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Documenting Heliopolis

Documenting the architectural heritage of the Cairo district of Heliopolis may be the only way to save the neighbourhood for future generations

Dina Ezzat , Friday 19 Jun 2020
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Heliopolis’ old houses, the Basilica, and the metro were once the architectural expressions of the district (Photos: Courtesy of Michel Hanna)
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“If all the images and sounds that I have saved in my mind were to disappear, I would still find a pleasant wind of fresh air that would carry me on a magic carpet one early morning to Heliopolis, while I stand here in a city that is thousands of kilometres away.”

Egyptian novelist May Telmissany, a professor of art at the University of Ottawa in Canada, wrote these lines in her story about a place she has long kept in her heart — the Cairo district of Heliopolis.

This story, “Heliopolis,” was published along with six others in the collection A Magic Eye in 2017. This was one year after her novel Heliopolis was published. It was reprinted in January this year by Al-Shorouk in Cairo.

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In both texts, Telmissany, born and brought up in Heliopolis, reflects on the neighbourhood that she grew up to see as a “land of dreams” and which has been turning over the years into a kind of “paradise lost”, or almost.

For Telmissany, born in 1965, her neighbourhood is not the one that it has today become, but the one that she knew and lived in before she took off to another life thousands of kilometres away from a family house that overlooked Abu Bakr Al-Seddik Street, one of the main avenues in this suburb built in the early 20th century and named “the city of the sun”.

Telmissany’s city is one where the buildings are beautiful with an architecture that gives balconies their due status and where streets enjoy the shade of beautiful trees. It is one where stores are owned or run by people who call Heliopolis their home even if their origins are elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

Telmissany’s Heliopolis is also close to that of Egyptian-born French novelist Robert Solé, being “a paradise with a magical name… a city of gardens built in the desert… that has gone through the past decade under so much pressure that it has become a very different place to those who grew up in it” in the 1940s and 1950s.

These changes have prompted Telmissany to try to capturing a time that she says “has now long gone by”.

While she was celebrating the new edition of “Regaining Heliopolis,” Telmissany was also engaged in a heated debate over a neighbourhood that has now lost the tram that for decades connected it to older neighbourhoods like Matariya and the adjacent younger neighbourhood of Nasr City and has seen the elimination of green areas and trees to construct a series of flyovers.

Like many other residents of Heliopolis who remember its past glory, Telmissany is discomforted by the flyovers that have turned several avenues from being quiet and shady streets into highways.

“The dilapidation of the unique beauty of Heliopolis started decades ago,” she said. It was in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the decline became palpable. “Beyond all the embellishment or nostalgia, Heliopolis was in fact a place for the middle classes of the early 20th century, call them middle and upper middle classes or whatever, but these classes were educated and open to others, and they wanted to have a good quality of life marked by simplicity and beauty.

“When this class was challenged by the open-door policy introduced in the mid-1970s, things changed for the place as well for the people,” she said.

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Telmissany remembers seeing many balconies in the streets of her neighbourhood being closed off with rough aluminum and glass. She remembers families removing beautiful old interior tiles to bring in new ceramic ones instead.

“It was horrible to see this, because it was not just about the tiles or the balconies closed to the sun. It was about a whole culture where beauty and simplicity were disappeared and something else that was very rough taking over at high speed,” Telmissany said.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was not just the balconies that were being closed, but entire villas and three-to-four-storey apartment buildings were being knocked down to allow for high-rise buildings with hardly any balconies and often without ceramics on the façades.

CHANGES: For Solé, who was born in 1946 and left Egypt along with many others in the wake of the 1956 Suez Crisis, the change of the nature of Heliopolis started earlier in the late 1950s when the suburb “lost part of its soul”.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, painter and writer Samir Fouad, also born in Heliopolis, said during a discussion with Telmissany at the Heliopolis Library that “the suburb saw waves of new residents, some of whom subscribed to the norms of the suburb that celebrated the love of gardens, cinemas, and apartment buildings with balconies decorated with plants, and some who hardly belonged to this kind of life.”

While accepting the inevitability of urban and social change, Fouad argued that the changes had been brought about by people who did not share the idea of the “garden oasis” that had originally defined Heliopolis.

One of the early victims of the change, even before the balconies, were the summer cinemas. Up until the mid-1950s, Fouad recalled, Heliopolis had 13 cinemas, “quite a number, and especially as seven were summer movie theatres”.

It was not just Heliopolis that suffered from the changes, nor was it necessarily the part of the capital that suffered most, he said. It was not just about the changes in the social fabric of Heliopolis, but it was more about changes in the quality of education.

“I think that the importance of the quality of education and its impact on many things, including how we handle our architectural heritage, is truly underrated. Education is precisely what makes people able or unable to see the beauty of their architectural heritage and to act to preserve it. This applies to individuals as well as to decision-makers the world over,” Fouad said.

The decline in the quality of education and its ability to promote aesthetics is not something new because it started back in the 1950s, he said. Fouad said there was also the issue of confused laws, including the law that regulates rents in Egypt.

“Most of the old apartment buildings in Heliopolis are rented for very small amounts decided back in the 1950s and 1960s or before. It is unlikely that the owners can maintain these buildings on incomes that are simply too small to do so,” he said.

Michel Hanna, a Heliopolis resident in his 30s who came to the suburb with his family from Kuwait in the early 1990s, sees a different function of the law. “The fate of the architectural heritage cannot be left to the discretion of individuals. It is the role of the state to issue laws to preserve this heritage and to provide financial compensation where need be,” Hanna said.

In the first years of his life in Heliopolis, Hanna, a pharmacist, was as fascinated by the diversity and beauty of the architecture as he was saddened by the demolition of beautiful villas being removed to allow for the construction of ugly apartment buildings.

In 1996, a law was issued to prevent the demolition of old buildings in an attempt to preserve the architectural heritage. “This was a really good move,” Hanna said. However, its effects did not last long. Less than a decade later, the law was retracted by the Higher Constitutional Court, “and suddenly there were many new demolitions”.

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“It is true that they were not happening on most of the main roads, but they were happening in an aggressive way,” Hanna recalled. Surprisingly, he said, one thing that seems to have been stopping the pace of demolition has been the recent construction of flyovers in many streets. “These flyovers have made the streets unappealing for residents. Most people would not wish to live in an apartment overlooking a flyover,” Hanna said.

Hanna, a dedicated photographer who has been documenting the architectural heritage of Heliopolis for over 10 years, now goes out for long walks to capture the “beauty before it is lost.” Both he and Telmissany agree that documentation has become essential to save what Heliopolis has been all about.

Fouad has a large personal collection of photographs that he believes should be digitised along with other personal collections and those of the Heliopolis Company for the sake of posterity. “There is no magic formula to stop the loss of the architectural heritage, and documentation is the only way out,” he said.

LITTLE REUSE: The interest of urban developers in buying and adapting the old buildings of Heliopolis in order to offer them for new uses has also been limited.

Ali Taha Omar, a reconstruction expert who has worked with a top developer to reuse an old apartment building on Baghdad Street to offer it for office and hotel rental, said the adaptive reuse of a building that has been used for close to a century as an apartment block is “a tough and costly process that takes a long time”.

For more companies to show an interest in this kind of project, they have to be confident that the subsequent rental will be rewarding and fast, he argued. This, he lamented, is perhaps why what is now left of so many beautiful buildings that once adorned Heliopolis are only a few photographs and memories of older residents.

In 2005, in order to celebrate the centenary of Heliopolis, Telmissany and Solé worked on a documentation volume that captured the memories of residents and store owners as part of the story of Heliopolis.

Supported by the French Institute in Cairo, the book came out in Arabic and French. “It has been out of print for years, but now that we are speaking about the need to preserve the identity of Heliopolis maybe it is time for a new edition,” Telmissany said.

Meanwhile, Telmissany has been collecting every picture or film of Heliopolis she has been able to put her hands on. “Heliopolis features in many films, black and white and colour alike, and some show the same place at different points in time,” she said.

Hanna is seeking to turn his collection of photographs into a book and to access all the possible archives that relate to Heliopolis “because documents and maps matter too”, he said.

While Fouad is hoping to see the Heliopolis Company open its archives, Hanna is hoping to see the digitising of the archives of the Heliopolis Metro Company, removed along with its garage and maintenance stations.

“The loss of the metro was dramatic and drastic, but it should not be compounded with the loss of the company archives,” he said.  

“The loss of the metro was a blow to the heart and soul of the suburb. We tried very hard to lobby against it and to offer ideas for its upgrading, and we remained hopeful despite the partial elimination of the rails of the three main lines,” said Tamer Sehab, a founding member of the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative, an NGO.

Late last year and earlier this year, as he saw the elimination of all the lines, Sehab had still not lost hope that alternative lines could be provided despite the huge loss of the right of way. It was only with the construction of the series of flyovers that has been cutting through Heliopolis at the expense not just of the metro but also of the greenery that Sehab knew that the story of the Heliopolis metro had come to an end.

“This was despite the fact that it was not just a beautiful element of Heliopolis, but also an environmentally friendly mode of transport,” he said.

Ahmed Al-Saidi, a lawyer who handles environmental cases, was also “shocked by the elimination of large green areas and old trees” as part of plans to build the new flyovers.

According to the law, Al-Saidi said, the elimination of such large spaces of greenery and trees as had happened in Heliopolis should only have been decided in hearings conducted by the Environmental Affairs Authority.

Whatever the rationale behind the construction of the flyovers and expansion of the streets, “the environment law stipulates that there should have been a thorough examination of the environmental consequences first,” he said.

He knows that what has been done cannot be undone, but he hopes that a court ruling in his favour will “at least make it more difficult for more greenery to be eliminated in future.”

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The Cairo governorate and Heliopolis municipality have both stated that the recent development projects were done to resolve traffic problems in Heliopolis. But according to Heliopolis architect Essam Safieddin, these traffic problems have been a function of the increase in population due to an increase in the number of apartment buildings as a result of the demolition of smaller houses and apartment buildings to allow for the construction of high-rise ones.

“If we had to have all these flyovers to resolve traffic problems, it means that we have gone wrong with our urban planning,” he said.

Sehab believes that it is now too late to lament the urban-planning mistakes of the past few decades or to criticise the recent flyovers. What should be done now is to try to save as many of the older buildings as possible and to document whatever is there today in case it disappears tomorrow.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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