Al-Ahram Weekly Online               21 - 27 April 2005 Issue No. 739 Features

Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875



Second chance

Controversial plans to renovate Bab Al-Azab have been revived: Nevine El-Aref attends the launching of a new phase in the history of Islamic Cairo

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Ruins of part of Al-Ablaq Palace overlooking the Citadel; (below) remains of the Citadel Arsenal transformed into a garbage dump

A meeting of the ministers of culture and tourism concluded a decade-long saga last week, with plans to realise Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni's vision for Bab Al-Azab, a historical neighbourhood in the vicinity of the citadel, finally made.

It was in the early 1990s that Hosni first thought of developing this largely neglected setting -- the site of Mohamed Ali Pasha's massacre of the Mamelukes -- by, among other measures, exploiting its tourism potential: a luxury hotel modelled on local 18th-century architecture and interior design, a shopping complex, a conference hall and an Islamic art museum as well as a restoration school were all on the cards. So was an Italian grant, offered to the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in 1988.

The SCA Permanent Committee on Coptic and Islamic Monuments approved the proposal in 1993. However, in 1998, the project was subjected to a fierce press campaign initiated by left-wing intellectuals, significantly MPs, concerned that it would set a precedent for "prostituting national heritage." They claimed that the building of a hotel and shopping complex on the site would be an encroachment on the Citadel.

The plan was consequently put on hold indefinitely but in its place came a series of heated, seemingly interminable disputes.

In 2000, a court ruled against the plan, saying it violated antiquities Law 117 for 1983. Writer and Shura Council member Sekina Fouad described the verdict as a "historic feat" of the Egyptian judiciary. Archaeological sites must not be rented out, she insisted: "There is a derelict, defunct hotel on the Muqattam hills that overlooks the citadel, and the Culture Ministry can use it to bolster tourism in the area, if that is the purpose."

While Hosni contested the ruling, on the other hand, two fires occurred at the site, the second of which -- set off by a fireworks accident -- caused serious damage, with the ceiling of what was once the British army's dormitory and storage building burned out. Thankfully the fire was contained before it reached the Mohamed Ali Mosque or other, more significant sites, so described by SCA consultant to Coptic and Islamic monuments Abdallah El-Attar.

Soon afterwards Hosni gave his critics a tour of the area so they could see for themselves the state of dilapidation into which it had fallen; development, he argued, was the only way the government could preserve and protect it.

Only recently did the Supreme Administrative Court sanction the project -- on condition that no five-star hotel should be established. A Canadian company is currently conducting a feasibility study of the plan. Hosni has since declared that the project will provide for the restoration of six Mameluke and Ottoman sites: Al-Azab Mosque, Al-Ablaq Palace, Al-Azab Gate, Al- Arbein Dome, Al- Refref Tower, and the Citadel Arsenal.

He also announced plans to renovate the entire district, which is fast turning into a rubbish dump: "Now the citadel, which Salaheddin built in 1176 to keep Crusaders out of Cairo will no longer be subject to such conditions as those that have resulted in two fires in the last five years."

He described the second fire as a wake-up call for the revival of plans to renovate Bab Al-Azab -- plans for which will provide for fire protection among many other safety measures.

For his part Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Maghrabi, who will provide help in the process of renovation, has described the project as a new pyramid to be built in Cairo, asserting that it will re-affirm Cairo's status as Egypt's primary tourist attraction. Feasibility studies, Hosni promised, will be completed within six months.

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