A contradictory case

Ziyad Bahaa Eldin, Tuesday 19 Jul 2022

Ziyad Bahaa Eldin explores the modernisation and preservation urban heritage issues implicit in the Imbaba houseboats case


Can the state’s programmes for urban development and infrastructure modernisation be reconciled with preserving the historical, cultural and civilisational identity of Cairo and other Egyptian cities? Is that contradiction inevitable? Must we demolish old monuments, neighbourhoods and historical sites in order to meet the growing needs for housing, roads, bridges, services and commercial spaces? Or is there an alternative approach?

I am not the only person concerned by such questions, which are on the minds of all those who follow, with sadness, the demise of old houses, historical tombs, trees and gardens, cultural and civilisational landmarks that have given Egyptian cities their unique character and made them the focus of the world’s attention, in addition to prompting countries around us to try to recreate them in order to give their new cities the fragrance of a history that is hard to replicate.

What prompted me to write about this subject is the recent debate about removing the Imbaba houseboats which received attention and follow-up not only at the local level, but also internationally, as the issue made the headlines of major foreign newspapers and attracted significant criticism.

The origin of the issue is that the bank of the Nile in the Imbaba area housed about 30 houseboats that have been in place for decades, with their owners benefiting from the right to use the small plots of land on the Corniche required to anchor the houseboat and use them as private residences. These houseboats acquired historical and cultural value and became a landmark of ancient Cairo, as immortalised by the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz in his novels, as well as by our classical films as a symbol of a safe haven from a noisy home, tight marital control, or the royal political police.

However, about two years ago, the authorities began asking the owners of the houseboat to pay exorbitant fees in exchange for the continuation of the right to keep them in place, then they decided to ban the anchoring of the residential houseboats on the Imbaba Corniche and limit them to those with tourism licences, then the owners were notified that all houseboats will be withdrawn from their places and stored for a month at an official site after which each owner is obligated to find a different place. The dispute continued until the instructions to evacuate the houseboats were implemented and taken away about a month ago. I imagine that  they will shortly be demolished and sold at auction when the owners are unable to find another site or pay the exorbitant fees that are now due.

Was this unfortunate result inevitable? Is the demise of the houseboats a tax that must be paid in order to achieve the required development? Or is there another solution?

This is the main urban development problem that countries around the world have dealt with, and there are lessons and successful experiences that can be replicated to achieve the right balance of economic, developmental and cultural public interests at the same time. The key is to consider heritage assets as real assets, not obstacles that stand in the way of development. Countries aware of this problem have tended to consider such heritage at the heart of urban planning, turning old buildings and heritage monuments into museums, libraries, commercial and tourist centres, and involved the surrounding community in protecting and managing them, in addition to unleashing creative and technological energies to develop and maintain such heritage.

This is a big issue and it needs contributions from experts in architecture, planning, archaeology and economics, abundant in Egypt, and offering their expertise across the region, so there is no harm in our government seeking their assistance in protecting the identity and social fabric of Egyptian cities.

In application of the above, let me return to the Imbaba houseboats. The government seems to have achieved its goal, which is evacuating the Imbaba Corniche from the houseboats, probably in preparation for projects that I am personally not aware of. This, however,  does not mean wasting this unique aspect of Egypt’s contemporary history and leaving the houseboats parked and seized until they are sold as “junk” to cover the exorbitant fees imposed on their owners. My suggestion is for the Ministry of Tourism to follow up on this file in order to convert the houseboats into tourist assets, and this requires the fulfilment of four integrated items: dropping the exorbitant fees that were imposed during the past two years on the owners because they deserve compensation not punishment; allowing the houseboats to remain in the government warehouse for at least six months free of charge until alternative sites are found and equipped; facilitating the issuance of tourist licences; and arranging alternative sites for anchoring the houseboats on the longer term.

This will not cost the state much, but it would definitely be worth the effort because it would preserve valuable heritage assets, a beautiful Cairo landmark, in addition to improving our standing with international organisations concerned with supporting the preservation of urban heritage. More importantly, the success of an experiment of this kind and a relatively happy ending may open the door for other similar initiatives and further cooperation between various concerned parties so that we gradually reach that sound balance between modernisation on the one hand, and the preservation of our cultural and human heritage on the other.


This article also appears in today’s edition of the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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