Click on the Cairobserver Map on the left panel to locate Qubbat Afandina on the eastern edge of the Northern Cemetery. The following brief introduction comes from architect Agnieszka Dobrowolska who conducted its restoration in 2008 with the support of the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo:
The mausoleum is located in the Eastern Cemetery, (qarafa al-sharqiya), sometimes also referred to as Northern Cemetery, a Mamluk necropolis. It stands in the south-eastern part of this section of the necropolis close to the mausoleum of the much venerated sheikh Afifi (Abdalla al-Manufi, died in 1348), so the whole area of the cemetery is popularly known as Afifi. The building is officially registered in the Supreme Council of Anitiquities list as Qubbat Afandina (Tomb of Our Lord).
The mausoleum was built in 1894 by the Khedive Abbas Hilmi in memory of his father Khedive Muhammad Tewfiq Pasha (born in 1852) who died on 7 January 1892. It was designed by Dimitri Fabricius in the neo-Mamluk style. It is an important example of architectural design which combined traditional Islamic motifs appropriate for the purpose and location of the building with the modern design principles of the time it was built.
[Above is the eastern facade after restoration and below is the interior before restoration.]
The conservation project was financed by the Ministry of Awqaf (pious foundations) through Prince Abbas Hilmi, the descendant of the royal family. This is one of the royal family tombs, the other notable one is in the Rifa`i Mosque. The project included the cleaning and treatment of the facades, treatment of domes and roof, conservation of woodwork, conservation of marble, conservation of metalwork, lighting, in addition to the conservation of the historic Kiswas which had been hanging in the building’s vestibule until they were stolen on 1 March, 2012.
As it is the case with other such buildings and sites, despite the excellent and extensive conservation work carried out by the team, the building is mis-managed by the state. Also, considering this is one of Egypt’s royal tombs it is nearly unknown to most Egyptians who are made ignorant of their own history and treasures. If this was a site visited regularly and known to Egyptians, that alone would have made the theft more difficult. The general public only hears about Egypt’s treasures after they are stolen (as was with the famous Van Gogh painting), burnt (as with the Institut d’Egypte), or destroyed (as with numerous and countless buildings). Every one of these incidents is a reminder of the failures of the state’s institutions (Ministry of Culture, Supreme Council of Antiquities, Awqaf Ministry among others).
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.
On January 17 the Sabil-Kuttab of the Ottoman Sultan Mustafa III was inagurated after extensive architectural conservation. The 18th century building was part of a network of charitable fountains where the public can access clear drinking water free of charge. This particular sabil is unique because its interior is decorated with nearly 2000 blue Dutch tiles showing scenes of Dutch countryside. The sabil is located across from the mosque of Cairo’s patron saint, Sayeda Zainab. The building is evidence of relations between the Netherlands and Egypt, or at least a Dutch trader and an Ottoman Cairene. The architect behind the project is Agnieszka Dobrowolska who was also responsible for the beautiful restoration of the Muhammad Ali Sabil on Mueiz Street.
The Sabil–Kuttab, a building combining a public water dispensary with a Quranic school, was erected in 1758–60 in the name of the Ottoman Sultan Mustafa III in the Sayida Zeinab district in Cairo. In 2008–2009, it was conserved through a project financed by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Egypt, affiliated with the Netherlands–Flemish Institute in Cairo, and carried out in cooperation with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. Read more, here.
The architect wrote about the restoration project:
The Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo, with funding from the Local Cultural Fund of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, carried out in 2008-2009 a conservation project to preserve this unusual example of cultural exchange between Egypt and the Netherlands. An experienced team of conservators directed by the architect Agnieszka Dobrowolska and working in cooperation with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities treated every part of the building, on which time had taken a heavy toll. The multicolor marble and carved limestone of the facades, painted and carved wooden ceilings and other decorative woodwork, elaborate cast bronze window grilles, marble mosaic pavements and wall-lining, and the Dutch wall tiles were all cleaned, consolidated, and protected throughout the building, and structural deficiencies were addressed. Read the full text, here.
AUC press published a book, The Sultan’s Fountain: An Imperial Story of Cairo, Istanbul, and Amsterdam, documenting the history of the building, its builder, and the restoration process.
After two years of renovation work, this weekend the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo celebrates the completion of work on the upgraded facilities. The Institute was founded in 1971 as a hub for cultural exchange as well as teaching and research particularly in the fields of Arabic & Islamic studies, Egyptology, Archaeology and Papyrology, among others. Part of Leiden University, the institute welcomes scholars from eight participating universities in the Netherlands and Flanders.
The institute has occupied its current building in Zamalek since its founding in 1971. The exact date of the building construction is unknown, however, judging by its architectural character, it appears to be from the nineteen-teens.
Over the years adjustments were made to transform a building that was intended for residential use to fit its new function as home for a research institute with publicly accessible spaces, offices as well as short-term residences for scholars. The director of the institute also lived in the building until recently.
The structure consists of a basement, an elevated main level reached by a stair and two upper floors in addition to a roof terrace.
The renovation called for meeting the following needs: optimizing space, modernizing the structure while maintaining original character, provide new common facilities, new office space, new classrooms, new sanitation facilities and removal of unneeded kitchens, upgrade scholar guestrooms, bigger library space, fire safety and emergency exits, and new mechanical systems (most notably a new central ventilation system). All this had to be done while the institute continued its functions.
The project was managed by Bert Dopp from Leiden University’s real estate department. Architect Ernst Hoek provided the design and local contractor Wafaa Dewidar implemented the project.
The renovation team worked to maintain original details such as the balat flooring in the entry hall and the ironwork on the stair rail. In both cases the team attempted to reproduce such details to expand beyond their original locations: The stair rail was reproduced in order to extend the stair further up to reach the roof terrace (where it had originally terminated at the top floor). The new railing seamlessly continues the original work. Similarly the team wished to reproduce balat tiles to expand them beyond the entry hall into other rooms. However, the balat industry is all but gone in Egypt and it was not possible to find the proper artisans to carryout the work.
In addition to aesthetic considerations, the renovation involved serious modifications that were done in context-sensitive ways: In addition to extending the stair a further level, a shaft was created through the entire building to carry wiring, ventilation systems and pipes. The entire structure was rewired with new networks and wireless internet as well as a sound system in some places. The air vents are discreetly positioned in the ceilings to provide much needed ventilation without disturbing the spatial quality of the rooms with their high ceilings and airy feel. An emergency stair (spiral) was fitted along the back of the building to allow for an escape route from the roof and top floor.
In addition to maintaining existing detail and adding new building systems, there were added architectural details. Those new additions are: the reception desk and the bar at the roof terrace, as well as glass walls placed at the thresholds (creating vestibules) and finally a new guard kiosk outside the building.
The institute commissioned a Dutch artist to create tiles bearing the logos of participating universities and institutes which were then broken and reassembled on the bar and reception desk.
Glass walls, sealing the interior spaces to help maintain temperature controls, also provide a visual function of marking thresholds (at the main entrance, the roof terrace and the basement entrance to classrooms) in a consistent manner. This added element also sensitively makes an architectural statement without overpowering the original structure. The pattern on the glass was designed by the architect and is inspired by perforation both in Dutch lace and Egyptian arabesque wooden screens.
The pattern was also used on the shading device designed for the guard kiosk outside. The new kiosk provides lockers for guards and guests to leave their bags, fire safety controls and security features. The design of the kiosk is inspired by Dutch greenhouses and it is built around an existing tree in the garden of the building.
The NVIC renovation proves that Cairo’s historic architecture can be transformed into modern, well-designed spaces suiting new functions with the right intentions and good practice. The potential for similar projects in Cairo is countless, however the professional framework, design practices and contractors needed for successful adaptive-reuse/building renovations are lacking. The NVIC project provides a successful model for building transformation that is sensitive to functional needs, cultural context and architectural heritage.
To visit the NVIC website, click here.
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.
One of Cairo’s iconic bridges, Boulac Bridge, is pictured here in 1961 during the 9th anniversary of the 1952 Coup/”revolution.” The bridge was located at the extension of Boulac Street, later renamed Foad Street and currently holding the name 26th of July Street (which begins at Azbakiyya Garden bending at the High Court and on to the bridge which crossed the Nile from Boulac to Zamalek on Gezira Island). It’s name later changed to Abu el Ela (after a mosque by the same name that was located near the bridge’s entrance from the Boulac side). Throughout its history, the bridge carried a tram line, cars and pedestrians. In 1996 the bridge was dismantled, deemed as insufficient for Cairo’s growing traffic. It has since been replaced with the current 15th May Bridge. It is rumored that the iron Boulac bridge, which was built in 1910, was moved to a Nile side location further north near the district of Sahel. There are also rumors that it was sold for scrap, as it was the fate of other iron bridges.
It seems obvious if the bridge, or part of it, still exists somewhere in Cairo, it should be reused in some capacity. In 2009 there was a proposal to use the bridge parts to create an art space or give it a commercial use (Much like what was done to the old Imbaba Bridge which was moved to Damaietta). That proposal was never carried through. However, last November amidst all the upheaval Egypt is experiencing, officials found the time to reopen the case of the 700 Million Egyptian Pound investment plan for the bridge and renewed the initial idea of turning it into a private “touristic space.” Al Wafd paper presented the project in nationalist guise, as was usually done by the regime in such private projects that typically involved massive corruption, deals with contractors, money laundering, etc.
Here is an obvious use for the bridge that doesn’t involve turning public property into private investment with no return to the public. Re-use the bridge as a pedestrian bridge.
Crossing the Qasr el Nil Bridge is one of Cairo’s most accessible and popular activities and it is free. With public space so limited, particularly space overlooking the Nile, a pedestrian bridge crossing the Nile in central Cairo would be a transformative project and a great addition to the city’s “public good.”
There is an obvious location as well: between the 6th October Bridge and Qasr el Nil Bridge. The bridge could link the Cairo Tower with the Egyptian Museum.
The increasing privatizations of public amenities have reduced the standard of the city over the past several decades significantly. Instead of creating another privately owned space using this historic structure, it can be used the way it was always intended to be used, as a bridge. At the same time it can provide pedestrians, who are the majority of this city’s population, where only %15 own private cars, with an additional promenading space where they can experience the Nile and views of the city. The bridge appears to be in near perfect condition in an early 1990s Amr Diab video.
GOPP and other organizations should promote public projects that will raise the standard of living in Cairo. There is no use of having pockets of luxury and private enterprise if they sit within the context of a deteriorating city. Raising public standards, public projects, public space all contribute positively towards any future private investment. This is a call for those who are concerned to save the Boulac (Abu el Ela) Bridge and resurrect it as a pedestrian bridge in a popular location. It would be a good step for greater public good.
More information: Al-Ahram Weekly, here.
Nezar AlSayyad, Irene Bierman, Nasser Rabbat, eds. Making Cairo Medieval. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005. vi + 266 pp. $83.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7391-0915-1; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7391-0916-8.
Reviewed by Seif El Rashidi (Aga Khan Cultural Services, Egypt)
Published on H-Urban (July, 2005)
Typically, scholarship of the urban development of Cairo has emphasized the dichotomy between its “medieval” and its “modern” quarters, with little critical analysis about how this notion of a dual city came about, or the impacts of this treatment on both perceptions of Cairo and on its subsequent development. Through the work of ten scholars, Making Cairo Medieval examines the idea of a “medieval Cairo”—a concept developed in the nineteenth century by people who were essentially outsiders to the historic quarters of the city, yet whose ideas of refashioning such neighborhoods to create a “medievalized” Cairo continue to affect the policies governing these quarters of the city today.
The first section of the book, “A Medieval City for a Modern World,” sets the framework around which the ideas that eventually led to the “medievalization” of the city developed. Irene Bierman discusses world exhibitions in which the stage-set recreations of historic Cairo came to be seen as more authentic than the real city itself, thus becoming a guiding prototype for urban policy and intervention. She also outlines the development of conservation policies intent on ensuring the architectural purity of historic monuments (often by editing out buildings or sections of them which did not conform to preset ideas about the style of each epoch).
Nasser Rabbat discusses key literary works on the history of Cairo, namely the fifteenth century Khitat of al-Maqrizi, until today seen as the bible for many of the questions related to the city’s social and urban history. Unlike the other authors in this volume, Rabbat brings up the idea of Egyptian “cosmo-centrism” (seeing Egypt as the center of the world), tellingly absent from this medievalization process, which was led primarily by europhilic Egyptians, and Europeans in a prenationalistic age. Nezzar AlSayyad, discussing the role of Ali Pasha Mubarak, a europhilic Egyptian par excellence and architect of Cairo’s modernization scheme, presents him simultaneously as the writer of the most detailed account of nineteenth-century Cairo, a novelist who captured the prevailing mood of historic change, and the heavy-handed urbanist who worked towards the indiscriminate modernization of the historic city. Ironically, AlSayyad maintains that Mubarak did not contribute to the medievalization process, except through his written works. Yet Mubarak, historic Cairo’s self-proclaimed greatest enemy, was in fact an unintentional protagonist in the quest to create a medieval Cairo. As Donald Preziosi argues in the second section of this book, by trying to change the pre-nineteenth-century city, and only partially succeeding, Mubarak helped emphasize the medieval nature of Cairo’s historic quarters.
“Representing and Narrating,” the second section of the book, considers the Orientalist imaginary of Cairo, and how it became firmly embedded in the minds of non-Cairenes through the works of European artists, photographers, and writers. Derek Gregory, discussing Edward Lane’s written works (and illustrations), shows how Lane’s portrayal of Cairo life as a series of attractively Oriental vignettes fueled Westerners’ imaginations and sent them in search of the “Arabian Nights” in the real-life city. Caroline Williams, through her study of Orientalist paintings and photographs, traces the evolution of the Orientalist painting as a documentary medium. The advent of the photograph changed the role of artists to that of visual interpreters, portraying a hyper-romanticized view of the Orient through their work. These visual and textual references, created for a Western audience, determined what it was visitors to Egypt expected to find: essentially, an Oriental fantasy out of touch with the modern world.
Read full review, here.
When walking along the waterfront in Garden City Cairenes and visitors wonder about one particular building across the Nile on the southern tip of Gezira (Zamalek) Island. If you take a falucca ride around here the boatman might tell you “that’s the museum of the revolution.” This might be confusing as there are now three junctures in the last century of Egyptian history that have been endowed with the title “revolution.”
The building in question was ordered in 1949 under King Farouk for the Royal Navy fleet and was completed in 1951. At that time it cost LE118,000. Needless to say, the building was never used as intended because the King was overthrown in 1952 by members of the army. During the early days of post-Farouk Egypt, the building was used by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the “free officers” as their headquarters and many historic meetings, laws, court rulings and decisions took place here. By 1956 the building was ignored and abandoned and stayed so until recently.
In 1996, former president Hosni Mubarak made presidential decree #204 to transform the building into a museum for the 1952 “revolution,” more accurately a coup d’etat. The decision put the building under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture which listed it as “Islamic monument” making Zahi Hawass its primary caretaker.
Following the story of this building is a classic case of bureaucratic corruption that dominates Egyptian government and most certainly the Ministry of Culture and the Supreme Council of Antiquities.
The structure was left untouched, despite the decision in ‘96 to make it a museum, until 2010. Suddenly there was work in progress, a crane and slowly a strange and enigmatic structure began to appear on top of the building, like a cancerous growth.
The renovation of the forty-room building includes a massive steel structure topping its once open courtyard. The structure, designed by Ahmed Mito, is meant to represent an eagle (symbol of the republic) emerging from the building (the birthplace of the republic?). Although figures are not published, the project was given a LE40 million budget in 1996. The “eagle” structure alone is said to cost some LE20 million. These are large sums of state money that could have housed a few thousand families in a city with a severe housing crisis. This is not a choice between the museum (ceremonial, symbolic) and housing (practical, urgent). But the Museum could have been done with half the budget. To spend LE20 million for a symbolic roof is an outrage.
Architecturally speaking this project is catastrophic. There is no relationship with the original structure, the interiors of which appear to have been stripped. Mito, notably the architect of Egypt’s Supreme Court building in Maadi, decided to go with literal symbolism. An eagle is the symbol of the republic so an eagle must emerge from the building where the foundation of Egypt’s republic (military rule) took place.
This unavoidably brings me to Robert Venturi’s duck. In the 1960s and 70s Venturi traveled the US, and eventually published Learning From Las Vegas. Along the way he encountered the Big Duck and he coined the term “duck” to describe a building’s architecture that is dominated by its symbolic form. The Big Duck was a building on a duck farm where duck products were sold.
Before Mito’s addition, the future Majlis el Thawra Museum building was closer to what Venturi would call “a decorated shed,” a much more common form of architecture. However, the steel structure with its dominating presence atop the stone “shed” fully transforms it into a duck… or an eagle in this case.
When I visited the site recently workers were cynical of what they are asked to do and all seemed to agree it was ridiculous. The museum is to house almost 12,000 items belonging to members of the “free officers” council, related documents, gifts, and photographs. This will be the culmination of authoritarian celebration of military statehood, I would imagine following in the line of Hosni Mubarak’s self-congratulating North Korean-built 1973 War Panorama.
Since last year when work began on this mysterious expensive project another revolution broke out. While the regime was cementing its history by commemorating what it insists to call a revolution from 1952, people took to the streets earlier this year in an attempt to topple that very military regime. The verdict is still out.
Meanwhile, it seems like Cairo’s skyline will now host an eagle of steel. It is unfortunate that the architect did not question the meanings of the military’s chosen symbol. Eagles are opportunistic predators that eat almost anything, although they prefer attacking and eating small prey. Perhaps the eagle is a fitting symbol after all.
The Step-Pyramid is in danger. The building, which is considered one of Egypt’s oldest pyramids, is on the outskirts of today’s Cairo. Although structural damage was noted years ago only recently did the Supreme Council of Antiquities seek help from a construction firm to stabilize the ancient structure. Apparently the project was to cost five million dollars (not a huge amount) but apparently money has dried up and the work has stalled for months. Other major restoration projects have also been stalled around the country. While Zahi Hawass was busy filming “Chasing Mummies” and selling hats and denim shirts and while Egyptians were busy going through a revolution, the country’s oldest building was slowly collapsing. There has been scant coverage of this situation in local news but here are some useful links.
Ahram Online, here.
Engineering News Record, here.
BBC coverage with video, here.
Al Ahram, here.
The necropolis east of historic Cairo and under Muqattam hills is about ten times bigger than Al Azhar Park just across Salah Salem highway. It has received some attention from architectural historians due to the exquisite funerary architecture. There are tombs, mosques, and schools. Although this is only one layer of this Qarafa, as it is known to Egyptians. Besides the historic layer there is a living community that lives among the historic buildings, mostly in buildings that look like self-built apartment houses elsewhere in the city. Contrary to popular belief, few actually live in the tombs. The population may have changed over the course of the last forty years and it may have been larger at some point but today those living in this part of the city are not many. But there are enough families to give this place a sense of community and keep it alive.
This large area is diverse with different conditions, density of residents, density of historic buildings, and varying levels of livability. Also important to note is that Cairo’s historic cemetery continues south of the city core where it is called the Southern Cemetery or Shafii Cemetery. The Southern Cemetery is about double the size of the northern one. While the northern is about the size of the island of Roda, the southern one is about the size of the island of Zamalek!
I’ve only walked around the Northern Cemetery so the rest of this post will focus on that experience.
Salah Salem creates a clear edge on the western side of the Qarafa. As soon as one crosses the pedestrian bridge over Salah Salem from Al Azhar Street and into the Qarafa, the highway humm dissipates and it feels very peaceful and almost secluded. It is easy to forget that you are in a city of 20 million while you’re here. Walking around the grid of walled tombs and funerary complexes, varying in size, age, and style, once in a while there is sign of life: a little girl playing with a ball, an old man spinning thread, a puppy with its mother. Considering how forgotten it feels, there is a sense of romanticism that is inseparable from the place.
An empty sofa at one of the corners is a reminder that this is a nice place to sit. Not only is walking around the regular pedestrian streets so pleasant but it is easy to imagine those streets paved, street furniture arranged in various formations perhaps facing each other to encourage conversation or facing a beautiful wall or door to allow for solitude and contemplation. Some parts of the Qarafa have old trees, others newer trees planted recently but most of it lacks landscaping or vegetation. But some well placed trees and flower boxes can transform the Qarafa into a green lung for the city and a unique network of public spaces.
Then there is the architecture: Galila El Kadi’s 2007 book by AUC Press, Architecture for the Dead focuses on the built heritage of the cemeteries. The publisher’s blurb is helpful here: “The great medieval necropolis of Cairo, comprising two main areas that together stretch twelve kilometers from north to south, constitutes a major feature of the city’s urban landscape. With monumental and smaller-scale mausolea dating from all eras since early medieval times, and boasting some of the finest examples of Mamluk architecture not just in the city but in the region, the necropolis is an unparalleled—and until now largely undocumented—architectural treasure trove.”
The buildings range from extravagant and large to beautiful simple humble mausolea that can be astonishingly modern(ist) in their simplicity (despite being 300-500 years old). In addition to tombs and mausolea, we visited an incredible mosque, Masjid al Sultan Barquq. For historic photos and architectural description of this outstanding building click here.
The porch depicted above is one of two identical ones at opposite sides of the front facade. It is one of the most comforting, well balanced spaces I have experienced and the view is stunning. This is the northern porch and it overlooks a particularly green part of the cemetery, dense with trees. Again it is easy to picture what the entire Qarafa would be like with the addition of trees in other parts. From the roof of this building, or from the minarets above, a panoramic view of the city is unlike any I’ve seen: the towers along the Nile are far west, the historic core in the foreground beyond the tree tops and to the north Heliopolis and the east the Muqattam hill.
Further south (still in the Northern Cemetery) and roughly in its center is a little community with shops and small houses, with some bigger apartment buildings in between. These are not tomb dwellers but if you insist on taking things literally, they do live in the middle of a cemetery. But if it isn’t clear by now, this cemetery isn’t like any other. There is what could be called a main street and even a square. It is quiet, no cars, air is fresh, people are friendly as ever and full of smiles.
There are too many details, some ancient others only months old but equally fascinating, to mention. The Qarafa is particularly interesting not because of the cliche of “city of the dead” but rather because it is in the middle of Cairo, and it is open (not gated or fenced for example), and it is open for outsiders such as myself to meander through. And although there is great diversity in what this zone offers, it still retains a sense of cohesiveness but it isn’t a neighborhood feel (although that is there in part), and it isn’t architectural uniformity, and it isn’t the product of an urban plan or a master plan, there is something else that creates a sense of cohesion.
There is so much potential for this part of the city to be a green lung punctuated with historic architecture and a thriving small community. And the people who live here will do the job, pave the street, water the trees and restore the buildings if they are taken into account and if a plan is put forth. People have always lived here who worked in maintaining the buildings and tombs. But with the collapse of the Waqf system and as families bury their dead elsewhere outside the historic cemetery, those whose livelihood depended on this place have been forgotten. When we were leaving, a family was sweeping the street in front of their house, hanging lights and preparing for a party “come back tonight,” we were invited to a wedding.
Gamal Mubarak & Co. had a plan for Qarafa, or at least parts of it: to raze the area and make an exclusive complex of office buildings.
*image at top of this post is a screenshot from Youssef Chahine’s Cairo.
Around turn of the century to the 19teens a new feature in Cairo’s urban life appeared: The Central Market. This is yet another important but forgotten element in modern Cairo’s urban history and so far as I know nothing has been written about this, yet.
My first introduction to these markets was at Bab el-Louq (a short 3 minute walk east of Tahrir Square). Bab el-Louq square is the long elliptical space midway between Abdeen Palace (Gomhoriyya Square) and Tahrir Square. In around 1870-73 when the palace and the Qasr el Nil Bridge were built; Ismail Street (now Tahrir Street) was to link the two together but the line had to bend in order to connect the bridge with the palace, that bend became Bab el-Louq square. The Square once had an important tram station until all the tram lines (almost all 124 kilometers of tram lines) were dismantled under Sadat in favor of cars. Today the Square is a parking lot.
Overlooking the square is a large turn of the century building with a large central arch. It was difficult to notice what this was at first because of the typical clamor of storefronts which fragment any once cohesive facade. The inscription above the central archway reads “Marche de Bab el Louq 1912” in French and “سوق باب اللوق ١٩١٢” in Arabic.
The interior is a beautiful, intact, original iron truss roof not unlike what you see in turn of the century train stations. The floor plan is a grid of shops selling (or that once sold) vegetables, meat, poultry, dairy, etc. I have a feeling these shops were once much more attractive as the market was once truly central to the community and was well frequented with shoppers. There is also a gallery on the second level that borders the perimeter with more shops. The gallery is reached by the original iron stairs and railing, although there has also been some modifications added. It seems as though some squatters have moved into the rooms on the upper floor which overlook the streets outside.
Today the market is in a sad state and is little frequented by shoppers who shop elsewhere. Many of the shops and shop spaces are either closed or vacant and only a few vendors are present but their livelihood depends on this place. I am not sure what went wrong here and why this place fell into disrepair but it seems like it could again become a viable commercial and food center for the community. Perhaps this is part of the problem, the community, is no longer the same as the one that was once served by this urban institution.
Once I discovered Bab el-Louq market, I continued to admire it every time I was in the area. I thought it was the only one until one day while in a taxi on the overpass above Attaba Square and over Azhar Street I had a glimpse of yet another massive market structure. And Indeed there is another central market near Attaba and it seems to be even bigger than the one above. I haven’t yet explored this building but it is there and as the image below shows it has a cross plan rather than Bab el-Louq’s more rectangular plan.
And to my surprise, while I was checking out the disaster of a renovation at Cairo’s train station, I walked out and decided to walk through Boulaq and reach the Nile. As I entered the area where the microbusses line up to pick up passengers outside the station, I noticed a dilapidated large classical facade. At closer inspection I found the faded letters that once read “Marche, سوق” and I couldn’t be happier to discover this place. This building too I haven’t explored in detail but the image below shows it too has a cross plan and it is sizable. I believe it said 1901 for its inauguration date, although I need to go back and check.
Together these three markets form a triangle around central Cairo. These were the main destinations for the urban bourgeois to shop for food around 1901 or 1912. It would be interesting if there are other central markets from this era that have also survived and are waiting to be brought back to life. Central Markets have been replaced by the corner stores “بقالة”, vegetable street markets or supermarkets such as Metro or hypermarkets such as Carrefour. A century after these were built and now when Cairo is in desperate need for urban regeneration, these Central Markets can be catalyst projects that have the potential to become again focal points for communities and provide commercial space for vendors. I think of Barcelona’s Mercat de Sant Josep every time I go to Bab el-Louq and I hope that somehow these markets will be revitalized and with them revitalize the communities around them.