Tales of the cities

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 1 Feb 2022

More and more NGO and other initiatives are seeking to document the history of the cities of Egypt, reports Dina Ezzat

Egyptian cities
Photography is a significant part of the work of non-governmental and personal initiatives to document the history and protect the collective memory of Egyptian cities

It was on the eve of 25 February one year that Ismailia resident Mohamed Hozayen decided to take a walk along the street that saw the confrontation between the Egyptian police and British soldiers on 25 January 1952 in the city.

Hozayen knew that there is little left of the buildings that were once on this street that saw the confrontation. But “maybe in a few years from now nothing at all will be left, or maybe the road itself will have undergone some significant changes. These events were 70 years ago, and I thought that at least I would look for a glimpse of what was once there for future generations.”

Born and brought up in Ismailia, Hozayen is still living and working in his hometown, which has “undergone incredible changes that have really influenced the way the city looks and feels,” he said.

“When we talk about the visual memory of the city, we are not just talking about its architectural history, although this is certainly a significant part. We are also talking about the identity of the city as we knew it,” Hozayen said. Today, this man in his early 30s does not have much left to remind him of the Ismailia as it was when he was a child in the late 1980s.

Hozayen used to hear a lot from his family about the declining quality of life in Ismailia. He knows that much has worked against this once glamorous city, including wars and disruptive economic policies. However, as a child, he could still reckon with the signs of fading beauty. But then a few years ago “a disturbing wave of destruction hit the architectural heritage of the city, replacing beautiful buildings with towers having no aesthetic value,” he said.

It was “now or never” to capture “whatever is left to be documented,” he decided.

Fearing that it was only a matter of time before more would be gone, “except for the buildings belonging to the Suez Canal Authority that remain quite well maintained,” Hozayen decided to dedicate his weekends to “taking as many pictures as possible of the beautiful features of the city, including buildings, roads, and trees.”

This personal initiative that started a few years ago with photographs then evolved into making videos too. Hozayen then started to take his work a step forward by digging into archives for older pictures of the city. He took a video of Orabi Square to document the 25 January 1952 confrontation, and though an accountant by profession with no time or expertise to establish a proper Website, he put more photographs and videos on his personal Facebook page.

“It is a personal initiative, and I don’t have the capacity to decide on how best to archive the material I am gathering. But I know I want to dig deeper into the archives, [public and private], and I know I want to come up with a way to classify the material, though I am not sure how,” he said.

Ultimately, Hozayen said, the material he is gathering “is only part of a wider collective memory of the city,” adding that “when one shows how people used to live as opposed to how they live now, it is not just about the style of architecture or the greenery they used to have then as opposed to now that is noticeable. It is also about their lifestyles and their preferences then as opposed to now and about the socio-economic evolution that the city has been going through,” he said.

Hozayen added that in the case of Ismailia, as with the rest of the cities in the Suez Canal Zone, it is also about the memory of the nation that built these cities as part of a grand ambition for modernity and welfare and then saw them come under attack during the Israeli aggression and their rebirth in the wake of the October 1973 War.

Obviously, Hozayen argues, the documentation of the history of these cities should be a collective work, even if only by NGOs. “Individual initiatives are good as a starting point, but eventually there has to be something bigger — maybe joining work with other personal initiatives from the other Suez Canal cities of Port Said and Suez,” he said.


UPPER EGYPT: In the Upper Egyptian city of Assiut, Mohamed Ramadan is also working on a personal scheme to research and document the visual and social memory of his city in the hope that sooner rather than later his initiative will expand in cooperation with other volunteers not just in Assiut but elsewhere across Upper Egypt.

Upper Egypt, Ramadan said, is particularly important to document. “The thing that instantly comes to mind when people think of Upper Egypt is either the Pharaonic monuments or images of underdevelopment. This is a very narrow part of the tale of the cities of Upper Egypt,” Ramadan said.

For this graduate of the Faculty of History, Assiut and the rest of the Upper Egyptian cities have a lot more to share about their journeys. There are Coptic and Islamic monuments and a wealth of modern architecture. “It is unfortunate that these are not getting adequate attention and have consequently been going through a sad and now accelerating process of dilapidation,” he said.

Judging by his personal impressions of the city he was born in and has been living in since the late 1980s, Ramadan said that Assiut has lost well over 50 per cent of what he sees as its “distinct architectural heritage.” Beautiful palaces with spacious gardens have been knocked down to give way to depressing blocks, and beautiful facades and windows have been ruined by clumsy constructions short on basic aesthetics.

“What has been spared is not much, and it could be a matter of a few more years before much more of what is left will also be gone,” he said.

Ramadan recalls a successful intervention by the Ministry of Antiquities a few years back to save the Alexan Pasha Palace that nearly got demolished after having been sold twice over. Built in the early 20th century by a prominent lawyer and politician, this Palace, Ramadan said, is one of many that have been lost. To spare this architectural gem, the government bought the palace and is currently renovating it.

“It is unlikely that the government will do the same with all the other remaining buildings, and the fact of the matter is that many of these buildings belong to people who have no interest in living in them or spending part of the year in Assiut,” Ramadan said. “Things are different — even families who still have members living in Egypt and properties in Assiut do not wish to come to live here. Many of the families of the original owners of these beautiful buildings are no longer living in Egypt,” he added.

What Ramadan is hoping to see is developers picking up the remaining gems and having them restored and turned over to a new and appropriate function — “maybe high-end hotels, something the city is short of,” he said. “We don’t just lose buildings that get demolished. We also lose buildings that are deserted and fall into disrepair and then fall apart,” he said.

Ramadan is aware that such an ambitious scheme will require a lot of lobbying. This, he said, is not going to happen as a result of the sporadic individual efforts of himself or other individuals around the governorates of Upper Egypt.

Lobbying, he said, is a tough and taxing process. He personally tried to post pictures of an Ottoman-style mosque in the city that was to be demolished to be replaced with a contemporary mosque. He failed to save the building.

“I still pass by this mosque and look at the Roman pillars that were removed from the interior of the original mosque and it really annoys me that there was nothing I could do,” he said. “Those who collected money to demolish the original building were thinking that they were offering a bigger, newer, and more luxurious prayer space. They could not see that they were actually demolishing a monument and cutting off part of the collective history of the city,” he stated.

FAYOUM: In the Fayoum Oasis, Mahmoud Hassan has if anything an even tougher job.  

A graduate and researcher at the Faculty of Archaeology, Hassan is not just trying to take pictures of the few remaining old buildings that once dotted his city and some of the villages around it. He is also trying to document the few remaining older-style rural houses that people used to live in prior to the imposition of modern architectural styles that are not compatible with a rural landscape.

“When we talk about documenting the memory of a city, we need to consider the wider scope. Fayoum is a city that was always surrounded with villages; today, it is not just the city that looks different, but also the villages. They look very different in fact,” Hassan argued.

A city with a rural horizon, he added, is a city not just with old rural houses, but also with old agricultural techniques that have been replaced with modern alternatives. “The thing that most people know about Fayoum is its waterwheels. But these were not just for irrigation purposes; they were there for energy-generation purposes as well to allow for the grinding of wheat and other cereal crops,” he said.

Today, Hassan added, with the exception of the historic waterwheels in Fayoum, there are hardly any left in the villages around about. “The total loss without any documentation of these waterwheels is equal in my opinion to the loss of early 20th-century houses and palaces,” he said.

“What is gone cannot be retrieved, but we should at least make sure that we keep a trace of what was once there,” Hassan argued. “We are lucky that two of the oldest hotels in Fayoum are still there in relatively good shape, but what we have lost in terms of our unique rural landscape is huge,” he added.

According to Hassan, old and declining crafts are also being lost, damaging the collective memory of cities and communities. He is impressed with the exemplary work of Evelyne Porret, the Swiss-born artist who came to live in a village off Fayoum city, now known as Tunis Village, to teach and preserve pottery-making techniques. “She did incredible work that allowed for this craft to survive and expand,” he said.

However, he added, there were other villages in Fayoum that failed to maintain the “old and unique techniques of pottery-making that were passed through hundreds of generations. And with the loss of the crafts, we lost the artisanship and the kilns that were specific to this pottery-making that was really like no other,” he said.

In his collection of photographs that are designed to document the “tale of the city as it has been for a century or so,” Hassan has a few pictures of this unique pottery-making. Like Ramadan and Hozayen, his work is an individual initiative. Unlike them, however, he has managed to find the time to create a Website, FayoumEgypt.com, where he has been posting the pictures he has been taking.