Our cities 2021: Egypt's story

Fatemah Farag , Tuesday 23 Mar 2021

Across the country, instances of urban heritage plunder are being reported at alarming rates. A myriad of complex factors seem to conspire to bring down what is left of our cities as we know them

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Maspero: the old being taken over by the new. photo credit Ahram

Across the country, instances of urban heritage plunder are being reported at alarming rates. The crises of today come to a head as urban development projects, loopholes in heritage protection laws, a culmination of years of housing laws that failed to create incentives for conservation, among other factors all conspire to bring down what is left of our cities as we know them. And in so doing so, it is not just the cities that are torn apart, but ourselves

Everything about Mohamed Gohar exudes exactness. He meticulously wipes the possibility of dust off of his chair before perching on its edge; his navy blue tangzhuang-style jacket is neatly buttoned to the top, his elbows are tucked into his sides, hand movement is measured, and his deep-set eyes are full of seriousness.

It is late afternoon on a clear Alexandria winter day, and he asks me: “Do you know why we are always taking photos of the city from above? Aerial views or photos where we cancel out the surroundings by pointing the lens upwards? It is a defense mechanism – because at eye level everything around us is littered in fault.”

Gohar is an architect, artist, researcher, and founder of ‘Description of Alexandria’, a project that aims to document the architectural heritage of the city and the memories they embody.

In a compelling piece to The Guardian in 2019, Gohar wrote: “As an architect, I have been deeply impacted by the rapid loss of buildings, along with their architectural and historical values. The constant fear that the essence of the city will disappear and that I will lose all traces of my own past here, as well as the pasts of others who have lived in this city over the centuries gave me the urge to start documenting what is still standing before people or time tear it down.”

Almost two years after publishing the piece, and as we met this month, the rate of destruction has been pushed into fast gear. The already existing process of urban architectural heritage erosion has been spiked by zealous urban development plans which seem intent on steamrolling over the past. At the same time, cities are taken over by haphazard high-rises and in 2019 a ninth amnesty for illegal buildings was granted indicating these aberrations will stay.

According to Galila El-Kadi, architect and former head of research at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) in Paris, “The plans being rolled out today reflect a preoccupation with being able to move around the city without meeting roadblocks. They mirror what Baron Haussmann did to Paris after the 1848 Revolution. The military and security concerns then led to the creation of big highways at the expense of the medieval city. Even the corners of roads are not at right angles. And he [Haussmann] did not deny this was military planning.”

She adds that the architects that are bringing new urban development plans into effect in Egypt today are of the “modernists” school – a school of architecture that emerged in the 1920s. “They wanted to remove the old and replace it with the new; the idea being that every age has to have its own architecture. A movement of conservationist architects also developed and finally, in 1972, UNESCO recognized the latter.”

But it would seem that international thinking in regard to heritage, architecture, and urban development – reflected in UN Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Development and Communities, to which Egypt is a signatory – has little impact on many of the plans for cities in Egypt today. 

To give a sense of the past few months alone consider the following examples. After the wiping out of the Maspero Triangle – now the site of construction for a high-rise – many Heliopolis neighborhoods were devastated by the construction of a network of bridges and highways.

Determined moves on the Islamic City are in play, including the destruction of parts of the Mamluk Cemetery.

In Alexandria, the Faculty of Fine Arts is being evicted from two palaces it has inhabited for tens of years to be moved to a campus on the outskirts of town, gutting the city centre of yet another culture and arts venue, while the Atellier Alexandrie a few neighborhoods away struggles to resist eminent eviction.

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The Faculty of Fine Arts in Alexandria: what happens when it is no longer a center for the learning of art and culture? Photo courtesy Faculty of Fine Arts in Alexandria FaceBook page

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Atelier Alexandrie: fighting for survival .photo Amira El Noshokati

Further north in Edfina, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine is being evicted from the Royal Palaces (where the iconic Rita Hayworth stayed as the guest of Princess Fawzia with her then-husband Aly Khan in 1946) beautifully placed on the water’s edge and rumors are rife as to what will become of the property.

And in the Delta city of Mansoura, activists and citizens are in uproar over plans to remove several architectural landmarks and historic gardens, most notably the building currently inhabited by the Mansoura Cultural Palace, to make way for a new bridge.

At the same time some crises seem to have been averted such as the demolition of Barsoum Pasha’s Palace in Abasia, the erection of Cairo Eye, and the construction of a bridge over the Basilica Cathedral Bridge.

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Palace Barsoum Pasha in Abassiya. book Nineteenth-Century Cairene Houses and Palaces by Nihal Tamraz

But while all of these plans are now on hold, accountability with regards to how such plans came into being remains unrealized, and clarity that they will not be re-engaged in one form or another remains elusive.

And of course, there are different dynamics at play: some of the above examples are directly related to new urban development planning, some relate to the dismantling of a system that allowed government entities – such as the Ministry of Education – to repurpose heritage buildings to their needs, and others are related to private ownership and changes in the laws that regulate rent.

But ultimately these snapshots illustrate an overall process that moves forward at break-neck speed and does not give stakeholders much say in how their communities and neighborhoods will come to be.

To keep up seems almost impossible and in the words of a senior colleague who diligently attempts to cover all aspects of the challenges heritage now faces “I feel like I am running obituary content; not that of heritage conservation.”

This state of affairs is critical when we consider that Egypt has already suffered major losses of urban heritage. To give perspective, Mohamed El-Shahed in “Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide” considers that “the bulk of Cairo’s modern buildings worth protecting have already disappeared.” And the situation in the governorates – which for the most part are outside of the central public eye – is no better.

Population growth; education gaps

Urban growth has been incessant, creating pressures for housing and changing the demographic of cities for years. For example, Cairo grew from 2.5 million inhabitants in 1947 to more than 12 million in 2009. The UN estimates that 55 percent of a population will live in urban areas which means that over 65 million people are living in urban centres in Egypt today. To accommodate this growth, El-Shahed points out that “The majority of the population built without the services of trained architects.”

And according to David Simms, “In 1950, virtually the whole of Cairo could be considered as formal. By 2009, a conservative estimate of 63 percent of the city’s inhabitants lived in areas developed informally. Architects are entirely absent from those areas.”

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Surviving time: the distinct architectural heritage of Garden City. Photo credit Amira El Noshokaty

While the tradition of self-building is partly a reason, it is important to realise that even in specialised education, the legacy of Egypt’s architects — and architecture — is absent. Gohar concurs that the works of contemporary Egyptian architecture is not even taught at schools of architecture. “I never learned about these things at university. For sure our education system has a negative impact on our knowledge of and therefore appreciation of heritage and our history.”

Managing the “housing crises”

Central to policies that aim to provide housing to Egyptians has been some form of rent control that goes as far back as the 1920s. While some would argue that rent control laws made it difficult for owners to bring down buildings sooner and that the current dismantling of rent control is contributing to the faster pace of urban heritage loss, there is also overwhelming evidence that it contributed to disincentivizing building preservation.

According to Yahia Shawkat’s outstanding work “Egypt’s Housing Crises: The Shaping of Urban Space.” by the time the Housing Law of 1977 was ratified, deterioration on a mass scale was already afoot.

The law “ignored the fact that older buildings, most of which were under rent control, were deteriorating at an alarming rate. In 1975, it was estimated that 700,000 homes – or about 10 per cent of the existing stock – were on the verge of collapse. Another contemporary’s estimate suggested that there were around 12,000 collapses a year nationwide.”

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Alexandria today: a rich architectural heritage at risk. Photo credit Fatemah Farag

He goes on to point out that the main cause was lack of maintenance. “They [the owners] usually hoped that the building would ultimately collapse, as this was one of the cheaper legal ways the rent-controlled contract would end.”

Almost 20 years later, Law 4/1996 came into effect and abolished rent control of new units and vacated old units. Shawkat writes that by 2013, one third of 390 building collapses were old buildings in need of repair while 15 percent were “structurally sound buildings that had suffered internal or external action that violated their structural integrity.”

In Minya, a few weeks ago, a short walk through the old town evidenced wonderful old structures still standing. But many are empty of residents, exhibiting telltale signs of eminent destruction, such as windows and doors having been gutted; stories on the street of contractors buying and getting ready for the right moment to capitalise on their investment by building a high-rise on as much of the land as possible are commonplace across the country every day.

Today, old rents represent a low percentage of overall housing and eviction of legal entities has now been added to the mix with the Administrative Court decision in 2019.

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Remains of a different time: Boots in Alexandria. Photo credit Fatemah Farag

Protection measures; back doors

El-Kadi describes the mid-nineties to 2011 as the “golden age” of protecting urban heritage. “The 1992 earthquake had a ‘wake up’ effect in that it made it clear we can lose places that are landmarks and that we love and that there is a need to protect our urban heritage, which is already fragile because of pollution and the fact that people inhabit it. This is when the National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH) came into being, Muiz Street became a pedestrian area, and the Darb El-Ahmar project took place and was a resounding success.” 

Prior to that, in the 1980s, legislation started to come into place to protect urban heritage - a central piece being Article 1 of Law 117/1983, which states that “artefacts […] which are indicative of different historic periods from prehistory to a hundred years ago” may be considered for heritage status.

Some argue that there is a discrepancy in procedure, making it more difficult to register a building on the heritage list than to obtain a demolition order.

But also, the common attitude is that property owners fear their buildings will get listed as heritage or antiquities buildings. According to El-Shahed, these laws have often been “translated as a deadline for owners to damage or demolish their buildings since heritage status as it is currently prescribed in Egyptian law does not translate in financial benefits to owners.”

Ultimately the lack of capacity to enact the law and the dominance of market forces influence the narrative. “Since 2011, the pace of demolitions has intensified, as land value appreciates, municipal corruption is unchecked, and the speculative real-estate market expands,” he concludes.  

Where is the win?

Development and rebirth are normal processes. For example, many of Cairo’s iconic structures such as the Immobilia Building (1940) replaced the neo-Islamic palace Hotel Saint-Maurice (1879).

In a previous interview, Alexandria architect May El-Tabakh had pointed out that “we need to differentiate between the process of defining what is a heritage building and how it will be protected and documented, and the failure of urban planning. If something comes down, the travesty becomes what comes in its place. Buildings built too high without consideration of existing infrastructure, proper spacing, and other zoning requirements; without these we are left with a mess.”

So, a focus on urban planning moving forward and also documentation of what still exists seems to stand out as main action points.

In the meantime, some see the visit of the Prime Minister last week to Islamic Cairo, in which he stated that the heritage buildings of the area are a “civilisational heritage treasure that requires of us all to protect,” as a positive signal moving forward.

El-Kadi is optimistic; “This is a struggle and a long one at that. But every step forward is a win.”

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