In February of 2014, the head of the National Organization for Urban Harmony, Samir Gharib, said, “Since 2011, we’ve been living in the era of the Great Downfall of Egyptian urbanization”. However, Egypt’s cultural heritage has been degrading long before 2011; the revolution has only exacerbated preexisting issues. Some of the most prominent problems and challenges facing heritage conservation in Egypt will be discussed in this section.
Historically, the efforts of the Egyptian state to protect and preserve its built cultural heritage have largely been dictated by the capacity of a location to generate tourist revenue. Thus, famed monuments of greater touristic value like the Giza Pyramids and Luxor have received the most resources. As a result, a number of the country’s culturally significant properties have been severely neglected. The case of Al-Sakakīnī Palace in al-Ẓāhir provides us with one example of this endemic state neglect of architectural heritage in Egypt. The palace, which was constructed in 1897, is significant to the residents not simply due to its aesthetic beauty, but also because it constitutes the nucleus of the area’s urban design as eight principle roads branch out from where the building is situated. Since the death of its owner in 1923, businessman Gabrīl Habīb al-Sakakīnī, the palace has fallen into disrepair due inattention from the government, and today, the palace stands as a shadow of its past glory. Now, the veranda is cracking, the gardens are riddled with weeds, and the building’s interior is in disrepair. Although the palace has technically remained open to the public, art students have been the palace’s only visitors for years. Al-Sakakīnī Palace constitutes an important part of al-Ẓāhir cultural and historical identity, yet this neighborhood’s residents have been denied their right to enjoy this property due to state neglect. Too many of Egypt’s cultural sites have suffered the same fate, and many have been formally closed due to lack of maintenance.
The laws specifically geared towards protecting Egypt’s built heritage (Laws No. 117/1983, No. 178/1961 and No. 144/2006) have also led to the endangerment and sometimes demolition of historic houses due to ambiguous legal jargon. Antiquities in general are protected by Law No. 117 of 1983 and buildings of architectural value and historical importance are protected by law 178 of 1961. Law No. 144 regulates demolition licenses and is concerned with protecting buildings of distinguished architectural value. As per Law No. 117, buildings are classified as “historic” if they can be attributed to one of Egypt’s primary cultural influences (Greek, Christian, Islamic, or Ancient Egyptian) and are protected by the Ministry of Antiquities. Law No. 144, by contrast, leaves the “heritage” classification much more ambiguous and there is no ministry or state institution that is explicitly responsible for the official classification or protection of heritage buildings. As a result of these loopholes property owners who aim to demolish a heritage building need only to ask for permission from a heritage committee consisting of specialists and representatives from the governorate and the Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities. If this fails an owner would have to file a complaint with the court claiming that that building has no historical value. The complainant often wins cases like these because the court will seek the advice of an antiquities expert who will corroborate the claim that the building is not a historic building, as the selection criteria upon which a building was to be called of “historical value” remained vague. By stripping these buildings of their protected status, these rulings essentially remove all legal barriers that preclude these buildings from demolition.
In Alexandria, there has been an increase in the demolition of the city’s historic villas and illegal construction. Many attribute this to the activity of Alexandria’s real estate mafia, a complex network of landlords, corrupt police, and developers that has collectively contributed to the erasure of the city’s built cultural heritage. The mafia is known to “pay off residents or intimidate them into leaving their heritage homes, tear out doors and windows and flood entire buildings with water” so that the state will declare them fit for demolition. In their place, developers erect cheap apartment blocks, most of which do not even come close to abiding by zoning codes and are extremely unsafe. They construct these buildings as fast as possible and sell the apartments on the top floor first so as to avoid possible repercussions and make it legally problematic for the state to tear down the illegally built tenements. However, rarely do these developers face any legal repercussions. Since the 25 January revolution, this type of activity has increased exponentially, which can be attributed to political instability incapacitating the state apparatus or an increased willingness among state officials to accept bribes due to economic concerns or both. Because the state is incapable of enforcing the existing laws that deem these types of construction projects illegal, Alexandria’s built cultural heritage has suffered immensely, and the residents of Alexandria are being slowly stripped of their right to their city’s cultural heritage.
Egyptians have not only been dispossessed of large parts of their cultural heritage due to systemic neglect, but state policies have disproportionately privileged tourists’ access to monuments and heritage sites. In an effort to maximize revenue, the state has pursued development projects that have sealed off heritage sites from their surrounding communities, a phenomenon that is referred to as “enclave tourism.” A development project to reinvent Luxor serves to illustrate this idea. After the idea was first presented in 1999 American company Abt Associates and left to languish for six years, it was resurrected by General Samir Farag, former governor of Luxor, in the 2000s. The design ultimately agreed upon will cost hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars and is expected to be completed by 2030. The state insists that these development efforts will increase revenue from tourists and will help alleviate the mounting economic crisis; however, the plan has been fiercely criticized due to its complete disregard for the residents living among the pharaonic monuments.
This policy, often espoused by the Egyptian state itself, is representative of two issues related to the treatment of cultural heritage in Egypt; the disproportionate distribution of burdens and revenues of tourism, and the narrow definition of what constitutes heritage that ignores the diversity of Egypt’s wealth of culture. The demolition of the Village of al-Qurna provides us with a good example of both of these issues. This village had been situated among ancient tombs in Luxor for over a century, but was demolished in December 2006 in order to preserve the visual integrity of the tombs. The village’s residents were relocated to the outskirts of the touristic area, dispossessing them of what was a source of income for many as well as a part of their cultural identity. At the same time, tourists sitting in the new McDonalds in Luxor are given a “spectacular view of the 3,300 year-old Temple” (Time). Moreover, the demolition of the Village of al-Qurna also represents a disregard to cultural heritage beyond pharaonic times. Although this village had been around for more than a century and therefore contributed to the cultural identity of Luxor, it was cleansed from the touristic zone in order to leave the area purely pharaonic. This ignores the temporal and visual diversity of Luxor’s built cultural heritage and limits the cultural significance of Luxor to the pharaonic era. All of these incidents further illustrate this notion that the Egyptian state privileges the interests of tourists over Egyptians, especially poor Egyptians, with regard to access to much of the country’s built cultural heritage.
Another effect of the instability brought on by the revolution is the increase of instances of vandalism and looting of Egyptian archeological sites and museums. According to Al Jazeera, there has been a 1000% increase in total looting since the 2011 revolution. The most cited manifestation of this phenomenon is the looting of the Malawi Museum in Minya. In early August 2013, looters broke in and took more than one thousand of the museum’s 1,041 objects from the begging of the Egyptian history to the Islamic period. Some of the items were then sold to buyers within hours of the looting, while others were smuggled out of the country and sold abroad. Other examples include the Black Pyramid of Dahshour that is now riddled with holes dug by looters. Looters have also broken into Abu Sir al-Malaq, an ancient Egyptian burial site, stealing the tomb’s contents that currently only an estimated 30% of the tomb’s original contents remain. This major increase in looting has been attributed to both the economic downturn and the weak security apparatus concerned with guarding the country’s museums and archeological sites. Due to economic hardships brought on by political instability, “the lure of profit [from looting] has proved irresistible to too many” (Aljazeera). Moreover, Saleh Lamei Moustafa, a conservator of Islamic architecture, estimates the number of antiquities police to be 300, and these officers who only carry pistols are incapable of stopping looters who are armed with heavy weaponry.
Many cultural and historical artifacts have also been damaged or entirely destroyed as a result of revolutionary violence. The Museum of Islamic Art was badly damaged when a car bomb exploded outside of the building on 24 January, 2014. The building itself, beautifully designed in the neo-Mamluk style and built 1902, took a great deal of damage in the explosion. The glass on the museum’s facade was broken and much of its interior was destroyed. In total, 164 pieces of those housed by the museum were affected by the blast, 74 of which are said to be damaged beyond repair. The neighboring Dar al-Kutub, which contains countless, one-of-a-kind manuscripts, was also badly damaged in the blast. According to news sources, eight of these manuscripts were entirely ruined, and the central AC system was harmed, which put the rest of the books in danger of decay.
Since 2011, along with a galvanization of political consciousness among the Egyptian masses, we have witnessed concurrent popular mobilizations calling for the preservation of heritage. That is to say, that a number of individuals and initiatives from all sectors of Egyptians have come together as heritage activists to articulate a “right to heritage” that agrees with the spirit of civic engagement and justice. These activists have been using a combination of strategies ranging in scope and audience. While some focus on simply raising awareness about the issue of heritage destruction, others strive to pressure the state to preserve or protect historic properties. Still other initiatives have engaged with philanthropic activities to clean up culturally significant buildings or spaces and return them to public use.
Perhaps the most readily available example of heritage activism in Egypt is the work of Save Alex, an initiative that was formed in 2012 and is “committed to protecting and enhancing the built environment of the city of Alexandria”. While Save Alex employs a number of strategies to realize this mission, much of the initiative’s online presence is devoted to advocacy. The group makes use of Facebook to disseminate information and raise awareness about assaults on Alexandria’s built heritage with a special focus on historic villas. An increasing number of the city’s villas have been, or are in danger of being, demolished and Save Alex has published their histories, accounts of attempts to demolish them, and the stories of the initiative’s efforts to save them. The initiative has also authored a number of documents that range from reports on the current status of historic villas to explanations of the legal infrastructure that ostensibly protects heritage buildings. The work and success of Save Alex has given rise to similar initiatives like Save Cairo and Save Mansoura.
Save Manṣūra for instance, has launched a Facebook campaign to save the Manṣūra Theater from demolition after it was severely damaged in an explosion on 24 December, 2013. The initiative posts news articles related to the theater’s current status and has initiated a petition to pressure the government to preserve the theater rather than demolish it. The initiative was successful in its endeavors as the theater is currently in the process of being renovated.
Activists have also organized protests and sit-ins as a means of pressuring the state to intervene in instances where a historic building is being demolished illegally, or as a means of compelling the state to reverse its decision when demolitions are state sanctioned. This is a tactic that has been employed by concerned citizens, professionals and academics. It generally realizes success when used in tandem with other tactics that engage the state through official channels. Save Alex and its efforts to save Villa Cicurel from demolition provide a good example of the efficacy of protests as a tactic for heritage activists. Villa Cicurel, one of Alexandria’s villas from the early 20th century, was removed from the registry of heritage sites by former Prime Minister al-Ganzūrī in January 2012 and therefore was in danger of being demolished. Upon learning of this decision, Save Alex organized the largest non-political silent protest in the city’s history in front of the Villa on May 3, 2012 in order to convince the former Prime Minister to reverse his decision. In addition, they contacted state officials to plead their case and demand that the villa not be demolished. On 11 May 2012, Save Alex’s efforts prompted Prime Minister al-Ganzūrī to retract his previous decision and issue resolution 488 that prohibits the demolition of Villa Cicurel. This tacnic was also employed by other initiatives, such as the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative and Ana min al-Ẓāhir.
A number of initiatives document and archive as a means of recording assaults on Egypt’s cultural heritage. The Heliopolis Heritage Initiative (HHI) has employed a variety of tactics to realize their mission, but has put a special emphasis on documenting and archiving the built heritage of Heliopolis. Upon its inauguration, the initiative announced a photo competition so as to get members of the community involved in documenting the Heliopolis’ architectural heritage, and the winning photographs were displayed on the neighborhood’s fences and walls in what could be described as a guerrilla photo gallery. Additionally, they run walking tours throughout the suburb in order to give residents the opportunity to learn about the history of Heliopolis as well as to photograph heritage buildings in the area. Documentation allows HHI to not only archive Heliopolis’ architectural heritage but also to monitor buildings of historical importance that are at risk of demolition. In order to centralize their efforts, they established a subproject named Heliopolis Eyes that is described as a “community watchdog” charged with documenting Heliopolis’ architecture and reporting instances of assault on the neighborhood’s built environment. HHI also regularly collaborates with Michel Hanna, and individual who has been blogging about environmentalism and heritage preservation in Cairo since 2005.
It is important to recognize that while many of the initiatives that constitute this burgeoning heritage activist community have quite a large scope and were initially started by professionals and academics working in the field of urbanism or architecture, we have also witnessed a number of grassroots mobilizations that have appeared within neighborhoods. What makes these mobilizations distinct from the initiatives already discussed is that they tend to have a much narrower scope and be more localized. For example, Ana min al-Zahir is a collective of residents from al-Ẓahir, a suburb of Cairo, who began organizing in October 2013 to pressure the state to re-open Al-Sakakīnī palace (discussed above) to the public. The residents had become frustrated that they were dispossessed of one of the most culturally significant properties in their neighborhoods due to state neglect, and so they demanded that the property be renovated returned to them. As such, they organized protests outside of the palace and contacted government officials so as to make the state aware of their concerns. The state has thus far responded positively to the community’s efforts and the Ministry of Antiquities has drawn up plans to renovate the building and its grounds. Ana min al-Ẓahir is distinct from initiatives like Save Alex and the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative in that this is an initiative that developed entirely from within the community. Save Alex was formed by individuals who are academically and professionally concerned with the issue cultural heritage erasure. As such, the initiative is concerned with the preservation of Alexandria’s architectural character in general, although it has focused its efforts towards saving historic villas from demolition. By contrast, the campaign to open Al-Sakakīnī Palace was not part of a larger agenda to raise awareness about the systemic neglect of historic properties. Rather, the residents of al-Ẓahir organized in order to fulfill a desire that originated from the community. If we read the efforts of Ana al-Ẓahir alongside the work of initiatives like Save Alex, it becomes clear that there is an increased interest in Egyptian heritage and a burgeoning desire among ordinary Egyptians to gain access to culturally significant properties and spaces.
While the state has historically pursued policies that have served to physically separate monuments from their surrounding communities, members of both the private and public sectors have worked to combat this trend. Athar Lina, a participatory conservation initiative run by the Built Environment Collective-Megawra, is an example of how things can be done differently. The initiative started after a participatory design workshop focusing on the neighborhood of al-Khalifa in Historic Cairo asked the question of the relationship between heritage sites and their surroundings and how heritage sites can become useful for communities. As opposed to the concept of “enclave tourism”, May al-Ibrashy, co-founder of Megawra believes that while heritage sites are important they cannot be viewed in isolation from their surroundings and the communities they’re integrated in. Athar Lina believes that in order for communities to participate in conservation efforts, cultural heritage has to be beneficial to them; heritage has to be viewed “as a resource, not a burden”. Examples of their work has included the renovation of Shajar al-Durr Dome and the rehabilitation of an early 20th century building into a community center which features a social program focused on education, public health and capacity building for the community as well as a cultural program for urbanists and architects. Additionally, since 2014 the Khalifa Heritage School has aimed to teach local children about their heritage through art, crafts, sports, religious activities as well to enhance their basic literacy skills.
In order to safeguard both Egypt’s built heritage and historic artifacts during times of increased violence and looting, a number of professionals including state employees have taken it upon themselves to create a network of individuals who are trained to appropriately care for rare and delicate artifacts in response to emergency situations and crises. The Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation (EHRF) was formed in 2012 by a group of employees of the Ministry of Antiquities who attended a two-week course in emergency response sponsored by the International Centre for the Study of the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM). After the training course, these concerned employees mobilized together to share their knowledge locally with state employees and museum staff, in emergency response and in the proper care of artifacts. They additionally organized a regional workshop training participants from 6 countries on best practices to preserve heritage in crises. After a car bomb attack in January 2014 left the Islamic Museum, which is also home to the Egyptian National Library and Archives, badly damaged, the EHRF team was on site of the attack within 45 minutes and put in place emergency measures. The EHRF team, alongside museum employees and employees of the Ministry of Antiquities, has worked to assess the damage, stabilize the collections and plan for evacuating the collections. Their current goal is for there to be a team of emergency responders in each governorate and at least two trained individuals in each museum across Egypt.
The initiatives surveyed here are examples of members of diverse sectors of Egyptians society have collectively begun to articulate, discursively or in practice, a “right to heritage” that has been infringed upon for decades. Through the collective action of heritage activists and initiatives, the definition of “heritage” has been problematized and expanded. Cultural heritage is now being articulated as something that encompasses the tangible and intangible aspects of all cultures, ethnicities, and religious identities that coexist within the borders of Egypt. This right can largely be defined by five characteristics, which are discussed in TADAMUN’s The right to heritage.
• It recognizes the diversity of heritage
• It insists that heritage be accessible to all
• It ensures that heritage benefits local communities
• It balances private interests with public rights
• It recognizes the right of the next generation to this heritage
Prior to the revolution, the definition of cultural heritage as per the state was quite vague. Article 12 of the constitution of 1971 frames it simply as “the historical heritage of the people”. Elsewhere, and even in the 2013 constitution, the definition has been further clarified to encompass “all types of cultural heritage from the Pharaonic, Islamic, Coptic, and modern periods”. This language reflects the attitude of the state with regards to cultural heritage as it privileges Pharaonic, Islamic, and Coptic heritage. Additionally, despite the fact that there is a vague mention of other aspects of Egypt’s cultural heritage, in practice, the state has directed the vast majority of its resources towards preserving and promoting artifacts and monuments that fall under these three categories.
Through the collective action of heritage activists and initiatives, this definition has been problematized and expanded. Cultural heritage is now being articulated as something that encompasses the tangible and intangible aspects of all cultures, ethnicities, and religious identities that coexist within the borders of Egypt. Save Alex, for instance, has published a number of documents and Facebook posts that deal with the confusion surrounding Laws 117 and 144. Despite the vague language in the formulation of the laws leading to the removal of certain buildings from Alexandria’s Architectural Heritage List, save Alex has insisted that “this classification does not negate the value of these buildings for Egypt’s cultural heritage. By insisting that these buildings constitute a part of Egyptian heritage, Save Alex has made an implicit demand for a more inclusive definition of heritage in Alexandria: one that includes the collective architectural character of the city rather than specific buildings.
This nascent right to heritage also insists that cultural heritage be accessible to all. For years, the majority of Egyptian society has been prevented from accessing and enjoying the wealth of its own cultural heritage due to enclaved tourism and systemic neglect of culturally significant sites. Almost all of the initiatives that have mobilized across the country since the revolution have focused their efforts on increasing access to Egypt’s heritage. Whether it is by combatting the systemic neglect of Egypt’s cultural heritage or by engaging communities that are located next to historic monuments, as Athar Lina has done, these heritage activists have made it clear that access to Egypt’s cultural heritage must be universal.
Alongside efforts to increase access to cultural heritage, there has been a concurrent, and closely related, insistence that heritage benefits the surrounding community. Both of these notions tie into a larger emerging discourse that emphasizes the social function of property. That is to say, land owners and the state have a responsibility to ensure the productive use of property. Following this logic, every person has the right to access heritage sites, and these sites must benefit the neighboring communities. This right has been articulated through the practices of heritage activists like the residents of al-Ẓaher who worked to open al-Sakakīnī Palace. While the palace had been neglected for years and therefore not suitable for public use, the residents recognized the value of the property to their community and demanded that it be opened.
Also encompassed within this right to heritage is the notion that private interest with regards to cultural heritage must be weighed against public rights. This also ties in with the idea that property has a social function. While an individual may have the right to alter private property, he or she must recognize that this property is also part of the surrounding community and city. In the context of cultural heritage, private owners of culturally significant buildings have an obligation to ensure that their private property serves the surrounding communities and is used productively. However, this raises the question whether the owner of an historic building ever has the right to demolish, even in instances where this individual is unable to profit from their property.
The villas of Alexandria once again provide a good illustration of this issue. As has been discussed, there has been an increase in the demolition of privately owned historic houses. While the real estate mafia is responsible for many of these demolitions, private landlords with less corrupt intentions have also made the decision to demolish. These landlords often cite the Sadat-era rent-control system that still applies to a number of historic villas. The old rental law required landlords to renew rental agreements at the same rental value, and allowed contracts to be passed onto to spouses and children. Today, tenants of buildings that are still under the purview are paying such small sums for their rent that the landlords barely earn anything. While these villas are significant to Egyptian cultural heritage, should landlords be expected to privilege the public interest when they are not even making enough money from rent to pay for the upkeep of these buildings? Save Alex has strived to discursively explore this issue and develop solutions that are just for the public as well as property owners. In doing so, Save Alex has articulated this particularly difficult aspect of the right to heritage.
Finally, the right to heritage is not simply a right of this generation, but rather is the right of all generations to come. The collective efforts of these heritage activists are ultimately concentrated on this aspect of the right to heritage. Whether it is by protesting villa demolitions, documenting historic buildings, or cleaning up neglected sites, these activists are ensuring that Egypt’s cultural heritage is not erased.
The efforts of individuals and initiatives that are concerned with Egypt’s cultural heritage are inspiring. They have worked tirelessly to ensure that the neglect and erasure of their cultural heritage comes to a halt, and in doing so, have begun articulating a comprehensive right to heritage. However, as is the case with all rights, merely articulating a right does not ensure that it will be enacted. In the absence of a political, legal, and social infrastructure that protects the right to heritage and allows for its enactment, Egypt’s heritage will continue to be neglected and assaulted. The 2014 Constitution is the most progressive constitution with regards to recognizing the diversity of Egypt’s cultural heritage and emphasizing the importance of preserving this heritage.1 However, legislation must be passed that specifies what constitutes Egyptian heritage and that delineates state’s role in the protection and promotion of the nation’s heritage. Moreover, the preexisting legal apparatus concerned with protecting Egypt’s built heritage must be amended to be more comprehensive so as to combat the ongoing (and increasing) assaults on historically significant buildings. For instance, the language of Laws No. 117 and No. 144 must be altered so as to clear up the confusion surrounding what constitutes a building of historic and architectural value and to specify exactly what kind of legal protection is extended to each type of building. There must also be increased collaboration between the state and civil society in matters of cultural heritage. This means that the state should be in communication with the public sphere in general, with communities that surround heritage sites, and with the various professionals, concerned citizens, and initiatives that work to protect and promote Egypt’s cultural heritage. If this is achieved, the state and civil society will be able to share in the responsibility of defining, preserving, and promoting cultural heritage. Finally, heritage activists should be in conversation with one another in order to better understand the various challenges that exist across the country and to collaborate to combat these challenges.
Featured Photo By: Save Alex who took it during a protest against the demolition of built heritage in Alexandria.
1. Text of Article 50: “Egypt’s civilization and cultural heritage, whether physical or moral, including all diversities and principal milestones – namely Ancient Egyptian, Coptic, and Islamic – is a national and human wealth. The State shall preserve and maintain this heritage as well as the contemporary cultural wealth, whether architectural, literary or artistic, with all diversities. Aggression against any of the foregoing is a crime punished by Law. The State shall pay special attention to protecting components of cultural pluralism in Egypt”
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