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by Samir Raafat
Middle East Times, Sunday, January 12, 1997

Having initiated a crusade last spring ("WHERE IS OUR CAIRO HERITAGE TRUST?" Egyptian Mail, May 18, 1996) calling for the saving of the Dutch Embassy from the wrecker's ball and the need for a Cairo Architectural Heritage Trust to list and preserve our endangered colonial architecture, it is with the greatest joy that I observe today the imminent launch of a lecture/seminar series addressing what is an already precarious situation. Entitled the "Preservation of Modern Egypt's Architectural Heritage," this seminar will be inaugurated on January 15, 1996, by Egypt's first lady Suzanne Mubarak.

Although the seminar could have easily taken place in any one of the city's five star hotels, it is no coincidence that the chosen venue was the Mubarak Public Library in Giza. Situated on the Nile's west bank in the heart of our crowded, dusty city, the Library, with its cool green lawn and shady trees, best explains the issue at hand. Its very existence today is confirmation that the preservation and restoration of our architectural landmarks can produce a success story.

Designed and built in the early 1930s by French architect George Parcq, the Mubarak Public Library is a striking example of Cairo's rich and diverse architecture which characterized much of Cairo's interwar period. Alas, many of our architectural chef d'oeuvre, some of them comparable to the Mubarak Public Library building, vanished during the last three decades.

Mainly due to spiraling real estates values, it was only a matter of time before economic forces collided with those of preservation and conservation. The resulting 'big bang' took a heavy toll on our city's cultural heritage. As each new generation was confronted with financial and other obligations, the temptation to chip away at this cash-convertible asset proved irresistible for a hungry post-Infitah private sector on the rebound.

Perhaps we can still save some of our architectural gems, in particular those belonging to the state and its monolithic public sector. This was the case with the Mubarak Public Library, whose legal ownership, like many other fin de siècle and early 20th century villas, mansions, palaces and townhouses, had passed on to the state in the wake of the confiscation, nationalization, and sequestration which took place in the 1950s and the early 1960s.

Whereas some may argue that the costs of preservation and restoration being as high the question remains to them "is it really worth saving our city's 100 year old architectural cultural heritage especially since Egypt abounds with a plethora of antiquities?"

The critics don't seem to realize that with over 1,000 years of history behind it, Cairo boasts every form, shape and style in terms of architecture, each corresponding to a period in the city's history. This divergence allows us trace the different cultural influences that were woven into our urban fabric. Walk down any one of Cairo's old neighborhoods and you'll come across pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic style architecture. Stray into Cairo's newer areas such as Garden City, Heliopolis and Zamalek and you'll encounter Ottoman, art nouveau, and rococo. Name it, it's there. Which other city has this diversity?

The different architectural styles that punctuate our cityscape, stand for more than just changing times and tastes. They represent the crossroads between East and West, the layering and mingling of cultural influences from early Mamlouk down to the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Likewise for the neo-classic and rococo that festoon Cairo's newer districts and Giza's Nile riverside drive. This dense interweaving of styles and building types represented the ability of Muslims, Christians, Jews; Egyptians, Ottomans, Armenians, Italians and French, to live together in one city. In more ways than one, Cairo's cityscape was a model of heterogeneity which is remarkably absent from so many other world capitals.

While Cairo's older monuments and landmarks benefit from the technical and financial support of UNESCO and the Egyptian Antiquities Department, most post-Ottoman monuments and buildings have been left to the hazards and whims of the changing times. Hence, the disappearance of so many of our fin de siècle and early 20th century palaces, mansions, and immeuble de rapport, far too long abandoned and neglected, or literally hidden from public view.

And what about those that did survive? Are we expected to forsake them? Are they not worth saving? How, then, would you react if you read in the papers tomorrow that the Mubarak Public Library was pulled down to make way for a modern glass and aluminum complex with just as many books inside?

Even if history doesn't come cheap, the Mubarak Public Library, Zamalek's Greater Cairo Library, Karma Ibn Hani, home of the Poet laureate Ahmed Shawki, are living proofs that with ingenuity and dedication, preservation and conservation works for the benefit of the community at large.

That is why it is so important to rally behind this belated crusade to halt the destruction of our architectural cutural heritage which is currently drowning under a flood of skyscrapers, shopping malls, high-rise hotels, asphalt. Although very late in the game, we can still launch a concerted effort to repair the moral and physical damage caused by decades of outdated rent-control socialist laws and reckless state-sanctioned building programs guided more by the greed of Mafia-like developers than urban planning.

The country's legislative body must address the situation of where do you draw the fine line separating the protection of private property and the safeguard of a nation's cultural heritage. In Egypt this conflict is less pronounced than in Europe since many of the buildings and villas already belong to the state. But until they make up their minds, the battle will have to be fought between the multiple government authorities involved in the decision-making process.

The list of buildings and monuments for upholding is impressive. Clearly, it should not be limited to statues, historic squares, palaces, bridges and the other public places intended for the greater glory of the state. Elegant villas, parks, and distinct late 19th and early 20th century buildings must also be taken into consideration once a monument-adoption program is put in place. Meanwhile, the idea now is to promote a new sense of citizenship, explaining to the layman that these monuments are like orphans abandoned by their parents. We must become the guardians.

From the idea of starting a Cairo Architectural Heritage Trust, this concept of parenthood must be made available to the citizenry at large. We must eliminate this lack of any sense of ownership. The 'mind your own business' attitude developed over the last 50 years has to go. All that came out of it was that people turned in on themselves, forfeiting both their civic rights and any claims to their own national heritage.

The budding private sector has a crucial and responsible role to play as well. With privatization being the name of the game, private foundations for the protection of monuments have to be set up. Invariably, they should benefit from tax incentives, for only then can they perform some of the obligations which were once undertaken by the antiquated Wakf or endowment system.

All over Cairo, it is a race against time to rescue the remains of the city's neglected splendors. Yet, the fact that people have started to stir, and that some members of the community have actually set up small associations for the preservation of our cultural heritage, constitutes the much awaited silver lining in a dark, polluted cloud.

That the first lady has accepted to personally intervene on a national level and at this critical juncture, can only be interpreted as a show of concern at the highest level as well as an indisputable protest at the wanton destruction that has been going on to date. The message is clear: Cairenes from all walks of life are sick and tired of seeing their precious cultural heritage undermined. Destroyers of our contemporary heritage, beware.

(The author is a founding member of SPARC a society - under formation - for the Preservation of the Architectural Heritage of Cairo)

articles posted on were published in the following books by Samir W Raafat: THE EGYPTIAN BOURSE, Zeitouna, Cairo -- CAIRO THE GLORY YEARS, Harpocrates, Alexandria -- HISTORY & SOCIETY IN A CAIRO SUBURB; MAADI 1904-1962, Palm Press, Cairo -- PRIVILEGED FOR THREE CENTURIES, printed digitally and bound by Elias Printing, Egypt

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