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Thursday, 23 September 2021

Cairo Biography: The beauty is in the details

How well do you know the magnificent city that was dubbed 'The Conqueror'?

Amira Noshokaty , Monday 16 Aug 2021
The oldest houses
Inside one of the oldest houses in Old Cairo. Photo by Amina Noshokaty
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How many times have you wandered around and marvelled at the alleys and streets of Cairo and found yourself asking for more information while reveling in the magnificence of the city that was dubbed ‘The Conqueror’? If the answer is “a lot”, then Syrat Al-Qahera - Cairo Biography might be for you.

Taking us on one of his Sunday walks, Zizo Abdou, founder of Syrat Al-Qahera - Cairo Biography is beyond passionate about this city. The way he introduced us to every side street and alley reflected a deep respect and awareness of the intangible heritage of this rich capital we call home. His ability to see the grace and beauty of the city even when buried in heaps of dust made the walk a real treat.

A graduate of the Faculty of Arts — majoring in history — of Cairo University, Abdou decided to put his knowledge into practice.

“I have studied history academically, and I am very interested in researching the blueprints of the city, the heritage sites, the names of the hamlets and streets, the sites of the ruins or what is left of them, and the concept of the city,” Abdou told Ahram Online.

The oldest houses
Zizo Abdou leading one of his Sunday Walks in the heart of Islamic Cairo. Photo by Amira Noshokaty

The concept of the Cairo Biography Initiative materialised a year ago when Abdou launched a campaign to clean up the less popular antiquated sites of Old Cairo such as Al-Moez Street.

“Wherever we walk, there are countless unknown antiquated buildings found in hamlets and alleys. One year ago, I suggested the idea and people supported it; so, we decided to clean up five heritage sites last September. Afterwards, I created a Facebook page I called ‘Syrat Al Qahera - Cairo Biography’,” added Abdou.

With a large pool of volunteers and supporters, the initiative was a success, and they managed to clean up Zawyet Hassan Al-Romy and the Dome of Qonsowa Abu Said (Also known as the Dome of Abu Gamous).

Zawyet Hassan Al-Roumy was built by Khayer Beik in 1522 AD during the reign of Sultan Selim Al-Qanouni Ibn Selim Al-Awal. Facing it is the Dome of Qonsowa Abu Said, which is a Mamluk relic that dates back to the end of the 15th century. Both sites are located at the beginning of Seket Al-Hagar, off Al-Remeila Square, and left of Al-Gabal Citadel.

The initiative was very well received by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities as well as the local authorities, who supervised the process and encouraged the young volunteers to take part in the upkeep of these sites.

The page is now dedicated to publishing about and raising awareness on the heritage sites of the city of Cairo, as well as announcing the volunteering schedules to clean up these locations.  

Pathways of Abundance

The idea of raising awareness to these sites rose to a whole new level when Cairo Biography produced a series of short videos titled ‘Men Dorobha Al-Amera’ (‘From its Abundant Pathways’).

Launched in Ramadan 2021, the videos focused on the intangible heritage of a certain street, hamlet, or a whole historic neighbourhood. The episodes covered various locations, such as Al-Tablawi, Al-Qerabia, Al-Megharbelin, and the tales of many more alleys and locales of historic Cairo.

Packed with interesting documentation on the city, the videos are well made, well researched, and highlight the social history of the sites in an interesting and informative format.

“Targeting the people who live in these historic neighbourhoods, the videos were well received and shared by the same people they were made for,” he noted.

Inspired by Antiquities

Additionally, Cairo Biography also now has its own podcasts that are more like personal narratives of Abdou and how he perceives the intangible history of the heritage sites he has covered.

‘Tagaliat Men Wahi Al-Athar’ (‘Manifestations Inspired by Antiquities’) are short tales of Cairo written in a simple form, focusing on a different heritage site every episode.

“It is very different, because in the podcasts, I talk about my personal experience with the heritage site and how it inspired my imagination,” he noted.

The Sunday Walks

Given that Sundays are usually a day off for most of the workshops in historic Cairo, Abdou decided that they would be the most suitable for his heritage walks within the city.  

“It’s the best time to watch the details of the city unfold without the daily hustle and bustle,” he explained.

“On such walks, we pick a street and marvel at its details, for the city is not only about the buildings: it’s about the intangible heritage of such buildings, the meanings behind the names of the streets, and even the way the street signs were crafted.”

Currently, Cairo Biography is preparing for a series of workshops that aim to increase the awareness of the people living in heritage sites towards the historic areas they call home.

“We will be starting in the Souk Al-Selah area. Another idea we are working on is trying to revisit forgotten specialised museums like the postal, agriculture, and railway museums,” he concluded.

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