Egypt's threatened heritage: Port Said's history breathes its last

Sayed Mahmoud, Sunday 28 Oct 2012

The ongoing demolition of Port Said's historical buildings, in tandem with longstanding government neglect, have put the coastal city's heritage in jeopardy

Port  Said
Suez Canal Authority in Port Said (Photo: Al-Ahram)

In his unique diaries, world-renowned Egyptian intellect Samir Amin speaks of the coastal city of Port Said, where he was born in the 1930s, discussing its exceptional architecture, which bespeaks the diversity that has long characterised the city.

Late historian Raouf Abbas also dwelled on the history of the city that, in former times, before the 1952 Revolution, had served as Egypt's "cultural face." Port Said, which lies in northeast Egypt, is now going through a grave crisis, with the looming destruction of its architectural heritage.

Following Egypt's January 25 Revolution, the subsequent security vacuum – coupled with the loose grip of the government and absence of municipal supervision – all whetted appetites to encroach upon the city' properties.

Khaled Abdel-Rahman, a young pharmacist and Port Said resident, has posted hundreds of old pictures of his beloved city on Facebook, sounding alarm bells in hopes of rescuing what is left of the city's historical legacy. Abdel-Rahman's photos are a testament to the appalling tragedy that has come to afflict the city's edifices.

Idle City

Abdel-Rahman, along with a number of intellects and campaigners to preserve the city's heritage, staged a protest earlier this month in front of the Greek Cultural Council. Protesters held banners aloft condemning the removal of hundreds of historical buildings that they are calling for inclusion on world heritage lists.

The campaign brings together a host of bodies, including the Port Said Youth Association 2012, Equality Human Rights Centre, the literary Nahno Hona (We are Here) movement and the Port Said Intellects and Artists Association, along with a number of volunteers.

The list includes the Trade Centre nestled on the Cornice near the Port Fouad Ferry. Built in the 1930s in the Italian architectural style, the distinctive building was among the possessions of a renowned Jewish family. Port Said's beacon, along with a number of waterside buildings, also features on the list.

This includes the now-closed Italian Cultural Centre, which, it is feared, could suffer the same fate as the Arderado Cinema that faces the possibility of being pulled down.

The Nasinwally Hotel, an adjacent hotel, is another historical building that had been one of the city's landmarks in the 1940s, and now, among other constructions, suffers from comparative neglect.

"The problem partially boils down to the lack of general culture among the public. Interest in heritage is at rock bottom," said Abdel-Rahman, noting that the city lacked a single cultural institution to help raise cultural awareness among its denizens.

"Being a free-zone has created certain cultural patterns in the city, revolving mainly around money-making with no regard to anything else," argues Walid Montaser, a contributor to the introduction of visual heritage in the coastal city.

"Thanks to corrupt municipal councils and the language of money, various forms of encroachment upon public properties and funds has become rife," he added.

Writer Osama Kamal contends that the Port Said Governorate has expressed some interest in halting destruction of the city's heritage, yet, he says, it is an "ineffective interest" based on inaccurate information.

"With the recent management reshuffle, the governorate also failed to take thorough measures to stop such demolition operations," said Kamal. He noted that, with the inactive role of city planners, the government's alternative vision to weather the mounting population-density crisis is to tear down historical buildings and replace them with high-rise towers.

The campaign has staged numerous demonstrations before one of the city's heritage-listed buildings, denouncing attempts to "obliterate their identity."

Urban development pundit Ahmed Sedky, who recently joined the campaign, said that removal decisions were issued with officials without any intervention from executive bodies. "That's nothing less than a paradise for vandals," he asserted.

Sedky cited plans to tear down an edifice in Safiya Zaghloul Street, despite its being fully intact, just to make use of its distinctive location and spaciousness, as a classic example of corruption.

Built in 1903 and featuring distinctive architecture and carved Greek statues, unique stone iron-inlaid and rich wooden windows, the building is deemed one of the most prominent heritage landmarks in Port Said.

Sedky blamed the Ministry of Culture for paying no heed to such buildings, underscoring that building protection policies, urban charters, and construction codes were all non-existent. He also pointed the finger at the Cultural Coordination Authority for its "failure to raise awareness among the general public about the value of historical sites."

Follow Solidere's Footsteps

"The campaign is not geared towards taking possession of buildings or denying owners their legitimate right to trade their properties. It is rather aimed at drawing up a plan to preserve historical landmarks by law," said Sedky.

He called for halting all demolition decisions until legislation and licenses were reconsidered. He also proposed looking at ways and means to capitalise on historical buildings as part of an integrated strategic scheme along the lines of Solidere (a Lebanese development and reconstruction company), which specialises in restoration work in downtown Beirut and had breathed new life and investment into the area.

In a visit to the city, photographer Walid Montasir – who, along with a number of engineering graduates in Port Said, has formed a popular pressure front to protect heritage – gave an ominous warning about the swelling number of demolition decisions being issued. The ongoing removal of building facades, along with termite armies that devour wooden frontages, make demolition the only possible course of action, which poses another enormous danger.

Talks with UNESCO

In response to gross neglect from governmental bodies, the Port Said-based French Cultural Association is trying to approach UNESCO in hopes of including a number of the city's buildings on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which will in turn ensure international protection of the city's landmarks.

"I felt sorry when I came to Port Said in 2009. I found unparalleled architecture that was grossly neglected," said association head Pier Alfaroupa, noting that he had entirely devoted himself to salvaging the city's heritage with the help of prominent architects.

In 2003, the association embarked on a documentation project of the city's heritage, registering 400 buildings to date. Also, the body arranges cultural-awareness workshops bringing in French pundits and architects to establish an advocacy force to preserve the city's architectural history.

Sohair Zaky of the Cultural Coordination Authority contends that the body has no authority over judicial seizure of buildings and the demolition decisions. "The authority is merely entitled to report to concerned entities while seizure power rests with the governorate," he explained.

The governor of Port Said was not available for comment on the issue.

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