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Is historic Cairo doomed to disappear?

A building being built next to a mosque listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo posted on Save Cairo’s Facebook page.
Vandalism, looting, and illegal construction… Egyptian architects are increasingly concerned about the toll that these problems have taken on Cairo’s historic centre since the revolution in 2011. According to them, if public authorities do not react now, the city’s many architectural and cultural treasures are doomed to disappear.
Located on the eastern side of the Nile, historic Cairo is one of the most ancient Islamic cities in the world. Founded in the 10th century by the Fatimids, the city contains about 600 historic sites built between the 7th and 20th centuries, including mosques, Koranic schools, Turkish baths and fountains.
In fact, the entire area was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979. Now, the UN body is threatening to add it to its list of endangered World Heritage sites if no protective measures are taken.
A building being built next to a mosque listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo posted on Save Cairo’s Facebook page.
This ancient house is falling into disrepair in Youssef Beck Street, in the Sayyed Zaïnab neighbourhood. Photo posted on the Save Cairo Facebook page.

“The government needs to step up and stop illegal construction”

Mohamed Elshahed is a doctoral candidate in architecture. His thesis is about city planning in Cairo from the 19th century to today. His blog, Cairobserver, focuses on urban planning. He is part of the group “Save Cairo”, formed by architects who are trying to protect the city’s historic buildings.
The city of Cairo has suffered from poor urban planning for a long time. That said, over the last two years, the situation has rapidly gotten out of hand, largely due to the diminished rule of law — to such an extent that this unique historic city is now in great danger.
Photo published on the blog
For instance, this door (see photo below) on Bab al-Wazir Street, in the centre of historic Cairo, was razed with the blessing of public authorities last May. It was built sometime between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s and led to the house where the Grand Mufti of Cairo lived from 1921 to 1928. Its destruction was highly controversial. Mohamed Abdelaziz, the project manager for historic Cairo, argued that the door was not one of the monuments on the city’s heritage list.
The Bab al-Wazir door before its destruction.
The Villa Casdagli, on Simon Bolivar Square, was vandalized and burned down last February. I went there after hearing the news. The thieves took all the marble that was there. The 1910 villa had been on the city’s heritage list.
Photo of Villa Casdagli, published on the Cairobserver blog.
Outside view of Villa Casdagli.
Buildings are being destroyed, even though they are several centuries old and classified as historical monuments by the Supreme Council of Egyptian Antiquities. We’re seeing 15-to-16-story eyesores popping up in their place.
Furthermore, these new buildings endanger people’s lives, as they are often not built according to safety norms. Since the revolution, the government is far less present on the ground. This turn of events is a boon to corrupt developers who build very close to historic monuments without any authorisation whatsoever. Some do get authorisations, but by bribing unscrupulous bureaucrats. There are also uneducated private citizens who are illegally razing ancient buildings, even though they often have historical value – such as in the neighbourhoods of Addarb Al-Ahmar and Al-Sayyeda Zainab – in order to expand their homes or open up a store.
During a meeting last week, we asked the governor why he is not tearing down these illegal constructions. He answered that he could not send his employees in these neighbourhoods out of fear for their safety, since they could be attacked by residents. And the police have more urgent things to do than to protect them.
A street in the Addar al-Ahmar neighbourhood. These wooden beams were extracted from houses in this historic neighbourhood to be sold. Photo published on
We’ve demanded a freeze on all construction permits for a year, so that we could evaluate the state of our architectural heritage. The government also needs to step up and stop illegal construction. In fact, we requested that an office be created to track these violations, with the participation of civil society members. Our final demand is for the city to develop a plan to improve the quality of life and jumpstart the livelihoods of artisans in historic Cairo.

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