21 - 27 April 2005 Issue No. 739 Features
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
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
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
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