Middle East

Cairo's architecture gems left to crumble

Nagwa Shoeb is showing me the site of her childhood home, in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.

It is now an ugly modern high-rise. On the ground floor, there are women's clothing stores, with garish displays. The apartments above, never a thing of beauty, are further disfigured by the air-conditioning units perched outside.

It was all very different when she was growing up.

"This, I am afraid to say, I am ashamed to say, was the site of our villa with a beautiful garden where I grew up with my brothers and sisters. We had beautiful parties, and just really enjoyed our life here," Ms Shoeb said.

As time went on the family drifted away, her mother grew old and moved out. Eventually the villa was demolished, along with most of the others in the street.

It is a story repeated across this city, once known as the "Paris of the Middle East".

The suburb of Heliopolis was an architectural gem, developed from 1908, in Cairo's fashionable heyday.

On the smart island of Zamalek in the centre of the Nile, some of the villas were miniature palaces, fabulous follies were the centre of a glittering social life.

Modern high-rise building in Cairo with clothes hanging out to dry from the balconies
More typical modern high-rise living in Cairo

The adventurous architecture was a synthesis of European and Middle Eastern. It became an expression of the city's self-confidence.

"It was the opening of commercial life, the opening for industry, the opening for culture itself, which gave this dream for the people to build such buildings," explains architect Mona Zacharia, who has been involved in some impressive restoration projects.

Now, the demise of the villas has its own message.

Angus Blair, a Briton who has lived in Cairo for the last four-and-a-half years, says the decline began in the wave of nationalisation that followed the 1952 revolution.

Since then families have sold off their villas, usually for financial reasons, maybe because the family members want to share out their inheritance.

"What has happened since the 1950s has been the growing of Cairo as a grindingly ugly city," he said scathingly. The problem compounds itself, he believes. "If a city is ugly people don't tend to take care of it."

In recent years, the government has begun to impose conservation orders. It means more buildings are left standing, but the problems are not resolved.

Slow decay

One of Nagwa Shoeb's old neighbours and childhood friends, Madame Fatmeh, is left marooned in her huge villa. It has been on the market for eight years, but nobody wants to buy. She can barely afford to run it, let alone to renovate it. She is not allowed to knock it down.

"I was born here. I lived here all my life. But now it became a hell," she complained.

While she stoically waits and hopes for a buyer, other owners take a more cynical view. Some villas are deliberately left derelict, with the owners hoping they will fall down of their own accord.

A bricked in doorway to an old Cairo building
It is very expensive to maintain a villa - let alone restore it

One of the most spectacular in Zamalek now has vegetation growing through its roof. Instead of demolition, it is dying a slow death.

Samir Gharib is chairman of the government sponsored National Organisation for Urban Harmony. He has been working to persuade Egyptians to value their heritage more. But he accepts there are big financial issues as well:

"It is much, much more profitable for owners to build a new building than to keep the old building. We have to make the old buildings profitable, economically, for the owners," he explained.

He points out that the government cannot begin to provide the sort of money needed to solve the problem.

Angus Blair blames a lack of "imagination and creativity".

Cairo is now home to perhaps 20 million people. Many of them battle just to survive.

For them the preservation of this architectural past is probably an irrelevance.

But if Cairo is to rediscover and benefit from its recent past, private developers and the government will need to work together. If not, this magnificent legacy could be lost for future generations.

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