More - MONUMENTAL DISCORD - 2001-08-30
Historians and archaeologists are concerned that the Ministry of Culture is guilty of shoddy work in Fatimid Cairo restoration efforts. Nevine El-Aref listens to responsesNot long after the Fatimids built the courtly city of Al-Qahira, or Cairo, Egyptians began calling it Umm Al-Dunya (Mother of the World), a name it has maintained through the centuries. But efforts to preserve the splendour and grandeur of the 'city of a thousand minarets' have given rise to fierce debate.
The recent restoration work carried out by the Ministry of Culture to Egypt's Islamic heritage sites has aroused admiration and horror in almost equal quantities. On the critics' side, over 30 archaeological experts, university professors and writers -- including such luminaries as James Allan, professor of Islamic art and keeper of Eastern art at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum; Princess Wijdan Ali, president of the Jordanian Royal Society of Fine Arts and dean of research at the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy; Oleg Grabar, Aga Khan emeritus professor of Islamic art at Harvard University; and André Raymond, professor emeritus at the University of Aix-en- Provence and former director of the Institute for Research and Study of the Arab and Islamic World -- have addressed a petition to Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, objecting to the techniques and materials used in restoring 'at least 31 prime [Islamic] monuments.'
Caroline Williams, corresponding secretary for the Committee for the Preservation of Islamic Monuments in Cairo (CPIMC), and one of the organisers of the petition, first became concerned about the restoration work being done in Fatimid Cairo while preparing the fifth edition of her book, The Islamic Monuments of Cairo: A Practical Guide. The committee, Williams told Al-Ahram Weekly, addressed the petition to Mrs Mubarak 'because her sympathy and interest in matters of culture is well known and it seemed appropriate to ask her for her active assistance.'
The petition describes rehabilitation projects in Fatimid Cairo as poorly planned and implemented in contravention of the Venice Charter of 1964. For instance, it deplores the use of Portland Cement in the restoration of the mosques of Ibn Tulun, Qanibay Al- Mohamedi and Mahmoud Al-Kurdi, as well as in the khanqah of Amir Shaykhu, and the complexes of Sultan Qalawun, Qaytbay and Qurqumas. More generally, Williams told the Weekly, the CPIMC is particularly concerned about the 'falsification of historical and artistic values, the use of concrete cement, the failure to solve or address the main problem of ground water, the addition of new elements while discarding the old authentic elements, [and] abrasive cleaning methods which destroy decoration.' The restoration of the Mosque of Gamaleddin Al-Ustadar is a case in point, said Williams, explaining that new marble floors with geometric star designs have replaced the original ones, made up of marble panels and roundels.
The petition also warns that 'contracting companies that have little experience with the fine art of restoration' have been made responsible for much of the work. Fatimid monuments have been handed over to the Bohra, a Shi'ite community the petition accuses of engaging in 'historically inauthentic and culturally self-serving recreations.' It also suggests that the original, authentic fabric of many buildings is being discarded and replaced with replicas.
This seems to be the crux of the matter: a clash between two philosophies of restoration. For the Ministry of Culture and the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the claims made in the petition constitute 'an ill- intentioned campaign against the work being undertaken.' Fuelling the uproar triggered last month by the petition's publication on the front page of Akhbar Al-Adab, ministry officials have wondered rhetorically whether such criticism heralds 'a return to the era of colonial protection.' Commenting on the ire the petition has aroused, a French art historian who requested anonymity noted that because Cairo's Islamic monuments 'are in frequent use and belong to the Egypt of today,' they cannot be treated like exhibits in museums. 'Besides,' said the historian, referring to the fact that the petition has been widely perceived as unwelcome intervention, 'it is extremely impolite to give lessons when they are not requested and to interfere in the private affairs of your friends.'
The petition's signatories, says Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, 'are talking without any factual evidence. We are working according to the latest restoration techniques, approved by several international committees, and I will defy any one who says anything else,' Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly . He also suggested the petition was written to serve personal interests, and not to protect the Islamic heritage to which it refers.
Concurring, Gaballa Ali Gaballa, secretary- general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), says the petition misrepresents the actual state of restoration work. For example, it alleges the use of Portland Cement -- banned under international restoration conventions -- in the Mosque of Qanibay Al-Mohamedi, although restoration work on that monument has not yet begun.
'Some of the signatories are not qualified to evaluate our work, let alone judge the UNESCO experts who are now in Old Cairo to check the restoration work,' Hosni told reporters accompanying him on a tour to inspect work being done on the Citadel of Qaytbay in Alexandria.
According to the minister, some figures claim the committee added their names to the list without permission. Hosni is keeping Mrs Mubarak abreast of these recent developments.
Last week, Hosni announced that an international conference would be held from 17 to 19 November to discuss the restoration of Islamic monuments and to present the latest UNESCO report.
Some of those working on restoration projects 'in the field' also argue that if the petition's signatories truly love the heritage of Fatimid Cairo, they will suggest alternative ways of preserving the Islamic heritage rather than making accusations.
'Where were those experts after the 1992 earthquake, when all the Islamic monuments were languishing under scaffoldings and we did not have enough money to preserve them from decay? Now that we have obtained the financial resources to allow for major restoration projects, they are accusing us of bad restoration. This is ridiculous,' exclaims Abdallah El-Attar, head of the Coptic and Islamic Antiquities Department at the SCA.
Replying to the point regarding Bohra- guided restoration efforts, El-Attar says their work, like other restoration projects, is carried out under the SCA's supervision. 'They could not add or remove any of the mosques' authentic elements,' adds El-Attar. 'Besides, they restored only three mosques: Al-Aqmar, Al-Guyushi and Al-Hakim Bi'Amr Illah. Now they are offended by newspaper reports and [the claims of] some unqualified archaeologists, and have not requested any further restoration project,' El-Attar concludes angrily. 'They allocated their money to restore other Fatimid sites in other countries.'
Other officials address the petition's points more specifically. 'Frankly speaking, inaccurate and wrong restorations are a thing of the past, which were executed by outside experts' offices when the SCA did not have field specialists of its own,' says Ayman Abdel-Moneim, who is in charge of the ministry- directed project for the rehabilitation of Fatimid Cairo. 'What we are actually doing is restoring Fatimid Cairo and removing the Portland Cement that was used in previous restoration work.'
Abdel-Moneim told the Weekly that during major restoration work carried out in the early 1980s, shops found beneath the mosque of Al-Mu'ayyad Sheikh were blocked off with concrete cement, which the SCA's restorers are currently removing. 'During this work, a large section of Cairo's southern wall has been unearthed,' he added.
In a similar vein, recent work on the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-Aas mosque is aimed at correcting 'serious architectural errors' committed under the Mamluke Amir Murad Bek in the late 18th century -- errors, antiquities officials explain, that weakened the pillars and damaged parts of the ceiling of the prayer hall.
Despite the current furore, those responsible for restoring Fatimid Cairo and those who are concerned the job is not being done properly do agree on a few points at least. For instance, Williams readily agrees that restoration on the required scale cannot be carried out quickly and to a time-table set in stone. She cautions, however, that it cannot be successful without reference to the all-important problem of groundwater. Such work must be done carefully and according to international standards; it must be based on historical evidence, and it must document the state of the monuments before, during and after restoration.
The area demarcated by the northern wall, Saliba Street, Port Said Street and the Citadel is replete with monuments, many of which have been restored carefully and responsibly, and can serve as guides in the continuing restoration process, as Williams points out. 'The healthy maintenance of restored buildings also requires a clear plan as to their future use, and how they will continue to participate in the living community of which they are a part.' And, sensitivities aside, surely all the parties interested in Fatimid Cairo agree that how the work is done, not who is doing it, is the most important point of all.