A city compromised or globalised?

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 4 Jun 2023

Against the backdrop of the cultural price that Cairo is paying to build new highways, the question of the balance between conservation and modernisation is again being raised.

Mohamed Mahmoud
Tombstones of prominent 20th century political and cultural figures (photos courtesy of Mustafa Al-Sadek)


It all started in June 2014 when the government announced an ambitious plan in multiple phases to improve the performance of the roads in Cairo, either by widening existing ones or by creating new highways, flyovers, and corridors.

The objective of this plan, according to the government, was to spare the capital from its reputation as a city of tough traffic in order to entice new investments. As the government statement indicated, the new roads would cut through some segments of the older quarters of the city, though it did not announce the specific details.

However, some timid voices spoke of the possibly harmful impact of this scheme on the urban fabric of a significant part of Cairo, namely the city’s cemeteries in the City of the Dead.

“We are talking about a part of the city that has layers and layers of history, parts of which date back over 10 centuries,” said one source who is a former member of a government body that examined the proposed plans at an early stage.

“I was accused of being an alarmist when I said during one of the public meetings that were held to discuss the plan that this was going to be damaging. But today we are helpless witnesses to the possible elimination of large chunks of the old cemeteries, some of which date back to the early years of Arab rule, making them older than Cairo as established by the Fatimids in the 10th century CE,” the source said.

According to the same source, the plan proposed in 2014 that has recently entered a crucial phase of implementation with the demolition of cemeteries in the Imam Shafei and Imam Leithi and Sayeda Nafisa and Sayeda Aisha areas was in fact a slightly upgraded version of a scheme originally proposed in 2008 as part of what was labelled “Cairo 2050”.

The source explained that this vision was promoted as a scheme to make Cairo a modern city. “Right from the start this was problematic. Cairo is an old city with old and modern quarters,” the source said, adding that the concept of “global, green and connected” city that was offered as the base for this vision “sounded nice but in reality it included some really problematic proposals, including what we are seeing now with the demolition of large segments of the oldest cemeteries in the city.”

According to a source at the Ministry of Housing, when the plan got picked up again and was sent to government bodies for revision, apprehensions were voiced at many levels. Part of these related to the historic value of this part of the city. Another part related to the fact that this is included in the UN cultural agency UNESCO’s list of heritage sites in Egypt.

However, the apprehensions of conservators were firmly silenced in favour of what was promised as the overdue modernisation of a city that is over-crowded and has chronic traffic problems said to be intimidating to visitors and investors alike. Allocations were made for the construction of new traffic corridors across Greater Cairo, with the eastern part of the city being the main venue, especially with the parallel construction of the New Administrative Capital between Cairo and Ain Sokhna.

The construction of flyovers in Heliopolis and Nasr City in the east of Cairo at the expense of cutting down a large number of trees, some of which were close to 100 years old, and the ripping up of the tram lines that for close to a century had carried passengers in and out of Heliopolis were done as necessary for modernisation to the dismay of residents of these neighbourhoods. They saw radical changes in the urban fabric of this part of Cairo that was built in the early decades of the 20th century, with Nasr City having initially been constructed as an administrative quarter of the capital.

“It was totally damaging, what happened in the east of Cairo, and not just in Heliopolis. Several neighbourhoods have lost their identity for good as they have all turned into being an extended series of districts overshadowed with flyovers,” said Michel Hannah, who has been documenting the architecture of the city for two consecutive decades.

He said that the “damage” that hit eastern Cairo in order to resolve the traffic congestion could be compared to the “devastating demolitions” that have been hitting the old cemeteries of Cairo under the banner of modernisation.


A CORRIDOR TO HEAVEN? The debate over the relaunched Cairo 2050 scheme continued at low volume until the summer of 2020, when the government started to remove segments of the cemeteries of Al-Ghafeer to construct the Mehwar Al-Fardos (Heaven Corridor), a nine-km highway, with flyovers, that connects the east of Cairo to New Cairo on the way to the new capital.