Al-Ahram Weekly Online    31 March - 6 April 2005 Issue No. 736 Heritage

Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


A prey to progress?

The overall plan for the development of the historic core of Old Cairo is still not apparent. Jill Kamil evaluates a work in progress


 Click to view caption

From top: restored canopy in Al-Moallaqa Church reveals beautiful 13th-century archangel; structural reinforcements; the open court of the Coptic Museum's old wing



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.


Four 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 Egypt, if not the world, is converted into something more akin to a stage set.


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.


Four 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 Salah Salem Street. Recently, however, the Weekly team discovered that restoration work is also well advanced, and we were quite surprised at the magnitude of the work.


We entered through the main doorway of the Coptic Museum (still off limits), crossed the small garden that lies between the old wing of the museum and Al-Moallaqa (or the hanging) Church, and descended a broad stone and wooden banistered stairway to the area between the two great Roman bastions.


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.


This celebrated church is now in the hands of a conservation workshop of the Russian Institute of Egyptology in Cairo, under the directorship of Alexander Gormatiuk and his crew of 14 restorers. "The project is organised by the Coptic Research Institute in Cairo and the American Research Centre in Egypt, under the direction of Galina Belova of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and with the participation of the Netherlands Institute in Cairo, and Graber Art Conservation Centre," explained Gormatiuk.


Al-Moallaqa Church was the seat of the bishop of Babylon (that is, Fustat) in the seventh century, and of the Coptic patriarchate in the ninth. Church synods were held there, and some of the church's most richly detailed ornamental painting and marvellous wooden altar screens date to the 12th and 13th centuries, during the Mameluke era.


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.


The 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 Hanging Church, woodwork, metal and marble elements were cleaned and restored. Special attention was given to the altar screen, which is made using an extremely complicated technique of thin and delicately carved ivory, ebony and mahogany plates.


Al-Moallaqa has one of the largest single collections of Coptic icons in Egypt. Blackened over time by the soot from countless candles, and by physical contact with the fingers of adoring pilgrims, some were hardly visible when steps were first taken for their restoration in the 1980s. At that time, the icons were cleaned, retouched and varnished in a very unprofessional manner, and many, but not all, later had to be restored all over again. Now the whole collection is in the hands of the Russian restorers, who are proud of the trust that has been placed in them.


"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."


The Weekly team passed through the Coptic Museum (currently off limits to the public) noting that the restoration of both the old and new wings has progressed in leaps and bounds. Gawdat Gabra, its director in the 1970s, has agreed to contribute his expertise to arranging the display of the museum's unique collection of monuments -- wall paintings, epigraphy and manuscripts, textiles, icons, ivory and bone carvings, metalwork, woodwork, ceramics, terra-cotta, and glassware.


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 Cairo is being put at risk? For one cannot stroll through these streets without noticing that the authentic historical worth of the old city is being sacrificed to state-of- the-art consumer-oriented displays. Yet for what larger purpose the area currently being demolished will be used, remains uncertain.


It would be nice to know that professional archaeologists are actively involved in the planning and redevelopment of Old Cairo, so as to ensure that the unique opportunities it presents will not be lost. Here was a multi-cultural community, where Coptic and Greek Orthodox Christians worshipped in their respective churches, while the Jewish community met at the synagogue of Ben Ezra, and the Muslims of neighbouring Fustat prayed in the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-As. Some of the churches enjoyed the patronage of the (eastern Roman or Byzantine) court, while others were not intended to be large and imposing structures. The buildings were often pillaged in times of uncertainty -- in some cases, totally demolished -- and then rebuilt and restored over and over again. When elements such as columns, capitals, architraves and lintels reveal clear Greek, Roman and Byzantine influences, it is often because they were simply usurped from earlier buildings on this or other nearby sites.


As momentum builds towards the official opening of the Coptic Museum in the autumn of this year, perhaps it is time for the master plan governing the appropriate use and development of this priceless area of human heritage finally to be announced? It would certainly be reassuring to know that the historical integrity of the area as a whole is being actively considered, and that the various institutions involved in the work, with their divergent restoration philosophies, are coordinating their activities.


Additional reporting by


Wadad ElKerdaoui and Sarah Shahin

--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---