31 March - 6 April 2005 Issue No. 736 Heritage
A prey to progress?
overall plan for the development of the historic core of Old
Click to view caption
When the Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni announced during the millennium celebrations that Old Cairo would be turned into a Mogamma Al-Adyan or Religious Zone, it was confidently expected that a comprehensive plan would be drawn up, and adhered to, for the restoration of the religious buildings (both within and beyond the surviving walls of the old Roman fortress of Babylon) and at the same time for the development of appropriate tourist facilities.
years down the line, however, there is still no evidence of such a plan.
Meanwhile, some scholars are expressing dismay at what they perceive as the
irreparable destruction of large parts of the area as one of the most
historically important and hitherto relatively intact mediaeval zones in
It is of course unfair to judge an area when work is in progress. But Al-Ahram Weekly has been witness to the indiscriminate destruction of large parts of this historic zone over the last 15 years, and is now justifiably concerned at seeing the clearance, to below ground level, of two large areas -- one to the south of the Al-Moallaqa Church, the other north of the new wing of the Coptic Museum.
In the late 1990s, we watched powerless as pseudo-Roman walls were erected where generations of traditional potters (now relocated) had carried out their trade, bulldozers gobbled up cobbled streets within the mediaeval city, and traditional dwellings made way for glitzy tourist outlets. Though we were unable to prevent any of that, it would be wrong not to express our concern again this time around, especially when one witnesses the transformation of the St George's Church complex (which contains the only surviving 13th-century "nuptial hall") into a vast tiled open courtyard leading to the newly- constructed church, and equipped with toilet facilities more in keeping with a five-star hotel than an area of great historic value and interest. What is going on? And who is doing what? The Weekly sent a team to Old Cairo to find out. Their research, over successive weeks, revealed a very complex picture.
years ago the Weekly carried an article (14-20 August, 2000) describing the
decision by the Supreme Council of Antiquities to commission the Arab
Contractors and Orascom for Heavy Industries to lower
the level of the subterranean water around Old Cairo as part of a bigger
project monitored by the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) on behalf of
USAID. The water has now been controlled by the unique method of digging shafts
in line, and installing connecting pipes to carry water to an area north of
entered through the main doorway of the
It is now no longer necessary to tread with extreme caution along an improvised plank walkway and peer into the gloomy shadows of disintegrating walls. The interior of the tower is now dry and a vast and fully lit undercroft spreads out on both sides of the early river gateway to the fortress. Revealed are original walls, pillars, and brick arches, restored and stabilised where necessary with commendable sympathy for the original structure. We saw evidence of the early catacomb church at what was once ground level, and noted that some of the building blocks were carved with hieroglyphics. We also saw amazing double-height columns with traces of original timber construction between them, and a reconstructed grain mill with evidence of adjacent ovens.
Far overhead, but clearly visible, we could make out the underside of the wooden floor of the Al- Moallaqa nave, which rests on the two south-western bastions of the fortress. Inside the church itself, a glass panel has been inserted into the floor to reveal this vast area over which the church is suspended.
celebrated church is now in the hands of a conservation workshop of the Russian
Institute of Egyptology in
Before work could begin on the restoration and conservation of its architectural and artistic elements, the effects of the ground water, which had damaged the foundations of the church, had to be dealt with, as did the consequences of the 1992 earthquake. In concrete terms, this meant that the old wing of the Coptic museum beside the church would also have to be restored simultaneously. In both buildings great cracks had appeared in the walls.
Hassan Ibrahim, an engineer on location, explained that stones were removed from their positions under the building, which was supported using macropiles, and reinforced concrete was then poured under the walls. "The walls themselves presented their own special problems," he said. "The serious cracks were not all the result of the earthquake. With modern computer technology, we have been able to determine whether they were already there, or dated from the more recent natural upheaval."
When at last the team turned to the interior of the church, they had to consider all the stages of its history. "To save its many masterpieces -- architectural elements, wall paintings, woodwork, icons, etc. -- proved a time-consuming task. Certain varieties of wood were imported, marble had to be matched, and it was also necessary to deal with the damage caused to the church as a result of unscientific earlier restoration carried out in the mid- 1970s and the 1980s," Gormatiuk told the Weekly.
first stage of the work concentrated on the restoration of the most ancient
part of the church -- the chapel dedicated to the much venerated Ethiopian
saint Takla Haymanout,
which leads off the main church to the right, near the transept. In the main
body of the
Al-Moallaqa has one of the largest single collections of
Coptic icons in
"Italian restorers hold pride of place in Egypt for the accuracy and competence of their work on wall paintings and icons, so we were proud to win the concession in Al-Moallaqa," said Gormatiuk, who added that the decision was probably based on the fact that the Russian school is the closest to the Byzantine, "both being Orthodox Christians".
The condition of each icon, most of which can be dated to the 18th and 19th centuries, was reconsidered, and suitable methods determined for dealing with each specific problem. Through their work, the team has been led to certain conclusions about the history of the icons in general. "Some Coptic icon specialists have tended to the opinion that the sacred pictures were so venerated that they were never over-painted," said Gormatiuk. "Our work in Al-Moallaqa has enabled us to reach a rather different conclusion. We have exposed many cases of overpainting and changes to the original design, on top of the original images," he said. "Icons were over-painted, not because of their fragile state but often, interestingly enough, because a patron wished to perform a special act of devotion -- to revive the icon that was venerated in the church."
Weekly team passed through the
redevelopment of the entire historic zone is also well underway. But concerns
remain as to how much of the mediaeval city is being subjected to the kind of
"face-lift" that already came in for much serious criticism several
years ago. Or in other words, how much of the historical integrity of Old
would be nice to know that professional archaeologists are actively involved in
the planning and redevelopment of Old
momentum builds towards the official opening of the
Additional reporting by
Wadad ElKerdaoui and Sarah Shahin
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