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Architecture Professors Join Fight to Save Cairo’s Historic Cemeteries

Architecture professors in Egypt and abroad are leading a campaign to halt the continuing destruction of historic cemeteries in Cairo to clear space for new highways. The tombs of many prominent writers, politicians and cultural figures have already been demolished as part of government roadbuilding projects.

The group is currently working on creating detailed site plans to document tombs and cemeteries threatened with destruction. The documents “create a means to resist forgetting,” said Galila El-Kadi, a member of the campaign and a professor of urban planning in France.

The scholars hope their work helps to preserve the sites through images and education, if not physically, she said. They also provide heritage preservation societies with pictures and illustrations of these places to “highlight their unique historical and artistic value.”

El-Kadi told Al-Fanar Media: “People were surprised by the demolition of El-Ghafir cemetery between 2014 and 2016. Even the owners were not informed before.”

“People were surprised by the demolition of El-Ghafir cemetery between 2014 and 2016. Even the owners were not informed before.”

Galila El-Kadi
A member of the campaign and a professor of urban planning in France

More recently, she said, “experts and architects tried to negotiate to stop the process of removing tombs at the Firdos (Paradise) Expressway, but their efforts were unsuccessful.”

Threats to Tombs of Cultural Icons

Through such building projects, “historic Cairo has lost the tombs of important cultural and artistic symbols” of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the earlier Mamluk and Ottoman periods, she said.

“Unfortunately, all these tombs were demolished even though they were registered on the lists of cultural heritage by the National Organization for Urban Harmony at the Ministry of Culture.”

After a number of tombs in Al-Firdos cemetery were demolished, intellectuals protested against further destruction. “Reports were issued by the Architecture Committee of the Supreme Council of Culture rejecting the construction plans,” El-Kadi said. “However, the government ignored them, and continued to demolish and remove tombs.”

The new campaign aims to stop the demolition of cemeteries in several districts of Cairo, and the tomb of the Sufi poet Umar Ibn Al-Farid.

“Most the threatened cemeteries are of unique artistic and historical value,” El-Kadi said.

Among the cultural icons whose graves are threatened, she mentioned the poets Ahmed Shawqi and Hafez IbrahimQueen Farida and other members of the former royal family, the education reformer Ali Pasha Mubarak, the writers Ihsan Abdul Quddus and Mohamed El-Tabii, and the actor and director Youssef Wahbi.

Cairo's historic cemeteries
An inscription above the entrance to a tomb that is threatened with removal. (Photo: Galila Al-Kadi, via Facebook)

The campaign recently documented 18 listed monuments that are threatened with destruction. They include the mausoleum of the Tabatiba family, the only remaining monument from the Ikhshidid Dynasty, and the ruins of the Ibn Tulun Canal, which predates the Magra El-Oyoun Aqueduct, which provided the Citadel of Saladin with water.

El-Kadi said that the demolition plans are also expected to include “some residential districts adjacent to the cemeteries, such as Al-Sayyida Aisha, Arab Al-Yasar, and Al-Hattaba, which surround the Citadel of Saladin.”

Tampering with Historic Maps

El-Kadi believes that the government plan represents an assault on the map issued by Unesco in 1979, which delineates the boundaries of Historic Cairo.

“There is an insistence on tampering with the maps approved by international organizations, and the scope of the final preservation of Historic Cairo has not yet been approved.”

Galila El-Kadi  

“There is an insistence on tampering with the maps approved by international organizations, and the scope of the final preservation of Historic Cairo has not yet been approved,” she said.

In June, Unesco saluted the Egyptian government for organizing meetings with experts and architects to solicit their views. At the time, Mostafa Madbouly, Egypt’s prime minister, promised to respect the opinions of experts and to respect all registered heritage sites. “The demolitions will be completely halted and no historical building will be removed,” Madbouly said.

In the past three months, however, “the government disregarded such pledges and resumed its work,” El-Kadi said. It notified the owners of tombs in historic cemeteries of the removal operations, she said, “and called on them to search for alternative sites to transport the remains of their dead.”

The campaign members are planning a symposium and a documentary exhibition of pictures of the threatened cemeteries in January, El-Kadi said. They are also working to “negotiate with decision-makers, in an attempt to stop demolition procedures before resorting to the courts.”

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While the campaign includes several public figures and some professors of architecture, El-Kadi said other professors and architects in general were reluctant to participate due to their work with the government, and their keenness on executing projects.

“Cairo’s architectural heritage has come under threat due to the struggle over space,” she said. The lands of Cairo’s historic cemeteries have high commercial value, and “the principle of real estate investment dominates investment trends in Egypt,” she added.

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