Cairo's downtown, with its
old European-designed buildings, is wrestling to preserve its cultural heritage
as Egypt readies a new capital in the desert.
A stroll through the
district takes pedestrians past buildings that meld Islamic and European
motifs, neo-classical columns and ornate decorations. But its elegance and
prestige are fading, as one-way streets and former palaces fall into ruin and
shops selling cheap clothes and odds and ends have moved in.
“Some buildings are
in a seriously dilapidated state,” said Ahmed El Bindari, an architectural
historian and volunteer tour guide, in the middle of a group of tourists. He
enthusiastically recounts the history of the old buildings, some housing
government ministries, and little passageways but complains of a lack of
political will in heritage preservation.
Bindari and others
fear for the future of the district's old vacant buildings and worry that those
in urgent need of repair will fall victim to a drive for urban renewal.
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In the heart of Cairo and bordering Tahrir Square, the district is commonly
known as Khedivial Cairo after Khedive Ismail Pasha, an Ottoman ruler who
governed Egypt in the mid-19th century. He is credited with transforming Cairo
into a modern metropolis with European influences after being inspired on a
trip to Paris.
ordered the building of the first opera house in the Middle East in 1869 to celebrate
the inauguration of the strategic Suez Canal. He also commissioned French
architects to design geometric, tree-lined streets and downtown became the
cultural hub of the city flourishing with cafes, cinemas and shops.
With its big avenues,
facades and bronze statues recalling the French or Italian capitals, the
district has also long hosted a lively literary cafe scene, as well as
government ministry buildings.
traditionally been careful to ensure the buildings retain their style, and many
in the city of around 20 million residents are fond of the area.
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Since the 1950s however, middle-class residents have progressively moved out of
the area in favour of quieter, smarter and more modern suburbs.
The existing ministries and public authorities in
downtown Cairo are due to move once the new administrative capital, being built
in the desert some 45 kilometres (28 miles) from the city centre, is ready.
“What will become of
the many ministries such as agriculture, education and health housed in
historic palaces and buildings?” Bindari asked. He points to the gentrification
of the so-called Maspero Triangle area hugging the banks of the River Nile
which the government is redeveloping into a financial centre, with luxurious
shopping malls and hotels.
It has led to
thousands of residents in informal housing being relocated to alternative
accommodation. “I'm afraid that under the banner of regeneration, entire urban
areas... will be razed to the ground,” Bindari added.
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Cause for Optimism?
But Riham Aram, director of the Historic Cairo Restoration Project, is more
upbeat. Since 2014, some 350 buildings have already been restored under an
initiative for Khedivial Cairo, she said. “We've repainted entire buildings and
restored decorations using similar material to what was originally used during
construction,” she said.
“We must maintain
this historic district so it doesn't turn into slums in the future,” she
warned. And she said that ways to reuse 18 government buildings in central
Cairo would be examined.
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The private sector has also become involved in efforts to preserve the downtown
area. In 2008, a group of businessmen from local construction firm Ismailia
Consortium set up an arm of the company to restore city centre cultural
heritage. “We found that the best way to conserve downtown Cairo is that there
needs to be economic returns,” said managing director Karim el-Shafei.
“A lot of the
apartments are empty. They can be renovated and rented out or sold bringing in
profits because they are being used productively,” he added. The firm has
bought 32 downtown buildings as well as the historic Cinema Radio located on
Talaat Harb street.
But it faces several
bureaucratic hurdles even for routine procedures such as opening a new cafe. Shafei
is also keen to draw tourists to the centre to shop for locally made brands.
It is not all about
investing just to make money, when it comes to restoring important sites, some
experts note. “Along with the focus on the new capital, we hope that interest
is not lost in the conservation of Cairo's cultural heritage,” said Soheir
Hawas, a Cairo University professor, who authored a volume on the area's
Hawas, also a member
of the National Urban Harmony Committee, wants to see government buildings
turned into museums and cultural centres. “These are important pages in Egypt's
long and continuous architectural record and must be preserved,” she argued.
Inside image: Shutterstock.com