Islamic Cairo rebirth

Al-Ahram Weekly Online
22 - 28 August 2002
Issue No. 600

The programme to preserve and restore Egypt's Islamic heritage is in full swing, reports Nevine El-Aref

Hosni on a tour of Islamic Cairo inspecting progress
The Ministry of Culture is pushing forward with its rehabilitation programme for Islamic Cairo with a view to developing the area into an open air museum.

The city's historic buildings have an appeal of their own. These are living monuments, steeped in history and combining an architectural and urban heritage, yet home and work environment of a vibrant population. This helps make them a major tourist attraction.

One of the important components of the city's architectural and social history is the eastern wall, built in the late 12th century by Salaheddin El-Ayyubi (Saladin), founder of the Ayyubid Empire. Six years ago the Ministry, in collaboration with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, launched a programme to preserve part of Cairo's Islamic heritage and save this distinguished Ayyubid architecture from destruction. The project also includes a study of the extent of excavation still required and the protection of the historic gate, as well as the upgrading of the whole Al-Azhar area which will be laid out as a park of which the wall will be part.

Last week Culture Minister Farouk Hosni toured Islamic Cairo to inspect the progress. "The work is in full swing," Hosni said, adding that the project was one of Aga Khan foundation's largest current projects. It not only aimed at restoring the east wall but at upgrading the entire area and transforming it into a well-organised entertainment park which will underscore the site's historical value. He said a visitors' centre would be built at the eastern entrance of the site in order to monitor the number of visitors inside the archaeological zone and to organise a route for them.

Zahi Hawass, director-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said the restoration and rehabilitation would take four years of hard work at a total cost of $47 million.

Abdallah El-Attar, head of the SCA's Islamic and Coptic monuments department, said the park would include restaurants, cultural centres and bookshops, while the projects department head, Mohamed Nader said encroachment in the area surrounding the wall would be curtailed and existing structures removed to facilitate future excavation and development.

The Salaheddin wall is 270 metres in length, four to five metres in height and 3.5 metres wide. It was originally built to surround the separate former Islamic capitals and various quarters of the city -- which included Al-Fustat, the Fatimid city of Al-Qahira and the Ayyubid citadel -- and protect them from outside invasion. El-Attar said Salaheddin's mediaeval wall, which was originally 1,600 metres long, began in the Babul Wazir area and ran to Al-Darassa Square. The part of the wall beside the citadel has five major military gates; Bab Al-Gedid, Bab Al-Nasr, Bab Al- Barqa, Bab Al-Qarassin and Bab Al-Wazir.