Conserving Cairo


Cairo’s Funerary Complex Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun (1284-5). Brian Broadus, AIA, photographer.

By Brian Broadus, AIA

Sustaining Cairo’s architectural heritage is an exemplary challenge given Egypt’s developing nation status. Vestiges of military, monarchal, and colonial rule, as well as historically privatized community services, combine with a rapidly-increasing population to tax the city’s fabric. Cairo’s fate rests on the same crude politics as that of other old-world cities in industrializing countries and conserving it begins with two related questions. Can the Arab Republic of Egypt preserve a fragile Arab-Islamic and early modern architectural legacy? Can it do so while raising the standard of living for its people and surviving as a stable state?

The famous Great Pyramid and Sphinx sit almost eight miles from Downtown Cairo and present their own, checkered case study in conservation, but for Egypt to tell the whole story of its role as a center of world civilization it must protect its lesser-known patrimony, too. Cairo proper boasts of at least two concentrations of high-style architecture: one medieval and the other a nineteenth-century “Paris-on-the-Nile.” The latter, a European Cairo, is ripe for American-style rehabilitation as Gulf investors continue to buy entire al-Islma’iliyya District blocks.

Cairo holds a millennium’s worth of Islamic architecture. In this view, the Mamluk domed sabil (1291) in the foreground, the Samara-style Classical Arab masjid (876) just beyond, and in the distance, the Ottoman masjid (1848)within Salah id-Diin’s Citadel. Brian Broadus, AIA, photographer.

Today, low-rent warehouses and factories occupy former grand apartments there, and future housing subsidies will make these refurbished flats attractive and profitable. Even if the storefronts below are garish and worn-down, the sidewalks, cafes, ice cream parlors, shops, and restaurants remain busy late into the night. European Cairo is only one slice of the city, and the weight of Cairo’s medieval heritage seems to count little against that of the reckless development that tries to answer the needs of the poor and to close the dangerously-wide gap between the rich and them.

Even as its ancient quarters decayed over the last century, Cairo grew. Public health measures improved, international corporations arrived, and overstressed farmland drove Egyptians to the city. Cairo’s population multiplied twelve-fold over the last 100 years to its current number of about 18 million, which accounts for 20 percent of Egypt’s total population. It’s now the largest city in Africa and in the Arab world and, in 1973, the Egyptian government created the General Organization for Physical Planning to pursue a low-density Greater Cairo. Like many regional planning bodies, GOPP sought to connect satellite cities with highways—almost always disrupting the historic fabric in the process.

The limestone foundations of the Tomb Sultan al-Ashraf Kalil (1288) have been degraded by illegally-drained water from the adjacent Hawaii Ice Cream Factory. Brian Broadus, AIA, photographer.

Increased population burdened Cairo’s early neighborhoods with more residents than they could carry. The al-Utaf quarter, for one, grew to three times the density of metropolitan Paris. Living in, or even walking the streets of, these districts became dangerous as landlords, with officials looking the other way, topped shaky structures with new floors. Eighty percent of Cairene dwellings built since 1980 are illegal. At the same time, even unaltered vernacular buildings collapsed because rent control discouraged maintenance. Egypt installed water and sewer pipes in Islamic Cairo only after a 1992 earthquake attracted international funding. The systems leak and undermine ancient foundations. A partial survey, begun in 1881, cataloged a thousand “Arab” monuments. As a result of the city’s infrastructure and law enforcement failures, fewer than 500 of these remain.

Today, Suez Canal revenue, remittances from overseas Egyptians, and tourism support the economy, with significant American help. But, private tourism investment goes to seaside resorts—not Cairo—even as Egyptian officials promote their Bronze Age architectural legacy with intrusive visitor’s facilities on the Giza Plateau. The Grand Egyptian Museum will open there in 2013 alongside the Great Sphinx, which blankly and pitilessly gazes at a Pizza Hut.

Two cenotaphs stand before a rare wooden masqura in the Qarafa District, which shields two Cairenes from the afternoon sun. For generations, gravesites have served as informal places for family gatherings in Cairo. Brian Broadus, AIA, photographer.

Old Cairo’s relative obscurity has not spared it from “improvement.” In 2009, the Ministry of Culture spruced up Shaarih al-Mu’izz, one of the original streets (dating to 969) by adding Parisian-style pay toilets, public maps, and a ban on motor vehicles. The Ministry of Culture simultaneously restored the adjacent 1284 Funerary Complex Sultan al-Mansour Qalawun. What’s missing? The old garlic and onion souq as well as Cairene families who called the neighborhood home for generations. It’s a neighborhood without neighbors now and the process is repeating in a traditional metal-craft district just to the east. A similar scheme by the Cairo Governate for the vast desert burial ground east of Cairo’s Ayyubid walls will remove thousands of common cenotaphs and attendant remains in a play to create an urban garden populated by restored royal mausoleums. The Greater Cairo Cemetery Plan will steal shelter from 20,000 residents squatting in courtyard-house-type tombs. Moreover, it will end the tradition, dating to pharaonic times, of Egyptian families socializing at family graves. Landmark designation and technical preservation criteria formalize a state’s choice of a past.

Around the base of the Masjid Jumm’ah and Madrasa Sultan al-Nasir Hasan (1356), the refurbished mosaic frieze calls out the Qur’an’s “Throne Verse.” Aga Kahn’s al-Azhar Park, in the distance, sits on the site of a former trash dumb.

But, international politicking also signals a new governmental awareness of Cairo’s troubled historic quarters. Secular, Arab Egypt embraced “Islamic Cairo” in its nomination to the World Heritage List. President Barack Obama’s and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2009’s tour of the 1356 Masjid Jumm’ah and Madrasa Sultan al-Nasir Hasan further validated the internationalist policy shift. Nongovernmental organizations now work directly with local groups to restore Cairo’s al-Darb al-Ahmar quarter and a truly representative Arab Republic will revive a mostly Muslim city as a multicultural and interfaith capital while treating Cairenes from heritage areas with respect.

Keeping Cairo intact depends now more than ever on Egypt’s sponsorship of ethical architectural and cultural conservation practices: each quarter according to its own, special history and customs.

Other industrializing countries would benefit from accepting their history wholesale (not selectively) by admitting the cultural contributions and interests of foreigners. Cairo teaches industrializing countries, sometimes by error, how to safeguard patrimony. The city has an unrivaled architecture, but craft is just one part of culture. If Egypt can strengthen continuing local customs, faith-based initiatives, and free enterprise, then the political and economic mechanics of heritage conservation will become easier.

Brian Broadus, AIA, is a Charlottesville architect and historian. His work may be found at or

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