Beit Madkour remains threatened with demolition

Salma Shukrallah , Monday 25 May 2015

Cairo governor gives one month for a solution to be found to save the inhabited 19th-century building

A courtyard in Beit Madkour in Cairo's Darb Al-Ahmar neighborhood (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Behind a destroyed façade, in Cairo's historical Darb El-Ahmar district, is hidden a unique architectural masterpiece known as Beit Madkour, which has raised controversy of late, after a decision to demolish it was postponed last week for a month.

The property's owners insist that the building is on the verge of collapse, and that they have successfully obtained a permit for its removal.

If plans for demolition went ahead, the house's residents, who have lived there for generations, would be evacuated, and the historical building would be torn down, to meet the same fate as several others now removed from the area.

Beit Madkour (the House of Madkour) is one of many historical buildings -- mosques, shrines, houses and workshops -- in Cairo's Darb El-Ahmar (the Red Road) district, which runs from Cairo's Citadel to Bab Zuweila (Cairo's Southern Gate), with narrow alleyways branching out of it.

Opposite Beit Madkour to the west is the Altunbugha Al-Maridani Mosque, while to its east are the remains of the Ottoman-era Abdeen Gawish praying corner, currently used as an informal settlement and overlooking the Fatma El-Nabaweya Mosque.

Only this week, the Aytmish El-Bagassi Miosque in the same area was inaugurated after restoration, marking one of several conservation attempts that have been ongoing for years in El-Darb El-Ahmar.  

But El-Darb El-Ahmar has fallen victim to destruction and random unregulated constructions, says Omniya Abdel Barr from the Save Cairo campaign.

In fact, Beit Madkour is flanked by two new, relatively tall buildings. One of them, explains resident Mohamed Hashem, is built on an old shrine of Sidi Ali Abu El-Nour.

"Beit Madkour is part of the fabric of the Tabbana Street, which has remained as it is since the mid-14th century," explains campaigner Abdel Barr, who fears the house will meet the same fate as the neighboring shrine.

Although the house is believed to date back to the mid-19th century, Abdel Barr says its location proves that its foundation has been part of the street ever since the Mamluk age, when Cairo's elite lived in the area.

"It may have been altered or expanded, but its foundation was part of the street," says El-Barr.

Since historical Cairo does not lay under the jurisdiction of one entity, despite requests from UNESCO, according to Abdel Barr, responsibility for its protection and maintenance is lost somewhere between the Ministry of Antiquities, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Housing, the Ministry of Endowments and Cairo Governorate. 

Dropped from a heritage list in 2011

The controversy surrounding the Beit Madkour started when it was removed from a heritage list in 2011. 

Although the house was -- and still is -- not registered as a monument, until then, its presence on the list had saved it from demolition.

But decision 960 of year 2011, issued by the prime minister at the time, delisted the house. The details of the decision and the reasoning behind it remain unclear, according to Abdel Barr.

The owners of Beit Madkour argue that the building is on the verge of collapse and has been accordingly marked as dangerous for occupation.

But its occupants, now composed of four families and shop owners, as well as Save Cairo, disagree.

The complete destruction of the house entrance gives a misleading impression, leaving many visitors surprised at the view inside. The house, which covers more than two thousand square meters, is centred around a huge courtyard.

Although parts of this courtyard have been occupied by unregulated constructions since the seventies, it is still surrounded by the original house's main rooms and halls.

With high ceilings and large coloured glass windows, the two-storey building's walls and ceilings are painted. The second floor, which can be reached via a wooden stairway, has a dome at its centre that was once covered with red, green and blue glass tiles and carved iron works, according to residents, but that have all since been looted.   

"The façade was destroyed intentionally to give the impression that the house is on the verge of collapse," says Mohamed Hashem, one of the residents. "The house was torched twice while we were sleeping."

New request to be listed

A request filed by Deputy Antiquities Minister Mohamed Abdel-Aziz last week, demanding that Beit Madkour be re-listed as an a heritage site, recognises that a major fire ten years ago caused destruction to the second floor.

Some parts of the house have already been torn down by district authorities, including some doors and coloured window glass.

Electricity and water services were cut, before the residents renegotiated the decision with district authorities.

And sewage is clearly a problem, with water covering parts of the courtyard entrance.

"We are not even able to properly fix the sewage problem, given the current situation," said Ahmed, one of the residents, who explained that they have spent years in negotiations over the building's fate, and could still be evacuated any day.

"We filed two lawsuits [against the owners], one by the residents and another by the shop owners, but there hasn't been a verdict yet, and the district is asking us for a verdict or they would go ahead with the evacuation decision," shop owner Mohamed Nesim tells Ahram Online.

One of the carpentry workshops for which Darb El-Ahmar is famous, Nesim's shop is located on the outside of the building, with its entrance in a side alleyway, while the building's residential quarters overlook the central courtyard.  

A month to be saved

After a successful online campaign by Save Cairo, campaign representatives finally held a meeting last week with Cairo Governor Galal Saed, a district representative, a legal consultant and Deputy Antiquities Minister for historical Cairo Mohamed Abdel-Aziz.

"During the meeting, both Save Cairo and the Antiquities Ministry questioned how the house was removed from the heritage list by a decree from the prime minister, but no answer was given," says Abdel Barr. 

As a possible solution, Abdel-Aziz filed a request with the Antiquities Minister to have it registered as a monument in order to save it from destruction, after it was no longer classified as a house of heritage value. The committee for Islamic and Coptic monuments is to inspect the request.

Meanwhile, Save Cairo has suggested starting a fundraising campaign to buy the house and save it from destruction.

Cairo Governor Galal Saed, who confirmed that the owners' documents were legally sound, has given a grace period of one month for the house to either be listed as a monument, or purchased from its original owners.

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