On Cairo's soul, transformations, and survival

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 11 Sep 2022

With a decree, issued earlier in the summer, to extend the administrative boundaries of Cairo to include the New Administrative Capital, Cairo is again proving to be a city eternal, no matter the metamorphosis, architect and restorer Mona Zakaria says.

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Overlooking the unique minaret of the Mosque of Ahmed Ibn Toulon at today’s "Old Cairo," Zakaria's office has an exquisite location. She set up the office at a mediaeval house that she restored to be the centre of her work that aims to maintain the soul of the city. 

Central to the scheme that she decided to undertake, Zakaria adds, is to "correct the narrative" about the city. “It was always there … and it is all Egyptian… this is what the identity of this city is about, whatever it was called whenever it was called,” Zakaria says.

According to this architect whose work is hitched to a passion for history, it is “simply wrong to go along with the narrative that assumes that Cairo is the city that the Fatimids built in the 10th century”. 

Zakaria rejects what she describes as “the dominant narrative” that argues that first there was Al-Fustat that Amr Ibn Al-Aas built upon the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, then Al-Askar that the Abbassids built, then Al-Qata’i of Ahmed Ibn Toulon, and then Cairo.

For Zakaria it was the Nile and not the subsequent "conquerors" who came across the centuries that built this city.


“The city came to life on the banks of the Nile and it moved and made its transformations as the Nile moved, and it was essentially about where the Egyptians lived,” she points out. 
Amr Ibn Al-Aas, she notes, “came to the part of the city where people lived next to the Nile and built his mosque, which expanded throughout the years right alongside the Nile.”

From that day on, Zakaria says, the city has expanded in so many ways that essentially relate to the evolutions of the Nile – including those forced de-hydrating schemes in the 17th and 18th centuries when it was "fashionable", just as it was the case in some European cities, to dry the branches of the Nile to build in their place, with El-Azbakiya that was practically built on the pond known as Berket Batn El-Baqar being a very prominent example there.

The extension of the city is what Zakaria thinks is the best way to qualify the subsequent construction of capitals that Arab rulers chose to have. And again, she says that it was “all Egyptian” with some inevitable foreign influences that got exaggerated down the years. 

For example, Zakaria mocks “this narrative” that the minaret of the Ibn Toulon Mosque is inspired by some East Asian designs. “Nonsense,” she lashes. “The fact is it is the work of a Coptic designer/builder” Said Ben Kateb who accommodated the wish of Ibn Toulon to ascend to the top of the minaret on his horse.

“There are so many narratives that were meant to divert the due credit for what this city is about, but we have to understand what this city is really about; it is about the work of the Egyptians and it should not be seen in any different light,” Zakaria notes. She adds that Cairo can always accommodate and absorb endless extensions just as it previously did, without ever losing its soul.

“Cairo has accommodated transformations and moulded them into the Egyptian pattern. It also survived destruction by invaders, just as it did after the French bombarded all the districts of the city following the rebellion of the Egyptians against the French invasion of the city,” she states. Other destruction, she argues, was imposed to allow for more construction, “as was the case upon the construction of Mohamed Ali Road.

“When this was done the new road was complemented for its arcades and modernity, but in fact it was built upon the venue of houses that were destructed.

“Egyptians hate to see their houses demolished; it is something about the Egyptian psyche; they would always refer to it as the ‘Day of Qalawan,’ in reference to the demolitions that were imposed on some nearby houses to allow for the introduction of the big columns to the vicinity of the mosque,” Zakaria explains.

As with some other medieval architectural landmarks, the construction of this 14th century mosque included the introduction of incredibly big columns brought from Pharaonic temples.

However, she adds, “the city always survived the bad days and continued to expand, but it always kept a very unique soul; the soul of the city is what really counts when we talk about new expansions or restoration.” 

Zakaria points out that today’s Cairo “might look for some as a city burdened with so much weight of neglect and chaos,” but it is in fact a city that managed to allow for its people to have a place to live somehow no matter the acute housing problem “which by the way is not going to be resolved by just constructing many more housing blocs but by being considerate about the nature of housing that the city and its people could take.”

Again, she adds that this “is not new” because it was this feeling that the city was ailing with poverty and neglect along with the interest to pursue the European way of doing things that inspired the construction of what was a newer part of the city in the 19th century. Inevitably, she says, the old and the new coexisted and slowly merged into the Cairo of today.

According to Zakaria, this could happen today as well, with the now perceived ‘older neighbourhoods’ and the newer extensions up to the New Administrative Capital. “It is just a matter of having a clear idea on how to do things to make them fit into the Egyptian soul of the city. 

It is just a matter of working to make things happen, she argues.

“We have an incredible style that we can work around; we can accommodate and harness so many different styles, but we should keep our eyes focused on what this city is about,” she says.

The Egyptian style of building, she says, has always been the thread that knitted the texture of this city together over the centuries – and it still could, provided it is not overlooked in faovur of any superimposed inspirations.

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