Cairo: A Ray of Hope
Urban Crossroads #71

                          The restored nineteenth-century Palace of Muhammad Ali in the Shubra district of Cairo

                          The restored nineteenth-century Palace of Muhammad Ali in the Shubra district of Cairo

The renowned historian of Islamic art, Oleg Grabar, often has remarked that Cairo is a city with a tremendous wealth of monuments, and that only one other city in the world, Rome, probably surpasses it in this wealth. The boundaries of greater Cairo hold monuments as diverse as the Giza Pyramids, which were built over 5,000 years ago, the vast ninth-century Mosque of Ibn Tulun, the monumental fourteenth-century Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hasan, and the nineteenth-century Mosque of Muhammad Ali, which crowns the Cairo citadel founded by the Ayyubid sultan Salah al-Din (Saladin) over eight hundred years ago.

Under the rule of the Mamluk dynasty (1250 – 1517), Cairo emerged as one of the world’s largest cities and a great center of power, wealth, and culture. Its greatness is well summarized by an anonymous Italian traveler who visited Cairo during the Mamluk era. He wrote: “If I were to describe the wealth of the city, this book would not suffice. If it were possible to gather together the cities of Rome, Milan, Padua, Florence, and still four others, I swear that they could not all contain half of the wealth of Cairo.”

Cairo’s fortunes declined under the Ottomans, who brought the Mamluk state to an end. With that, Cairo was downgraded from a center of an empire to a provincial capital. Its next renaissance had to wait until the advent of Muhammad Ali, the Albanian soldier who established the dynasty that ruled Egypt from the early-nineteenth until the mid-twentieth century, though under British suzerainty since the late-nineteenth century. During this period, Cairo again emerged as a major political, economic, and cultural center. On the architectural and urban levels, this resurgence was expressed by the new districts, boulevards, palaces, as well as public buildings and gardens that were constructed throughout the city. It is true that two Cairos emerged during this period, a relatively affluent, cosmopolitan, and Westernized Cairo on the one hand, and a poorer, traditional Cairo on the other. Still, it was a world-city and a magnet that attracted people from the region and beyond who visited it, and also worked and settled in it. Up to the 1960s, it was the undisputed metropolis of the region. I regularly hear from my parents and members of their generation, who came of age during the 1940s and 1950s, the extraordinary difference they felt between the then small town of Amman and the large cosmopolitan Cairo.

Cairo’s fortunes underwent another decline beginning in the 1960s. The city began to be overwhelmed by the migration of poor villagers from the countryside. The public institutions responsible for Cairo’s upkeep were heavily burdened by a swelling bureaucracy, and were incapable of upgrading the services needed for the city to function with any sense of normalcy. Since then, the Cairo that has emerged is more associated with serious problems of pollution, litter, over-crowdedness, and traffic congestion, than with a rich historical heritage.

I recently visited Cairo after an absence of almost twenty years. Even though a visit of a few days is far from enough to actively interact with a city, my impression was that the deterioration I felt so strongly during my visit in the late-1980s seems to have bottomed out, and that in some ways Cairo even had undergone slight improvements. The city struck me as a bit cleaner. The chaotic ubiquity of commercial and advertising signs on buildings has been tamed, and traffic seemed to flow a bit more smoothly. Problems of air pollution are being addressed as with switching to the use of unleaded gasoline for automobiles.

What truly impressed me, however, are the developments that are underway regarding the conservation of Cairo’s medieval and early-modern heritage. I recall how during the 1980s and 1990s, many conservationists had declared the preservation of the majority of the city’s Islamic monuments a lost cause. Most of these monuments were suffering from combinations of neglect and abuse. The city’s serious air pollution problems have caused a great deal of harm to its monuments. The deterioration of Cairo’s urban infrastructure also has been detrimental to the condition of these monuments. For example, the sewage network in the historical city was falling apart, and sewage was seeping into the foundations of monuments, thus greatly undermining their structural integrity. Many specialists therefore surrendered to the conclusion that the loss of those monuments was inevitable. A prevailing opinion was that it may be possible to get a few foreign and international organizations to provide financial and technical support to save some of Cairo’s more important historical monuments, but that the rest eventually would wither away.

Conditions seemed to progressively get worse. The earthquake that hit Cairo in 1992 caused further damage to the city’s historical monuments. A reversal of this trend, however, finally began to take place in the late-1990s with the founding of the Historic Cairo Conservation Project, which is devoted to conserving Cairo’s late-antique, Islamic, and early-modern architectural heritage. The project has brought together a dedicated group of young Egyptian conservationists. Serious efforts have been made to allow them to work in an environment that is as independent as possible from the country’s suffocating public-sector bureaucracy. Adequate funding has been secured for the project through dedicating to it a significant portion of the entry fees charged for visiting the historical monuments of Egypt.

The Historic Cairo Conservation Project so far has conserved almost ninety monuments. The quality of restoration is very high. The project has developed a systematic methodological framework for its work that incorporates accepted international standards of conservation, whether in terms of ensuring the reversibility of interventions, the use of materials and techniques that are compatible with what existed historically, or safeguarding the authenticity of the restored monuments. The project even publishes a booklet or brochure on each conserved monument. The project’s staff shows a refreshing sense of passion and dedication as well as an intimate knowledge of the city’s historical monuments. The conservation work is carried out primarily by Egyptian specialists and through Egyptian funding. Foreign expertise is brought in whenever there is a need for it.

Some of the restored monuments, such as the Mamluk Taz Palace, have been rehabilitated as cultural centers. The palace hosts exhibits, workshops, musical recitals, and plays. These not only cater to a cultural elite, but, equally importantly, to the inhabitants of the relatively poor neighborhood in which the palace is located, who heavily use the center’s facilities and attend its activities.

Such an ambitious and wide-reaching project is bound to raise controversy. There always will be those who are unhappy about being excluded from it. There will be those who may disagree with the conservation techniques utilized and adhere to different schools of conservation or promote excessively strict conservation approaches. And of course it is easy, especially for theoretically-oriented academics, to criticize such work from a distance. Criticizing an act requires much less effort than actually doing it.

The Historic Cairo Conservation Project may have some shortcomings. It is not always clear as to what function the restored monuments will serve, and not all of them can become cultural centers. The project still gives more weight to conserving individual monuments than to addressing complete urban settings with their physical, social, and economic challenges. Still, such criticism does not undermine the value and accomplishments of the project. It has taken on the incredibly difficult task of conserving the city’s vast threatened architectural heritage. It is addressing problems, rather than pontificating about them or engaging in endless discussions as to what should and should not be done. The project is being carried out through Egyptian human and financial resources, and is producing good results. It provides a workable model in the region for heritage conservation, a model that anyone involved in the field should examine carefully.

Mohammad al-Asad

August 2, 2007