Architects struggle to save Cairo’s historic heart

CAIRO: Alaa al Habashi was looking for ingredients for a Ramadhan feast when he stumbled on an Ottoman-era mansion being used as a slaughterhouse and butcher’s shop in Cairo’s historic district.
“I was blindsided by the beauty,” the US-trained architect said of the house which he first saw more than two decades ago. Built of brick and stone, it has a large inner courtyard and a number of rooms with decorative painted wooden ceilings.
He struck up a friendship with the butcher, who owned the building, and received a call from him several years later saying a property developer wanted to buy it and tear it down.
Determined to save the building, Habashi bought it in 2009, only to be told he could raze it but not restore it. He refused to give up and won the right to restore it in a two-year legal battle. A decade after he bought the building, the restoration is almost complete.
His battle was part of a larger fight to save old buildings which some professional restorers and architects fear is being lost because of bureaucracy, official corruption and laws which they say do little to protect Egypt’s architectural heritage.
“I’m not at all optimistic. I believe only 25 per cent of the buildings will survive,” said May al Ibrashy, a restorer who has been working in historic Cairo for about 25 years.
The five-square-kilometre historic quarter, which has one of the world’s biggest collections of Islamic architecture, has been declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations’ cultural agency Unesco.
But though its main monuments are not under threat, many houses and smaller buildings are being demolished.
Government inspectors, fearing they could be held legally responsible for any problems, have declared many centuries-old buildings in danger of collapse since earthquakes in 1992 and 2005. Many have been demolished and replaced by cement and brick high-rise buildings that critics describe as garish.
The demolitions appear at odds with government officials’ pledges to maintain Cairo’s role as Egypt’s “cultural, tourism and heritage capital”, despite work on building a new capital east of Cairo to ease pressure on the city of over 20 million.
Those fighting to save old buildings in historic Cairo say the demolitions are destroying a potential stream of tourists and revenue from
tourism, which earned Egypt $11.6 billion in 2018, according to central bank figures. 
— Reuters