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City Under Siege

August 16, 2007 by  


Islamic Cairo is still waiting for a comprehensive urban development plan, much to the concern of the World Heritage Committee, writes Courtesy Nermine El-Araf

Islamic Cairo

Following its meeting in New Zealand last month, the World Heritage Committee (WHC) released a report that may exacerbate differences between the Ministry of Culture and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) on one hand, and UNESCO on the other.

In the report, WHC members reiterate their concern over the lack of progress in implementing the recommendations of the 2002 International Symposium on the Conservation and Restoration of Islamic Cairo which include: designating Islamic Cairo as a Special Planning District, with buffer zones, in accordance with the provisions of the Operational Guidelines ; preparing a comprehensive urban plan for the conservation and development of the old city with appropriate development regulations to encourage the rehabilitation of the urban fabric and ensure its compatibility with the historic character of Islamic Cairo and organising regular meetings between Egyptian and international experts to review current conservation issues and projects.

They also accuse the Ministry of Culture of failing to submit the requested progress report but providing, instead, a list of project sites in synoptic table form.

“No description or documentation was attached. However, the information available does show important progress in the conservation of buildings and streets in the old city. These efforts are not visible enough — due to the absence of a comprehensive urban conservation plan,” the report said.

In a telephone interview, Ayman Abdel-Moneim, general director of the Historic Cairo Project, told Al-Ahram Weekly that there was no substantive delay in compiling the report. “During a previous discussion with the WHC in Paris in June it was agreed that a survey would be undertaken following the committee’s July meeting in New Zealand,” he said.

Abdel-Moneim also pointed out that $2 million in funding was now available to UNESCO to finance the specialist help needed to carry out a comprehensive urban survey of the historic city and monitor the increasing rate of urban development, the overcrowding of buildings, and the impact of industrial activity on the architecture of the area.

“This two-year long survey will result in integrated socio-economic revitalisation plan linking the urban and the socio-cultural fabric of the city’s core,” Abdel-Moneim confidently predicted, adding that its provisions would be enshrined in legislation to preserve monuments and protect the area from further encroachment.

He said the SCA had already provided WHC with a map detailing all monuments and archaeological zones in historic Cairo.

The WHC report also touched on the ongoing controversy surrounding the Cairo Financial and Tourism Centre (CFTC) under construction close to the Salaheddin Citadel. In April 2007, at the request of the SCA, a mission was sent from the World Heritage Centre to assess the scheme. Delay in compiling a report on the scheme’s status, the report said, was the result of the team’s lack of access to necessary documents. The CFTC site, bordering the citadel, will house hotels, offices and a shopping mall on 61,000 square metres. The maximum building height, says ALKAN, the company building the centre, will be 59.5 metres, i.e. 51 metres higher than the Salah Salem highway that runs past the citadel.

“The shape and character of this very large complex, whose architectural language is mainly that of a commercial building, do not appear to be sensitive to the particular context of the site, both in terms of landscape and environmental conditions. From information provided thus far, indeed, it seems that this project would have a significant adverse impact on the visual integrity of the citadel and its setting, which will be impossible to reverse,” said the report.

The mission listened to presentations by both parties while investigating the development and its impact, hearing presentations from the developer and from objectors to the scheme. In order to help it come to balanced opinion, mission members requested that the developer make available detailed architectural plans, sections, elevations, etc., printed on a measurable scale. ALKAN has so far failed to meet this request. Considering the nature of the surrounding landscape and structures, which are very varied and rich in sculptural terms, it would be impossible to arrive at a full understanding of view lines, for example, on the basis of drawings alone. The mission also requested that the developer also provide a scale model of the proposed scheme, showing the surrounding areas, the citadel and other structures.

The UNESCO mission expressed its concern that a project located in such a sensitive and technically complicated location had not been analysed through site-specific study models, let alone the kind of fully detailed model essential to measure the impact of the project and make a competent assessment. At the time of drafting this document, only presentation drawings had been provided. Acting on the recommendation of the World Heritage Centre, the SCA has halted ongoing construction works and an update should be available at the time of the committee meeting.

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