The question of urban heritage has become increasingly politicised in Egypt. Cairo is a city with traces of its built heritage going as far back as its founding in 969. In addition, the city’s Greco-Roman, Coptic and Ancient Egyptian heritages are all visible. Cairo is a city of many histories, reflected in many remains. However, the city has suffered many years of neglect and decay, particularly in the past several decades. As with transport, housing or Egypt’s governance in general, Cairo’s heritage has suffered greatly since the 1970s. Though complex, the situation can be summed in three ways: There has been an unprecedented collapse of the heritage institutional framework; tourism has had a profound impact on the city’s heritage; and the political system’s interpretation of the country’s history has had a negative effect on how heritage is valued throughout the country.
In 1881 Khedive Tawfiq, the Egyptian monarch, established the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe, an institution tasked with the documentation, conservation and study of Egypt’s historic heritage. Before the Comité was formally disbanded in 1965 it completed major studies of Egypt’s (particularly Cairo’s) built heritage. The diverse group, made up of local and international experts, also carried out major rebuilding and restoration works. In the 1960s the government disbanded many formally independent institutions, such as the Comité, in order to consolidate its powers. No other institution has been able to sufficiently replace the Comité in its scope or quality of scholarship and conservation. Today Cairo’s built heritage is fragmented and several institutions lay claim over various aspects of it, such as the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the Culture Ministry and to a lesser degree the Cairo Governorate. Cairo with its diverse and rich urban heritage lacks an institution dedicated to the study, conservation and rehabilitation of the city’s heritage. “Egypt’s 19th and 20th century culture has therefore been ignored, if not actively denigrated, by the Antiquities Council,” says Hussein Omar, an Oxford-based historian of modern Egypt.
Tourism (12 to 15 million annually at pre-2011 levels) has also had a negative effect on Cairo’s economy and urban heritage. Omar adds, “Appealing to the tastes of package tourists and neglecting the interest of ordinary Egyptians, the Antiquities Council has long scorned what cannot be displayed in expensive vitrines and hastily photographed.” Egypt’s current tourism model, developed in the 1970s, focuses on a few world famous ancient sites such as the pyramids and ignores the majority of touristic potential Cairo can offer. Egypt’s tourism promotion is not focused on Cairo, instead beach tourism receives the majority of attention, in addition to ancient Egyptian sites which are concentrated in the south of the country. As a result investment in urban spaces that could potentially be used by tourists and Cairo residents alike has never materialised.
Cairo has a lot of visible history on offer. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Cairo’s history is its last two hundred years, which have dramatically altered the city and left many marks on its urban fabric. Surprisingly the last two hundred years have been viewed by the political regime in Egypt as unimportant and some would even argue inauthentic. This political dimension of history has caused a great deal of deterioration to the urban environment, much of which fits into that neglected category of “modern history”. “As its cultural identity is re-imagined in this time of revolution, intellectuals and the ‘public’ alike are reckoning with what Egypt has been in the past, what it will become in the future, and the dreams and disappointments that the nation’s upheaval has unearthed,” says Omar.
Mohamed Elshahed is a researcher focuses on architecture and urban planning in Egypt from the 19th century to the present. He is founder and editor of the Cairo Observer, a websites focusing on urbanism in Cairo
This article is part of UrbanAfrica’s reporting project
image credit: Pyramids against the Cairo Skyline by SophiaMiah
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