x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The importance of renovation

The rising awareness of the importance of making the city's treasures more visible remains a positive sign

In mid-July, the inauguration of the newly restored Umm al Sultan Shaaban Mosque, a 13th-century monument, together with the Khayrebek complex (comprising a 13th-century palace, a mosque and an Ottoman house) marked the start of a new episode in the saga of renovating those parts of Cairo variously referred to as Islamic Cairo, Old Cairo or (in the Egyptian Ministry of Culture's official campaign title) Historic Cairo.

On this occasion the work was undertaken with help from the Agwa Khan Foundation, answerable to the leader of the Ismaili Shia community, the last remaining descendants of the great Fatimids. And since then several smaller "openings" have taken place in the same district, ad Darb al Ahmar, or Red Road - adjacent to the modern al Azhar Road and opposite tourist hub of Khan al Khalili - as well as elsewhere in an area so full of history that its architecture has been described as the most layered in the world.

The project to restore and refurbish Islamic Cairo has progressed haltingly for at least eight years. Under supervision from a frequently disgruntled World Heritage Committee, two major departments of the Egyptian government - the Ministry of Culture and the Supreme Council of Antiquities - have co-ordinated the implementation of the recommendations of the International Symposium on the Conservation and Restoration of Islamic Cairo, held in 2002. The process may not have been as smooth or as efficient as Unesco expected, yet changes have been palpable in many aspects of the relatively small, if spread out area, much of it radically encroached upon by the modern, overcrowded city.

In April 2000, for example, the restoration of ad Darb al Asfar, or Yellow Road Lane, a principal tributary of Fatimid Cairo's famous thoroughfare (the now pedestrian-only al Muizz li Din Illah Street) made the public aware of such long neglected monuments as Bait al Suhaimi, a late Mameluke residence that has since turned into a major performance venue and exhibition space. Likewise, in 2005, the Sultan al Ghouri complex - for decades, despite its magnificent architecture, a sorry sight rife with drug hideouts and squatters - re-emerged in what must be a close approximation of its original appearance.

Appearances may be deceptive, however. Notwithstanding Unesco's reservations on the pace of the project and instances of inefficient use of resources, the quality of the conservation work has been under attack from within Egypt, with specialists like Abdul Fattah al Banna claiming they are, on the whole, causing more harm than good. Al Banna has taken issue, especially, with the use of pentonite, a hugely absorbent material with which the cracks in façades are injected, said to have perpetrated the collapse of the Hanging Church.

A significant aspect of the challenge involved in adequately restoring Islamic Cairo has been the presence in the area of vast amounts of groundwater, which not only seep into the foundations and cause the pentonite to explode but, in some cases, pose threats of flooding. Neither would it be possible to simply evacuate some of the city's most densely populated districts. Al Muizz Street and its surroundings on both sides of al Azhar Road have been continuously inhabited since they were first built, and the introduction of modern amenities including running water and a sewerage network at the turn of the century, not to mention the expansion of the road network within the city and the exponential rise of pollution as well as the absence of awareness of conservation among the local residents, have been among the most obvious causes of deterioration.

The process is certainly complicated and the chances are that people will go on arguing about the details for as long as restoration is being done. And yet the rising awareness of the importance of conserving this part of the city and making its treasures more visible and available to the public remains a positive sign.