It was with a sigh of relief that Egypt’s heritage preservation community reacted to an official announcement from the Cairo governorate that “there are no plans to remove the cemetery of Taha Hussein” as part of urban development work in the cemeteries area.
The announcement, made over the weekend, put an end to months of debate on the fate of the tomb of this prominent Egyptian literary figure, dubbed “the dean of Arabic literature”, as part of wider plans to remove the cemeteries to make way for the construction of flyovers to connect the capital with newly constructed areas.
The debate over the fate of the tomb has been only part of a wider and longer debate about finding ways to reconcile plans to “facilitate movement” across the city with heritage preservation more generally. There was speculation, later quashed, about the construction of a flyover next to the iconic Basilique de Notre Dame in Heliopolis and of a Cairo Eye attraction or car park in two-century-old Zamalek parks; one of which is the Fish Garden.
To the dismay of conservationists, part of the city’s Mameluke-period cemeteries was removed, including the tomb of prominent 20th-century novelist and journalist Ihsan Abdel-Quddous. According to an official statement from the Islamic Monuments Department of the Ministry of Antiquities, this tomb and surrounding areas were not registered as historic buildings.
However, according to Soheir Zaki Hawas, a Cairo University professor of architecture and member of the National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH), responsible for heritage-related planning decisions in the city, the debate on how to square the old with the new in Cairo is much older than the recent debates allow.
In 2009, the then relatively new NOUH had to “go through a tough public-opinion campaign with the help of the media” to stop a scheme to build a multi-storey garage in the vicinity of the Cairo Train Station, she said. The campaign failed to stop the construction before it started, but the construction work, which cost over LE30 million, was eventually knocked down.
“The authorities at the time came up with a conciliatory statement saying that the building was demolished due to security reasons. But we did not care to contest this pretext, as we had managed to save the façade of the station, which was what we cared about,” Hawas said.
She added that a couple of years later the NOUH failed to preserve the interior of the Station despite a lot of lobbying. The argument used in the autumn of 2011 for eliminating part of the original interior was that “there had to be an inverted pyramid carrying the names of those who had been martyred in the 25 January Revolution.”
For Hawas, as for other conservationists, the Cairo Station, which dates to the late 19th century, did not need to honour the sacrifices of the revolution. However, “at the time it was a taboo to oppose anything of this sort, even as there should be no taboos when it comes to discussing the preservation of the city,” she said.
Ten years on, Hawas was again dismayed to see commercial kiosks being put up in front of the station. They are not as intrusive as the multi-storey garage, but they should not have been allowed to encroach on this historic monument, she said.
“Nobody is opposed to development. Of course, [Cairo] needs to have development, just like any other city with a growing population. The argument is not against development, but rather for making development compatible with heritage conservation,” she said.
“It is not a new battle, but it is a long one,” she added.
In 2002, Hawas worked on a comprehensive survey of the architectural gems of Downtown Cairo in a book entitled Khedival Cairo — Survey and Documentation of the Architecture and Urbanism of Downtown Cairo.
The book was meant to alert government, conservationists, and public alike to the threats to the architectural heritage and urban texture of this part of the city that was built starting in the second half of the 19th century.
“It was shocking, for example, to see how commercial activities and businesses were violating the façades of some of the city’s most prominent buildings to flag their offices or stores, and it was disturbing to see how some buildings were being reworked to serve new commercial functions,” she said.