Cairo Tries to Reclaim Lost Treasure Amid City’s Trash


Along narrow Al Muizz Street, it is difficult to imagine that this tumbledown, trash-strewn lane was, in its day, the most important street of the most opulent city on Earth.

Today, it is far from glorious. Lost in the enormous sprawl of Cairo, this 1,000-year-old lane barely 15 feet wide is crowded with polluting aluminum smelters and other small workshops. Cars thread their way through throngs of pedestrians, and squatters hang laundry from dilapidated, earthquake-cracked buildings. Garbage is thrown into the adjoining alleys, and often there’s a whiff of sewage in the air.

Overcrowding--more than 300,000 people live in the 1 1/2-square-mile area around Al Muizz--and urban decay are the lot of many a city.


But what makes this street and its environs different is that this quarter, for all its moldering decrepitude, contains what a U.N. study called the richest trove of medieval Islamic architecture in the world, once-amazing buildings dating from the 10th century up to the Ottoman period.

“If you call yourself Egyptian, you should weep--weep!--at the condition of the monuments,” says Gaballah Ali Gaballah, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council on Antiquities, whose job is to rescue as much of the country’s vast cultural heritage as possible on an annual budget of $80 million.

Now, Egypt’s central government, the mayor of Cairo and the antiquities authority have announced a joint project to save “historic Cairo,” as this medieval district is being called, before it crumbles into nothingness.

Based on a study by the U.N. Development Program--and with help anticipated from foreign donors, including the U.S. government--they have an ambitious blueprint to restore buildings, evict polluters, ban automobiles and build a pair of underground tunnels that will allow the dismantling of a major thoroughfare that bisects the historic district.

Economic Incentives Fuel Restoration Push

Why did it take so long to try to stop this decline? One reason is that Egypt is awash with antiquities--and most of the state’s limited means have been aimed at preserving the country’s Pharaonic past. Medieval structures, no more than about 1,000 years old, were deemed barely worthy of notice.

But the new market policies espoused by President Hosni Mubarak and his business-driven prime minister, Kamal Ganzouri, have given the plan a powerful economic incentive: the potential dollars to be made if a restored medieval Cairo can persuade tourists to extend their stays in Egypt a few days after seeing the Pyramids.

“We think we have a treasure in Cairo. We think that treasure can generate income. . . . We have to search for that treasure as soon as possible,” Mayor Abdel Rehim Shehata said.

By all accounts, the original medieval Cairo was a glory. It contained the world’s largest and most spectacular mosques, imposing palaces, tiled fountains, fruits and pleasures of every description, all within towering high walls upon which two horsemen could canter abreast.

It was built in the 10th century as a palace city to inspire awe and fear of the caliph, who at the time ruled an empire stretching from Morocco to Arabia, and who controlled the lucrative spice caravans to the Orient and the gold-and-slave trade with the rest of Africa.

The Fatimids, Shiite believers from Tunisia striving to surpass the Sunni caliph in Baghdad, invaded Egypt in 969. In their triumph, they laid out a capital they named El Qahira--”the Victorious One.”

Emerging Cairo Eclipsed Baghdad

On the profits of their military successes, the new city that rose above the Nile flood plain soon supplanted Baghdad as the richest city in Islam, and hence, at that time, the world, wrote historian-author Desmond Stewart.

“Baghdad was, in former times, an illustrious city,” said Maqdisi, an Arab traveler who visited Cairo in 985. “But it is now crumbling to decay and its glory had departed. I found neither pleasure nor aught worthy of admiration there. Cairo today is what Baghdad was in its prime.”

Today, however, few of the monuments are in anything like a presentable state. Walls are cracked, and bricks and plaster are flaking or fallen. Sewage from the city’s overburdened drainage system is eating foundations.

In this century, as most of this area slowly became little more than a slum, both the government and the residents treated the edifices in their midst with callous disregard.

Restorers Marvel at Discovery of Arcade

In the courtyard of one derelict 18th century palace, a previous government dug a bomb shelter. Fishmongers from the neighborhood around Bab el Zuwelya Gate, built 900 years ago, threw fish heads, rotting shrimp and other debris into a moat formed by rising ground water around El Salah Taleai mosque.

A fetid green-gray pool of garbage resulted, standing for as long as the older residents could remember. When it was finally drained and cleared this year, delighted restorers discovered a medieval arcade of low, arched stone shops built into the side of the mosque.

Other once-grand houses were--and still are--used as garbage dumps, places to slaughter chickens or as convenient toilets by people seemingly oblivious to their intrinsic value and fine architectural details. These include mashrabaya windows--characterized by a wooden mesh intricately made without nails to give privacy to the women of the houses--inlaid cabinets and medieval stained-glass skylights.

The enormousness of the task facing restorers is daunting.

“It’s a long-term program,” Mayor Shehata said. “We are not planning it for six months or one year--maybe it’s going to take 20 years. But it has to start because many of the practices around the monuments have been very bad. . . . It should have begun maybe 50 years ago.”

Shehata said the city’s role will include compelling owners of polluting workshops to switch to nonpolluting businesses or move. He estimates that 15% of the businesses may have to be evicted. The city is preparing an alternative site for them nearby, he said.

Everyone involved emphasizes that the intention is not to denude the area of its real people--the shouting merchants and the waterpipe-smoking coffeehouse denizens, characters who might have stepped straight out of the pages of a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s Nobel-winning author, who was born in this neighborhood.

“We cannot make it a museum because the city is still alive and we are still living here,” said Medhad Menabbawy, the antiquities director for the neighborhood, who offers visitors soft drinks in a cubicle in the bowels of a partially restored 14th century palace.

But the area will be cleaned up and protected, shops will be required to put in new facades appropriate to the area’s historic character, and the neighborhood will become a lure to visitors, Menabbawy promised.

“We dream to be not less than old Rome or old Madrid,” Menabbawy said.

Plan Would Reeducate Denizens of District

A key aspect of the plan is to address the neighborhood as a whole and not just look at fixing up the historic buildings.

“If we are going to work in this area, we cannot work piecemeal. . . . You have to upgrade the whole area: the streets, sewage, water and electricity. You have to reeducate the people,” said Gaballah of the antiquities authority.

He noted that the streets are too narrow for automobiles. They were built for a hot country, where the proximity of the buildings gave shade, and people could talk to one another from their balconies. The tunnels planned underneath the historic district will remove through traffic and reunite the sundered ends of Al Muizz Street.

Cars eventually will be banned altogether, except for a few hours in the early morning when merchants can receive deliveries. “If it works out,” Gaballah said, “you can have a pedestrian area in the heart of Cairo.”

He said he does not yet know how Egypt will pay for the work, but he plans to approach the World Bank; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; Arabs in the wealthy Gulf countries; and Muslims the world over for help. “This is the heritage of mankind,” he said. “We have to translate that practically: Ask mankind to help.”

How much money does he need? “Oh, give me the [annual] budget of Egypt,” he deadpanned.

Merchants and other neighborhood people, for the most part, are responding positively to the government interest. The only murmurings have been from some workshop owners, anxious about whether they will be relocated.

“Today in Egypt there is a huge blossoming of the old and the new,” said jeweler Adel Saif, whose shop is attached to a medieval mosque just inside the Bab el Zuwelya Gate and who expects greater tourist traffic.

“People feel this. Everywhere you go, there is construction, there are projects going on. Things are moving.”