INTERVIEW: Honouring the ‘mother of the arts’

Ahmed Abdel-Hafez, Thursday 7 Jul 2022

Al-Ahram Weekly talks to Soheir Hawas, recipient of this year’s State Appreciation Award in Arts and Architecture, about her career saving Cairo’s built cultural heritage

mother of the arts


“Khedival Cairo” and “Historic Cairo” have become terms familiar to all with any knowledge of the culture and history of the Egyptian capital. They were coined by eminent professor of urban design Soheir Zaki Hawas, notably the author of the Encyclopaedia of Khedival Cairo: Identification and Documentation of Urban Architecture in Downtown Cairo (2002).

This seminal work, which establishes the boundaries and features of this part of the city, was the fruit of extensive research begun in 1996. It is one of the many contributions that Hawas has made to the study of Cairo’s architecture and for which she was awarded this year’s State Appreciation Award in Arts and Architecture.

The Encyclopaedia “came as a surprise to the government and experts in the field,” Hawas recalls. It went on to become a foundational work for legislation aiming to conserve this important part of Egyptian history and the urban environment as part of the nation’s cultural heritage.

The first legislation to protect Egypt’s unique urban heritage was adopted in 2004, resolving debates about identifying what is both old and architecturally unique and therefore meriting conservation. The legislation established the National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH) and led to the inclusion of a chapter in Unified Building Law 119/2008 updating architectural regulations in urban areas.

It empowered the NOUH to identify areas, buildings, and establishments of unique architectural value and equipped it with the tools to delineate boundaries and set requirements for the preservation of this heritage. Hawas served on the technical committee of the NOUH, whose mission depended heavily on the research she undertook for the Encyclopaedia of Khedival Cairo.

Downtown Cairo often inspires nostalgia, but it can also trigger anger over sometimes ugly encroachments onto the façades of elegant buildings. Unsightly signs and billboards, non-harmonious architectural modifications, and unplanned changes in commercial activities have eroded the area’s sophisticated charm.

For these reasons, Hawas’ Encyclopaedia was greeted with pleasure by all lovers of Downtown Cairo and architecture buffs on its appearance in 2002. Today, social media often comes alive with before-and-after images of newly renovated buildings restored to their former elegance in the area. Hawas’ Encyclopaedia has entries on them all, detailing their history, date of construction, architects, owners, internal and external building materials, architectural style, and other such information.

On the basis of this vast database, former prime minister Ibrahim Mahleb appointed her to launch the Downtown Cairo Renovation Project that aimed to renovate and restore the façades of 200 buildings in the area between Ramses, Tahrir, and Ataba squares.  

The expertise that Hawas has acquired through her academic work and applied activities have made her someone to look up to for the younger generations of Egyptian and Arab architects, for whom the lexicon of urban heritage has become a lingua franca.

“I have received many awards in Arab and European capitals,” Hawas told Al-Ahram Weekly. “But the recognition I have received in Egypt has given me a joy that exceeds all others. I had no idea that the Society of Egyptian Architects had nominated me for this Award. It came as such a surprise. But for me it was an important sign that I was headed in the right direction.

“When I was working on documenting the buildings of Khedival Cairo, all this invaluable heritage filled me with pride. I felt I was working with my own property,” she said.

But there are problems facing efforts to conserve the city’s architectural heritage. “These buildings are a form of national wealth, but, unlike antiquities, they are not owned by the state. They belong to the property owners, and they are still in use. This is why it is important that the owners and users of this valuable architectural heritage also feel a sense of pride and belonging,” Hawas said.

“This applies to urban areas all around the world. The urban heritage belongs to the society that owns and uses it. If societies do not recognise the value of what they possess, that value will depreciate.”

Hawas hopes the government will do more to help the occupants of historic buildings maintain and renovate them. She would like to see the introduction of regulations that would require the occupants to maintain the buildings and their facades in ways that use original materials and conform with an authentic style.

This would help support the owners of these buildings and save them from attempts to have them removed from the national heritage list, enabling their demolition and the sale of the land. Incentives are needed in order to persuade owners to conserve the buildings, she said.

Hawas’ definition of architecture is rooted in a particular philosophy. “Architecture is the mother of the arts. It combines rhythm, repetition, and harmony like in music, and proportions, materials, and their effects like in the plastic arts. When you design a building, you are creating a three-dimensional work of art. You need to look at it in several ways, from several perspectives, and from both the inside and the outside to fully appreciate the aesthetics of architecture.”

Time is a crucial criterion when it comes to architecture, she said. Time is not just about chronology or history. “It is the cumulative time between viewing the structure from the outside and then going inside to view it from the interior and appreciate its uses.”

 “Architectural aesthetics also do not stop at style and façades. They include the ability of the exterior and interior designs to serve the intended use of the building. If a building is meant to be a hospital, the more the design facilitates how the users operate and function within the building, the more beautiful and comfortable it is. The same applies to designs for a school or university,” Hawas concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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