Old Cairo Is Falling Apart. Does Anyone Care?

The narrow passage cuts through the subtle rose-and-white stone facade of the al-Ghuriyya mosque. The mosque, built in 1503 and decorated with black-and-white marble inset designs and balconies crowned with ornamental stone arches, was built above a maze of alleys lined with small shops. Nearly five centuries later, the passages are still clogged with cloth and spice merchants hawking their goods from closet-size stalls. Saleh Lamei, an Egyptian architectural historian and restorer, knows these passages well. He pauses at one stall to greet an acquaintance; then, moving on, he says sadly: "Some of these people have cut into the walls of the mosque just to make their shops bigger."

Such callous defacement is only one of many destructive forces that Lamei and others are fighting in their efforts to preserve the treasures of medieval Cairo. "It is our national heritage," he said. "We have to fight for it with our hearts."

While millions of tourists come to see the breathtaking sights of ancient Egypt outside the city, Cairo itself is a stylistic feast of 14 centuries' worth of Islamic architecture. The greatest concentration of medieval religious, public-service, residential, and defensive buildings lie within what remains of the walls of the old city, in the area now called Islamic Cairo. In 1951, some 622 buildings were listed by the Egyptian government as historic monuments. But since then, more than 100 monuments have either collapsed or been destroyed. Most of those still standing do so precariously, victims of desecration by squatters, and of the vibrations caused by street traffic and the machines of some tenant craftsmen.

SEWER WATER. But the most destructive force has been the rising level of groundwater in the area. Cairo's aging sewage system, dating from the 1920s, was built to accommodate some 2 million people and now strains to support 15 million. According to one estimate, at least 60% of the potable water in the original walled city is lost through leaky pipes. "There's a lake beneath the surface of the old city," says Laila Ibrahim, a retired professor of Islamic architecture and a staunch preservation advocate. "The water is very, very dangerous" to the architecture.

When the sewage-laced water makes contact with limestone, the most common building material in Cairo's medieval structures, salt and acids are produced. Water creeps up through the stonework, then, when the water evaporates, the salt forms crystals that weaken and split the stone.

During medieval Cairo's heyday, when the city was the center of Islamic scholarship, the street that sliced the city from north to south, now called Muizz li-Din Allah Street, was the artery of the city's commercial life. One-third of Cairo's listed historical buildings sit on or near this street. Many have stunning facades with carved Kufic inscriptions from the Koran. There's iron grillwork dating back 700 years and towering stone or stucco minarets, some carved with designs as delicate as lace.

DONKEYS AND SCOOTERS. Modern Cairo sprawled beyond the original walls centuries ago, but this street has remained a vibrant marketplace. It is choked with shops and shoppers, horse- and donkey-drawn carts, trucks, cars, scooters, bicycles, and mangy cats. Piles of garbage and small ponds of sewage water turn the street into a nasty obstacle course.

Most tourists tend to cling timidly to that span of Muizz li-Din Allah Street that borders the Khan al-Khalili, the tourist bazaar, and so miss the most significant historic buildings--which are mostly unmarked. One of these is the 13th century school and tomb of Sultan Qalaoun. It features magnificent cedar mashrabiyya (wooden laticework), walls of precise marble mosaic, a 45-foot-high ceiling of exquisitely carved wood, and brilliant stained-glass windows.

Inside, the ravages of the water are apparent. The rising water table, just 16 inches below the complex, has produced what looks like a bad case of eczema. Large, scaly patches of salt crystals encrust many of the interior pillars, and salt has pushed off the mosaic that once covered several of the piers. "This is one of the most significant mihrabs prayer niches in the Islamic world because of its mosaic," says historian Lamei, pointing to intricate but damaged designs of glass, marble, mother of pearl, and turquoise on the 20-foot-tall alcove.

Further down the street, just beyond the south gate of the old city, stands the mosque of Wazir al-Salih Tala'i. Built in 1160, it is the oldest existing example of a suspended mosque, one that was built over a ground floor of shops. Over time, the street level has risen--and so has the groundwater. Today, the mosque is surrounded by a moat of sewage water and garbage. Water leaches into the fill on which the foundation was laid, and the fill is now shifting. As a result, the walls of the shops are buckling, and the floor of the mosque, which is supported by those walls, is warping.

The Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO), as well as some foreign groups, including German, French, Italian, and Polish missions, are now restoring a handful of these monuments. But most experts say full-scale restoration efforts are futile until Cairo's sewage system is completely upgraded. Construction on a new system began in 1985. Optimistic estimates now suggest that it may take one more year--at least--to complete the job.

Every month of delay puts more artifacts in jeopardy. "In some cases, you can't wait," says one expert. "The tomb of Qalaoun won't collapse, but the marble mosaics inside will." Some of the restoration that has been undertaken has been more harmful than helpful. Restorers, both foreign and Egyptian, have used cement liberally in their work, contravening standards for restoration suggested by UNESCO.

RED TAPE. The logistics involved in saving these monuments are as entangled as the scaffolding now keeping some of them from collapsing. While the EAO is responsible for preserving the buildings, it has no authority to relocate people who may be squatting or renting shops in them, since a different government ministry oversees Cairo's religious buildings. Another government body manages the sewage system, yet another handles traffic flow, and garbage collection is the duty of the city government.

A council was set up earlier this year to coordinate government bodies. But progress is hampered by conflicting interests, lethargic bureaucracies, low government salaries that quash initiative, and a dearth of technical expertise. Meanwhile, public apathy isn't helping matters. Although the plight of Islamic Cairo is discussed in the local media, few Egyptians feel any real connection to their past. Restoration would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But "money is not the major problem here," says one Egyptian specialist in Islamic architecture. "The major problem is to educate people--even the educated people--to respect their heritage." Without that, no amount of money or expertise will save the treasures of Islamic Cairo.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE