Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The continuing catastrophe in al-Darb al-Ahmar

The neighbourhood of al-Darb al-Ahmar has a long history that spans almost 700 years. Having been located in close proximity to the citadel (the seat of power from the time of the Ayyubids until the 1860's) it was the center of Cairo's political, cultural and economic activity. Its streets and alleyways are (or were) littered with impressive monuments and historical buildings that are a testament to it's once vibrant past - structures built by the patrons, elite and governors of the city. When Khedive Ismail moved the seat of power to Abdeen Palace in the 1860's, the neighbourhood began to witness a steady decline. Although this decline rapidly accelerated in the last few decades, exacerbated by bad planning policies (or lack thereof) and a disregard to the area's heritage, historic character or tightly knit urban fabric, the antiquity of the place remained apparent. Behind the piles of rubbish and raw sewage, the derelict buildings and dilapidated monuments still expressed the area's strong historical character. A revitalization program was begun by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture at the beginning of 2000 and aimed at preserving the historic character of this extremely important part of Egypt's heritage. Mosques, a palace and Ottoman houses were restored, as were many turn-of-the-century residential buildings. The neighbourhood was being transformed.

Old building in the neighbourhood

Part of an alley in Darb al-Ahmar with old buildings still preserved

However, today, and for the last two years, a real catastrophe has unfolded. Taking advantage of the almost complete absence of authorities from the municipality and interior ministry (who also never carried out their jobs properly prior to the revolution), construction companies have begun tearing down 3-4 storey old houses and registered monuments, and replacing them with ugly 10 storey monstrosities. Most of these new residential buildings have been built along the eastern edge of the neighbourhood overlooking the Azhar Park. It is clear from the pattern of construction that the contractors' goal is to take advantage of the view of the park and consequently sell their new apartments blocks at exorbitant prices - an action motivated purely by greed. Ironically when first envisioned, one of the goals of the park, located at the edge of al-Darb al-Ahmar, was to conserve the neighbourhood's past and restore it's vitality. Today, the park has pushed contractor's to do the exact opposite.  Authorities have on their part failed to take any form of action to counter these blatant violations. The only reaction noted so far is to fine contractors for exceeding the height limit allowed for a building (a fine contractors are more than willing to pay and which in turn keeps the authorities pockets full and happy).

One of many examples of the horrible buildings overtaking the neighbourhood

One of the new constructions towers over an Ottoman Sabil Kuttab

The new apartment buildings leave no breathing space

A building still under constructions dwarfs the original houses of the area

Several new buildings spring up along this narrow alley

Less and less of the original houses and structures remain

All compete for view of the park

A new building next to one of the old houses restored by the project

I walked through al-Darb al-Ahmar last week, a place I had worked in for almost 6 years, and found it unrecognizable. The small alleyways that were once lined with stone structures and turn-of-the-century buildings, now host towering apartment buildings that are glued to one another and which have succeeded in shutting off any light or air from reaching the street. What has happened and is continuing to happen in al-Darb al-Ahmar is by all means, a disaster. It is an attack on our history and our heritage - an attack that has unfortunately become all too common in Egypt today.


Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed said...

Very sad Nora whats going on. I think the biggest problem that we emerged with from the past sixty years of mis-rule and corruption is the disintegration of value, the way we as a nation no longer appreciate beauty or history. And that is extremely sad and also very difficult to change

Mr M said...

It’s exactly what we have highlighted as a major concern when we started the development schemes for the same area back in 1998. We have raised a major concern over the gentrification of the area towards more uncontrolled urban development benefiting from the park presence over the historic and community fabric in the area with the absence of clear set of guidelines and statuary rules controlling the any urban development in the historic realm of the old city. Unfortunately, after 14 years the very thing we warned about is enviably happening with a complete absence from the government (the past and present). Unfortunately, both Park and Community development projects were squeezed between finding and exit strategy from the quick sand called Egypt, a management maximizing the commercial yield of al Azhar park any way possible, an absent government role (as always) and a community is below the poverty line trying to find any income source (legal or not). I hope I don’t see the day when this kind of encroachment is extended to replace the eastern Mamlouki cemetery under the slogan of a new urban development driven by the presence of the park, the very one was established to revive the entire area but in a complete different sense.

Alaa El-Habashi said...

You are right Noura. It is very sad indeed to see and live what is happening in Historic Cairo with absolutely no power to intervene. It is not only about aesthetic damages, but also the threats that those cheaply constructed high rises are exerting to their inhabitants and surrounding weak built fabric. And what is even worse is that this is the production of a small number of thugs, supported by few representatives within the local authorities. It just shows how detrimental can be a small portion of the local society to the city, and to the entire country. They are basically turning "Historic Cairo", the World Heritage Site, into a shanty town, and I started to doubt whether this is ever recoverable.
MPs and politicians are reluctant to intervene and activate the laws as they fearing to loose elections. It is such a vicious circle of events.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your article, I'm from Paris and I worked also in Darb Al Ahmar, I will come back to continue my story : http://rafaelyaghobzadeh.photoshelter.com/gallery/El-Darb-El-Ahmar-CAIRO/G0000lmkQOlAsxaU/C0000Le.dXPeoPj8