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Living with Heritage in Cairo: Area Conservation in the Arab-Islamic City

Living with Heritage in Cairo: Area Conservation in the Arab-Islamic City

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Living with Heritage in Cairo: Area Conservation in the Arab-Islamic City

500 pages
1 sept. 2009


The Arab-Islamic city has been always a glamorous urban dream in human cultural memory. This is manifested in Cairo, the world's largest medieval urban system where traditional lifestyles are still implemented. Nevertheless, despite the extensive efforts to preserve Historic Cairo, it is sadly vulnerable.
Ahmed Sedky investigates the reasons behind this condition, exploring and comparing regional and international case studies. Questions such as how and what to conserve are raised and elaborated through the perspectives of different stakeholders.
A resulting evaluative framework is accumulated that underpins the criteria for assessing area conservation in the Arab-Islamic context and that can be used to delineate the causes responsible for the present condition of Historic Cairo.
1 sept. 2009

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Living with Heritage in Cairo - Ahmed Sedky

First published in 2009 by

The American University in Cairo Press

113 Sharia Kasr el Aini, Cairo, Egypt

420 Fifth Avenue, New York 10018

Copyright © 2009 by Ahmed Sedky

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Dar el Kutub No. 16147/08

ISBN 978 977 416 245 9

Dar el Kutub Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Sedky, Ahmed

Living Heritage in Cairo: Area Conservation in the Arab Islamic City / Ahmed Sedky.— Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2008

p.                cm.

ISBN 977 416 245 9

1. Architecture/Islamic I. Title


1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     14  13  12  11  10  09

Designed by Adam el Sehemy

To my mother


List of Illustrations

List of Abbreviations



Part One–What To Conserve

1.  The Current Meaning of Historic Areas in Cairo

Historic Areas

Typical Urban Problems

Current Area Conservation Projects in Historic Cairo

Urban Transformation in Cairo

Cairo City Master Plans

Slum or Dilapidated Physical Environment?

The Subjective Meaning of Historic Areas in Cairo

The U Group

The N Group

The W Group

What to Conserve

Part Two–How to Conserve

2.  The Concept of Area Conservation

History of Area Conservation

Review of Charters

Charters in the Arab–Islamic Region

Units of Analysis for Area Conservation

Area Conservation Funding Mechanisms

3.  Area Conservation Processes

Area Conservation Process

Statutory Phase

Action Phase

Physical Intervention

Cultural Approach to Area Conservation in the Arab–Islamic Context

Priorities in Area Conservation

How to Conserve

Part Three–Assessment of Area Conservation in Cairo

4.  Assessment of Area Conservation in Historic Cairo

Synthesis of the Criteria

The Approach to Assessment

Assessment of Area Conservation in Cairo

Assessment Investigation Design

5.  Area Conservation in Cairo

Overview of Area Conservation in Cairo

Main Actors Involved in Area Conservation in Cairo

An Overview of Area Conservation Quality in Cairo

N Group Organizations

U Group Organizations

W Group Organizations

An Overview of Policies of Area Conservation in Cairo

Power Arrangement

Values and Interests

Institutional Framework

6.  Summary and Conclusion





Charters and Legislation






It is an honor and pleasure to acknowledge the moral and financial support of H.R.H. Sheikha Hussah al-Sabah, the director of Dar al-Athar al-Islamiya in Kuwait. Such support, going beyond the patronage of museum galleries to the sponsoring of academic research, reflects Her Royal Highness’s keen concern with Islamic heritage. I am also very grateful to the Muslim Academic Trust in the UK for their financial support for this research and to the Barakat Trust, UK for financing my expeditions and the research conducted during the editing of this book. I would like also to acknowledge the Centre d’études et de recherches sur le Moyen-Orient contemporain (CERMOC) and the Institut français d’archéologie du Proche-Orient (IFAPO) for facilitating my expeditions in the Fertile Crescent region; the Istanbul Technical University, especially Dr. Turgut Sanar, for aiding my research in Turkey; and the Association de Sauveguarde de la Medina (ASM) and the Institut National du Patrimoine (INP) for facilitating my research in Tunisia.

I am also indebted to the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), UK, the Social Studies Center at the American University in Cairo, and the Italian Archaeological Center in Cairo for facilitating workshops and interviews and organizing their associated events held in Cairo.

I am also pleased to acknowledge the enthusiastic role played by Dr. Rami Dahir, who was the chairman of the department of architecture at the Jordanian University of Science and Technology in Irbid, Jordan. Dr. Dahir and his team of students and activists, the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL), and I organized an international conference on the conservation of Islamic heritage under the auspices of H.M. Queen Rania Abdullah in January 2002 in Jordan. That event enriched this book with case studies from various sources and countries.

On an intellectual level, I am indebted to Professor Ian Campbell and the faculty members of the School of Architecture at the Faculty of Environmental Design, Edinburgh College of Art for their fruitful feedback and discussions, which deepened my research pursuits. The same goes to Dr. Dina Shehayeb at the Institute of Housing Research in Cairo for her invaluable discussions.

This book is the result of intensive work that required years of surveys and research to examine various cases of successes and deficiencies. Hence, I am indebted to numerous individuals, organizations, and research centers across a wide geographical area spanning North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Their contributions varied from inviting me to study their projects to providing critics and briefing me on their projects’ merits and shortcomings. Others enriched this book with necessary research reports, maps, and plates.

Special thanks go to Neil Hewison at the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press for encouraging me to make Cairo the main focus of this book. Both Mr. Hewison and Randi Danforth, together with Miriam Fahmi and her production team, at the AUC Press, helped enormously to produce a book of the present quality. I am indebted to Mr. David Burkett and Mrs. Hala Abdul Ghaffar for their help with editing the manuscript. Furthermore, I am extremely indebted to Nadia Naqib and her editing team at the AUC Press for their careful and detailed review of every section of this book.

Finally, my thanks and gratitude go to all those whose names are mentioned in this book.


Historic Cairo is the world’s largest medieval urban system where traditional lifestyles are still alive in daily practice. ¹ Despite its international and local significance, the old city is sadly vulnerable. Like many similar areas around the world, historic Cairo has suffered neglect and deterioration as a consequence of modernization and changes in cultural views and traditional lifestyles.

Many efforts have been made to confront the old city’s problems. A good start was made in 1980, when the wife of President Sadat, together with United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), campaigned to preserve the district between the northern and southern city walls known as Fatimid Cairo.² That campaign initiated the principle of area conservation, whereby the architectural policy of restoring individual monuments was expanded to a wider concern for the urban fabric of historic Cairo as a whole. Following that lead, many studies and schemes have been enthusiastically proposed and approved. Numerous recommendations have been made by individual experts and by national and international organizations.

Unfortunately, all of them have remained mere blueprints, and none have been implemented. Moreover, the extensive research surrounding, and discussion of, various facets of the problem have failed to promote a comprehensive approach. For example, although the 1997 survey by the United Nations Development Project (UNDP, 1997) offered an exceptionally comprehensive vision, it remained only a pilot study. Meanwhile, the deterioration of historic Cairo has continued, and indeed it accelerated after the 1992 earthquake. The ongoing problems were highlighted in 2002 at meetings held in Cairo by UNESCO and the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).

Saving and upgrading historic Cairo is a particularly complex problem owing to the three different interest groups involved.³ One of these is the local community (hereunder called the U group, that is, the user’s interest group), whose main concern is to continue using the old city for its legitimate and traditional lifestyle. Another is the worldwide community of organizations and individuals (the W, or world interest group) that bears the responsibility for safeguarding the international cultural heritage. The third interest group comprises the Egyptian government organizations (N, or national interest group), which currently controls the main decisions about area conservation. Each interest group has its own demands, perspectives, and priorities when dealing with historic areas. Therefore, any proposed upgrading needs to be negotiated among all three groups. If this process is hindered in any way, conflicts and obstacles inevitably occur. The three overlapping perspectives combine to create historic Cairo’s cultural significance and subjective meaning, as will be elaborated in the following chapter.

The difficulty of reconciling the three interests is growing. Throughout Egypt, government bodies monopolize both the strategy and the implementation of area conservation, and this approach is officially recognized and approved.⁴ The reason is that the political model in Egypt and other Arab-Islamic countries is state-centered, with the government both defining and solving social problems (Grindle and Thomas, 1989). Furthermore, this model is applied to all development projects in Egypt, and these include area conservation as a special type of planning (Attia 1999, Salheen 2001).⁵

This state-centered approach is gaining more and more official legitimacy and political immunity through the adoption of projects under the auspices of important political figures. For instance, many area conservation schemes are inaugurated or visited by the First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak. They are promoted in the media as elements of Egypt’s national development and a ‘civilized’ image for Cairo.⁶ As a result, many inherent shortcomings tend to dominate the official approach to area conservation.

Most of the recent and ongoing schemes for upgrading historic Cairo contradict the recognized theory and practice of area conservation as expressed in international charters and the 1997 UNDP study. Many state-led schemes focus on superficial conservation, of a kind concerned mainly with sanitizing the old fabric. In pursuit of tourist dollars, such schemes appropriate the urban fabric and permit heavy traffic through it, overlooking some important subjective qualities, such as community well-being. Most of them also overlook the district’s distinctive values based on their traditional culture.⁷ This lack of awareness inevitably dilutes each district’s character, meaning, integrity, and authenticity. The old districts also lose the ability to sustain themselves both socially and economically, which inevitably has a negative environmental impact.⁸

This approach prioritizes the restoration of historic buildings and streetscapes over comprehensive area conservation. Thus, what is officially referred to as the revitalization of historic Cairo refers merely to beautification. Conservation, in its comprehensive meaning and methods, is not fully present in such projects. Such unresponsive and ineffective planning, continually jeopardizing the old city’’s environmental and social values, is mainly the result of a conflict among institutions or even departments. There is no integrated strategy, no charter, no system of urban regulations, nor even a set of general guidelines. This deficiency is due to intrinsic faults in the current planning and administrative paradigm.

Government rhetoric blames the environmental deterioration of historic Cairo on insufficient finance. However, this notion is questionable in the light of other schemes for area conservation. For example, al-Azhar Tunnel cost LE890 million, but this could have been reduced to LE250 million had the tunnel been limited to the square between al-Azhar and al-Husayn mosques. Similarly, the severe problem of the water table, a chronic threat to historic edifices, was treated only through piecemeal projects (Tung 2001, pp. 97, 117, 118; Williams, 2002).

Hence there is an urgent need for evaluation guidelines with which to judge the current paradigm and approach to area conservation in Cairo. Until now, no such stance has been developed, and for two reasons. First, the schemes in question have been implemented for less than a decade. Second, evaluating the environmental impact of planning policies or actions is not a systematic part of the Egyptian government’s behavior. The bureaucracy lacks the concepts and mechanisms for monitoring its own schemes. The state-oriented system is not attuned to the requirements of external institutions or of individuals.

The problem is not only the institutional paradigm for planning area conservation, but also the gap between strategy and implementation. This is where the many obstacles that have hindered most of the previous efforts arise, and these have never been investigated until now. The aim of the present study is to explore the concepts and processes influencing area conservation in historic Cairo, and in particular to assess the deficiencies and obstacles affecting the planning and implementation stages.

Thus several questions arise. Is the problem really lack of money, or of awareness and skills? Are the priorities of the current official schemes compatible with cultural values? Are they capable of maintaining the historic area’s significance? Does the official agenda deserve implementation? If so, are the official processes achieving this implementation effectively?

The many other possible questions include three major conceptual issues: first, what are the purposes of conservation? What are its goals, that is, why conserve? Second, what should be conserved? That is, what are the qualities and values that should be considered while pursuing any conservation scheme? Third, how should we conserve? What are the most effective processes for planning and implementation?

The second and third of these questions (what to conserve and how to conserve) make up the commission, addressing the mission (why conserve) of area conservation.

To identify the causes of poor-quality schemes and environmental deterioration, the planning paradigm that influences them needs to be examined and assessed accurately. This can be done by studying recent and ongoing projects, particularly their positive or negative impact on their environments. This book uses a comparative method. It applies international theories and practices to deduce a conceptual framework that develops especial awareness of relevant ethical qualities and processes. It also focuses on regional Arab examples where they resemble the context of historic Cairo.

This exploratory research is pursued through field observations and interviews with professionals in similar historic cities, mainly in the Fertile Crescent (Syria, Jordan and Lebanon). This region shares many political, economic, social, and cultural similarities with Egypt and has had similar area conservation schemes predating those in Cairo. This comparative work seeks to learn from others’ mistakes and successes, so as to foresee the impact of any proposed, ongoing, or recently accomplished interventions in historic Cairo.

Further explorations have been conducted in Turkey and Tunisia, which have relevant and successful experience. In particular, the conservation of the old city in Tunis (Medina) is recognized by the World Bank and the Arab Fund. In addition, theoretical inquiries and international case studies are extensively reviewed to identify an optimum conceptual framework.

Thus the inquiry follows two streams. First, the mission inquiry asks what is worthy of conservation and what gives value and meaning to historic districts. Second, the commission inquiry focuses on the current international theory and principles of area conservation.

In addition, those two inquiries are integrated with an assessment of the viability and effectiveness of the government’s current policies for environmental and urban management. The state-centered political model is considered in accordance with the comprehensive criteria for conservation planning, so as to evaluate the appropriateness of its impact on historic Cairo.

The following outline of the whole investigation explains briefly the focus of each part.

In Part One: What to Conserve, I investigate the current meaning of historic Cairo, studying the old city as an Arab-Islamic urban phenomenon, defining its cultural significance, and identifying what values must be preserved. Chapter 1 defines today’s meaning of historic Cairo within the vast metropolitan system of Greater Cairo. It describes the urban systems predominant in Arab-Islamic cities until the mid-nineteenth century, and reports changes in the traditional fabric due to various cultural, economic, and political forces. Traditional concepts and modern trends are compared to help decide what to conserve within todays demands. On this contextual basis, Chapter 1 investigates specific changes in historic Cairo’s urban fabric that led to its current condition. It also identifies specific projects of area conservation launched by the government. Chapter 1 concludes with an image of what gives the old district its significance and what therefore merits restoration and conservation.

As a step toward reconciling historic Cairo’s cultural meaning with its current social functions and environmental quality, Chapter 1 identifies the different perspectives held by the three interest groups (local users, government, and worldwide organizations) that make claims on the old city.

In Part Two: How to Conserve, I clarify current theory and concepts of area conservation and the main elements distinguishing the environmental qualities of historic districts. Methods and mechanisms for area conservation are also examined in this part. Chapter 2 defines the basis for effective area conservation. It investigates historical development of the concept, from the nineteenth century to international charters, such as the Venice Charter of 1964, which define the environmental qualities required for any historic urban area. Three main environmental qualities are integrity, authenticity, and sustainability. These are used worldwide to measure the effectiveness and value of any area conservation scheme.

Chapter 2 also describes three financial mechanisms (foreign aid, tourism, and gentrification). This pragmatic base defines the crucial considerations for conservation in historic urban areas, particularly the need for a comprehensive approach.

The commission inquiry is developed further in Chapter 3, which reviews international and regional case studies to explain the processes of area conservation. In order to contextualize those processes, it introduces a cultural approach. Cairo’s particular need is illustrated by the Framework Plan of the 1997 UNDP study.

Part Three: Assessment of Area Conservation in Cairo applies the conceptual framework from Parts I and II to formulate evaluative and comparative criteria. Chapter 4 introduces the assessment environmental quality and the official policies for area conservation in Cairo, the mission of conservation earlier discussed. It considers mainly the interests of the N group and its responsible representatives, but it also includes the U and W group’s concerns. Chapter 5 evaluates the conservation planning paradigm and the predominant policies influencing it, using the above criteria to measure the awareness, competence, and interest of each relevant organization. The environmental quality of historic Cairo is compared with the safeguarding and planning policies.

In conclusion, I summarize the obstacles and deficiencies in the current official schemes for area conservation in the old city.


What to Conserve

To answer the key question, what to conserve, we should begin by deciding which aspects of historic Cairo possess such important values and significance that they deserve the highest priority for safeguarding and upgrading. The components of the old city’s fabric are distinguished not only by their physical character, but also by their current functions. Some districts in the wider modern urban fabric are currently perceived as historic areas. Though once complete and independent settlements, they have changed greatly in meaning and status. Their contemporary meanings need to be interpreted mainly by their occupants but also by the residents of other districts, or of other cities, or even by concerned outsiders from different cultures who make claims on such historic areas.

In seeking a contemporary meaning for historic areas, we should avoid nostalgia. Moreover, we must take a comprehensive approach, so that we can attend not only to the physical aspects but also to the cultural, social, economic, and political influences that shape each historic area.


The Current Meaning

of Historic Areas in Cairo

Historic Areas

Generally the term ‘historic Cairo’ means the specific zone that is the focus of numerous area conservation and upgrading projects under the auspices of different governmental and international organizations. The zone includes Fatimid Cairo and Coptic Cairo (also known as the al-Fustat area), as well as the intrinsic urban fabric between al-Fustat and the southern gates of al-Qahira (now called the areas of al-Darb al-Ahmar and Ibn Tulun Mosque). The boundaries of the zone (see Fig. 1.1 ) can be explained historically.

The medieval city expanded in the south-north direction due to the topography. The Muqattam Hills prevented expansion toward the east, and the River Nile to the west. Indeed, the western boundary was marked by a stream, al-Khalig al-Masri (the Egyptian Gulf), which ran parallel to the Nile on the great river’s east side. Between the river and the stream were numerous gardens and promenades. This area was redeveloped in the nineteenth century as the colonial suburb, and called Isma‘iliya after Khedive Isma‘il. The stream was filled in to become Port Said Street, which is the western boundary of historic Cairo.

Since the 1980s,⁹ calls for area conservation have always focused on the Fatimid part of the city. It is bounded northward by the northern city walls (known as the Bab al-Nasr area); eastward by al-Mansuriya Street and the Muqattam Hills; westward by Port Said Street, and southward by the Southern City Walls (known as the Bab Zuwayla area).

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