Egypt drafts new plan to restore historic heart of Cairo

  • Many old buildings at risk due to neglect
  • The plan includes boutique hotels, pedestrian areas
  • Experts worry about the cost and complexity of the work
  • The project manager announces that funding will be available

CAIRO, September 29 (Reuters) – Egypt is moving forward with a new project to restore historic Cairo, a sprawling, but now rapidly collapsing, millennial World Heritage site, home to many Tales of the Thousand and One nights.

The plan aims to revitalize and promote Cairo as a tourist attraction as the government prepares to relocate to a futuristic new capital in the desert.

It gives new impetus to the efforts of professional architects and restorers to also save old buildings that they feared would be lost due to bureaucracy, official corruption and legal constraints.

Low-rise apartments will be built on vacant land in the historic district, where residents and workshops will be relocated as dilapidated structures are rebuilt and restored, senior coordinator Mohamed Elkhatib said.

“For the first time, the budget is not an issue,” Elkhatib said, without giving an estimate. “They (the government) told me that any budget for historic Cairo would be approved.”

Workers will soon begin improving the facades of older buildings – including those not officially listed as historic – to match the vernacular of previous centuries.

The plan also includes converting several of the city’s wikalas or caravanserai into boutique hotels, an idea that has proven successful elsewhere in the Middle East.

“We actually started working on plots of land,” Elkhatib said. “The negotiations with the residents are over and we have started.”

The government intends to renovate about 10% of the area in a first two-year phase and is considering proposals to create a single entity for the 30 km² of historic Cairo, he said.

Layers of history

People walk next to Bab al-Futuh, a nearly 1,000-year-old gate, at the northern entrance to historic Cairo which will undergo restorations, in Cairo, Egypt on September 14, 2021. REUTERS / Amr Abdallah Dalsh

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Much of the initial work will focus on restoring neighborhoods around three large gates built by the Fatimid dynasty of Tunisia, which ruled for two centuries after its army conquered Cairo in AD 969.

A gate, Bab al-Zuwaila, and Habbaniya Street to the south, were vignette scenes in the Thousand and One Thousand and One Nights.

Historic Cairo is full of workshops, souks and dwellings, and the craftsmanship in some streets dates back centuries.

“Few cities in the world have so many layers of history stretching back so long,” said Jeff Allen of the World Monuments Fund, who works on a 16th-century Sufi religious complex south of Bab al-Zuwaila.

Some restaurateurs and architects are also concerned about the complexity and cost of restoration, and the possibility that this could lead to Disneyfication.

Elkhatib says the character of the region will be preserved.

Alaa al-Habashi, an architect and restorer who specializes in Islamic architecture and invited to help develop the restoration plan, said the government is now considering residents, crafts, historic fabric and infrastructure, rather than focusing only on monuments.

“The change is dramatic. It was long overdue,” Habashi said.

But implementation will be the key. “I am worried about the delays,” he said. “I am also concerned that the principles upon which the whole project was shaped may also be altered in one way or another in the implementation.”

Eventually, a large part of the area will be converted into pedestrian areas.

“The second phase is to start dealing with historic buildings, not (officially) listed buildings. We will document all of these buildings, restore them and reuse them,” Elkhatib said.

Report by Patrick Werr; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Emelia Sithole-Matarise

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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