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Egypt's threatened heritage: Port Said's history breathes its last
The ongoing demolition of Port Said's historical buildings, in tandem with longstanding government neglect, have put the coastal city's heritage in jeopardy
Sayed Mahmoud, Sunday 28 Oct 2012
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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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13



Sami Pierre
29-10-2012 03:28pm
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Catholic churches & schools should be saved too
Like many large provincial towns in Egypt, Port Said has its (albeit small) share of French Catholic mission schools with adjacent Catholic churches or chapels. These buildings were mostly constructed in the first half of the 20th century and they are now considered classical European architecture (adapted to suit the Egyptian environment), which should be preserved as World Heritage buildings. Hopefully, the Roman Catholic Church can provide the necessary funds for the upkeep of such exquisitely-built structures.
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12



Ahmed M Ibrahim
29-10-2012 01:25pm
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Port Said
Port Said is a beautiful and compact city with little space for expansion. The Suez Canal Authority building is a landmark and should be preserved and well maintained for future generations. However Port Fuad on the opposite side could provide enough space for reconstruction and expansion of this strategic city which could rival Dubai, Singapore and Hongkong provided it is efficiently planned as a futuristic city.
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Khalid, Alex
28-10-2012 01:31pm
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Raise Money
It is the duty of Port said people and the country citizens to raise money for restoration. It will increase the cohesion and common vlaues in modern society.
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Gizela Jean Azoury
27-10-2012 06:53pm
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EGYPT' S THREATENED HERITAGE
I am 85 years old and have lived all my life in Port Said, except those 5 years when we were evacuated. It pains me to see those beautiful, historical old buildings being pulled down without consideration as to their national heritage. This destruction began just after we returned to Port Said in 1975. First it was that beautiful landmark which we called in Arabic "The Iron House - The Eastern Exchange Hotel, which was built by the British in 1890 - to be sold as scrap iron by the tons. This wonderful building, which could have stood hundreds of years, would have provided many generations with a symbol of the spirit of Port Said. It almost equaled in magnificence to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Another historical building to be demolished was The Casino Palace Hotel near the entrance of the jetty which had an adjoining very large cafe which sometimes was turned into a dancing hall. It is extremely unpardonable that both the Eastern Exchange and the Casino Palace Hotels were demolis
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9



Gizela Jean Azoury
27-10-2012 06:53pm
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EGYPT' S THREATENED HERITAGE
I am 85 years old and have lived all my life in Port Said, except those 5 years when we were evacuated. It pains me to see those beautiful, historical old buildings being pulled down without consideration as to their national heritage. This destruction began just after we returned to Port Said in 1975. First it was that beautiful landmark which we called in Arabic "The Iron House - The Eastern Exchange Hotel, which was built by the British in 1890 - to be sold as scrap iron by the tons. This wonderful building, which could have stood hundreds of years, would have provided many generations with a symbol of the spirit of Port Said. It almost equaled in magnificence to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Another historical building to be demolished was The Casino Palace Hotel near the entrance of the jetty which had an adjoining very large cafe which sometimes was turned into a dancing hall. It is extremely unpardonable that both the Eastern Exchange and the Casino Palace Hotels were demolis
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8



Amal Mahmoud
27-10-2012 05:15pm
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Meusum
TPart of the building should be utilized as muesum with wax figures to commomerat the history of building the canal, take over by British/France, and finally the free officer taking it back for the people. British/France attacked Egypt for recovering the Canal and the story goes on. Port -Said people fought bravely in 56 war and suffered a lot.
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7



Amourah Idris, Aswan
27-10-2012 05:11pm
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Brotherhood List for Power
Woow! I did not know that Brotherhood were fightening Free Officers to takeover Egypt and create religious dictatorship. I wish if Nasser kept his promise to join USA not the SOviets after Eisnhower kickedout the Frensh/British with their underdog Israel from Egypt after 1956 War. Thanks USA
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Ameen Hassan, Alex
27-10-2012 05:06pm
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French Design
The sharp domes were built by Frrench archetects similar to Versi Palace. A French engineer, Frnado Delspse, proved that difference in water levels of Red and Medeterinnean seas will not create strong current. The Khedewi Ismail and Euro dignitaries came in 1892 (?) to this building to hear Opera Aidah in celeberation of Canal openning for shipping. THank AO for your progressive reproting. It must be saved and used to generate tourism.
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Dalou
27-10-2012 06:05pm
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French design
Ferdinand de Lepses was an expert for Canal, he created the Canal de Panama. I prey Egypt will save all its Heritage, i cry for Syrian 6000 years Heritage.
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Anwar Kamal, Tanta
27-10-2012 01:59pm
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Nsational pride Symbol
I watched the ships from a telescope mounted on the building during my childhood. Many, many people came to visit the buidling as a symbol of national pride after taking back Suez Canal from British and French. Thanks AO for spreading truth. Good reprot.
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Mahmoud Afendi, egypt
27-10-2012 01:54pm
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Part of my Life
I had lunch with my pilot father after guiding a convoy of ships across the Canal. He was officer in Egyptian Navy and done it for the first tiem. I remeber telling me about the tides, currents, and wind that he managed to move ships safely. He hated the Brotherhood for thier assesinationand struggle to control the revolution of Free Officers.
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