Erasing history: Old Cairo residents warn of land theft, disappearing monuments

Nada El-Kouny , Tuesday 17 Jul 2012

Local residents of Old Cairo's Fustat – Islamic Egypt’s first capital – say they live in fear of local mafia that is stealing state land and destroying ancient monuments

Rubbles and remains of old wall, Fustat, Ezbet Khayrallah, Cairo (Photo: Nada El-Kouny)

In the run-down neighbourhood of Ezbet Khayrallah in southern Cairo, a new incident of land theft appears to be taking place. This time, however, it is taking place in the historical site of Fustat in Old Cairo – Egypt’s first capital – which is full of monuments and artefacts dating as far back as 641 AD, when Amr Ibn El-Ass first entered Egypt.

The site in question is approximately 250 metres away from the Amr Ibn El-Aas Mosque, situated next to another monumental tomb site known as the 'Domes of the Seven Girls.'  

According to local residents, a number of armed men entered the land – which is owned by the state – one week before last month's presidential elections and began to bulldoze the area. The area is now a rubble-filled plain with few remnants of the monuments and historical buildings that had been there.

One inhabitant of the area showed Ahram Online the site in question, but declined to provide his name out of fears for his own safety and that of his family.

He claimed that an "armed gang" consisting of several wealthy local residents had been bulldozing the area each night from around 9pm. Some 15 armed men, he said, stand by to guard the operation. 

He went on to say that the men had begun dividing the land among each other into parcels of approximately 800 square metres each.

While Ahram Online was unable to see the entire site due largely to the visitor-unfriendly atmosphere (picture-taking, for example, was strongly discouraged), it was evident that metal poles had been sunk into the ground to mark the different sections.  

It is unclear, however, what exactly is to be built on the land, but – based on similar incidents elsewhere – a number of residential units are expected to spring up soon.   

"I want to make sure that the names [of those responsible] are mentioned, because given Egypt's ongoing security vacuum, only the media can shed light on the situation," said the anonymous local resident. 

He went on to say that approximately 56 people were involved in the activity, the best known of whom were Ahmed El-Sayed Metwally, Shehab Ahmed Barooma, Ahmed Saad, Mohamed Kahana, Hussein Rashwan, Hosni Saad and Ibrahim Saad – all of them relatively wealthy entrepreneurs from the neighbourhood.

Saad and Barooma, said the source, both joined the scheme on the same day that results of Egypt's first post-Mubarak presidential poll were announced on 24 June.

The source said that several of the men had been involved in drug dealing, including Saad, who, he said, had recently been released from jail. Others, such as Barooma, he said, were real-estate brokers.

Ahram Online was not, however, able to independently verify his allegations.

The area, surrounded by residential buildings and woodwork workshops, is now filled mostly with rubble. "Very few of the original landmarks remain," he said.

"We've been living in fear for a month," said the resident, who lives next to the site and was very reluctant to appear in public. "Gunshots can be heard throughout the night."

He recalled how the trouble had begun in early June, one week before Egypt's hotly-contested presidential runoff, when three of the men had forcefully entered the area claiming that they were going to build a garage.

When faced with resistance by a local watchman, said the source, the men beat him. The watchman has since been co-opted by the gang after being bribed, the source added, and has allowed them to continue their activities.

"In an attempt to divert attention from the case, they have also begun spreading rumours that the monuments in question are pharaonic and not Islamic and should therefore be destroyed," he said. He doubts, however, that the men are motivated by religious sentiment.

This is taking place in the absence of the archeological mission, conducted within the scientific activities of the French Archaeological Institute in Cairo (IFAO) that has conducted several excavations for almost 30 years.  

From May to September each year, the archeological mission takes a four-month vacation, which, the source said, the gang has taken advantage of.

Ahram Online was unable to reach the institute officials for comment at the time this article is being written.   

According to government official Mohamed Mahgoub, manager of antiquities for Old Cairo and Fustat, the area was considered a historical site and everything within its confines is considered a historical landmark.

He went on to explain that any building that has existed for more than 100 years and has "significant architectural elements" was considered a historical monument.

The source said that several complaints had been presented to the authorities – he claims to have notified Old Cairo police station himself, numerous times – but to no avail. He believes that Egypt's antiquities ministry is aware of the issue, but has chosen to turn a blind eye to it.

According to an inspector from the antiquities ministry, who specialises in Fustat and its environs, the ministry was aware of what was taking place and had notified the tourism and antiquities police. 

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the inspector conceded that – despite several complaints – nothing had been done about it. "It's out of our hands; we're not an executive body," he stated. "It is up to the authorities to act, but it doesn't appear to be a priority for them at the moment."

Archaeologist Mahmoud Arafa, who works in the South Cairo area, stated that, over the last year, such incidents had become increasingly common.

Only six months ago, he said, a section of the historic Ibn Tulun aqueduct – located in Old Cairo's Basatin area – was destroyed to open the road to pedestrian traffic.He attributed this largely toa lack of understanding on the part of the general public about the importance of preserving historical monuments. 

According to Mahgoub, such incidents have become increasingly common since the 1980s – largely as a result of increased urban encroachment – especially in slum areas like Ezbet Khayrallah.  

"This isn't an isolated case; it happens in most slum areas where encroachment on uninhabited land is taking place," said Hashem, 30, who works at a workshop not far from the site in Fustat. "It's a shame, since this is a historic area in which some of Egypt's most famous personages have been buried."

Ramadan, 60, who owns a coffee shop in the area, voiced similar sentiments. "We cannot so easily erase this history and this great period, to which we look back in pride; most notably, the Islamic conquest of Egypt."

He went on to warn the perpetrators against going through with what he described as "acts of terrorism" and "blatant barbarism."

Hashem, for his part, was more fatalistic, saying that nothing could be done to curb the phenomenon, since the perpetrators "have the wealth and the power, so no one can do anything but sit idly by and watch."

Given the ongoing absence of police and the generally lax security situation since last year's Tahrir Square uprising, Cairo's run-down areas like Ezbet Khairallah remain largely neglected. Illegal construction and land encroachment are hardly uncommon sights.

According to Ramadan, a general feeling of fear and unease pervades the area, with many residents expressing doubt that Egypt's new president would do anything to address their grievances. 

* Ahram Online had previously mentioned that the armed gang has taken advantage of the absence of the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology's, which takes a four-month leave. This has been corrected as the archeological mission, not the institute itself, is on leave during the summer season.

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