Excavating Cairo’s many layers requires a historian, an architect, an archaeologist and a storyteller — at the very least. Since 2011, the Built Environment Collective (Megawra) has been working to do just that, by peeling away the dust and indifference from neglected heritage sites and reconnecting residents with monuments. This equal focus on the craft, science, public use and lyricism of restoration, as well the ambitious sprawl of its projects, is what makes Megawra so unique.
Walking through Khalifa street to the organization’s office and community center is like walking through two parallel dimensions. Old, run-down houses rub shoulders with older mosques and mausoleums, bearing the names of long-dead rulers and saints. But these monuments come alive for residents, as they continually speak the names of the dead and invoke their blessings.
Megawra’s co-founder, 47-year-old May Al Ibrashy, studied archaeology, conservation and art history, then worked as an architect and professor before founding Megawra as an NGO, in 2011, with 10 colleagues — about half of whom were students. She has a calm and measured demeanor that reflects years in the patient profession of conservation. Although today Megawra has approximately 20 full-time staff, the team remains overwhelmingly young, mostly in their twenties. Their small and sunny two-room Khalifa office bustles with a quiet energy, while outside a different, louder bustle is building.
It’s midday on March 6, and we are in the middle of the moulid (birthday) of Sayidda Nafisa, a much loved Muslim saint and the great great granddaughter of Ali Bin Abi Taleb. The normally quiet street has come alive, with makeshift tents for the faithful and colorful carousels for the children. Festivities reach their proper zenith after sunset, but for now small groups wait their turn to deliver prayers at one of the many shrines that scatter the street.
These sites are one reason Megawra chose this location, tucked behind the Cairo Citadel right off Sayeda Nafisa Square, when moving from their Heliopolis office in 2014. In 2012, they had spent six months conducting workshops and discussions with the area’s residents about how they relate to the sites, in an attempt to find out why people are not motivated to preserve them. “We were just experimenting, trying to see what the neighborhood needed,” says Ibrashy, who initially envisioned this as a medium-term research project. “We didn’t really imagine that five years later we’d still be here.”
Originally, the Built Environment Collective NGO aimed to connect architects, urbanists and academics through Megawra, its co-working space and office in Heliopolis. Then, as they began working on conservation projects, they created the Athar Lina (“Heritage is ours”) initiative in 2012, bringing Megawra members together with heritage enthusiasts and government entities in a loose network. As conservation and restoration began to play a larger role in their activities, they closed the Heliopolis office and relocated to this space, referred to as “the clinic” (which it once was) by neighbors, and as “Megawra El Khalifa” by cultural partners, who use it for children’s workshops, lectures and screenings.
“We have an abundance of names,” jokes Ibrashy, “which is related to how we work in a context like Egypt. We have to work organically and find the form that suits each situation.” The word Megawra means “neighborhood,” or “next-door,” evoking the proximity between heritage and those who live among it. But it also carries values of mentorship and knowledge exchange by referencing Al-Azhar scholars, who were called “megawereen” because they lived close to the university.
Megawra’s current cultural space is in a half-finished mosque from the 1920s with an incomplete roof — a perfect material illustration of their organic, layered approach. When Megawra arrived, it was a makeshift storage space. Previously it had been a government facility, before that a clinic, and before that a mosque built on the foundations of an earlier mosque. “The place used to be a dump before they came in,” says Ramadan El Sayed, who runs a kiosk adjacent to Megawra’s space. “Now it’s a place that the kids can use, and anyone can use. They did a really good job.”
Shoulder to shoulder to Megawra is the Mausoleum of Shagarat al-Dor, Egypt’s first female Muslim ruler, who, despite being a key figure in the Mamluk dynasty, is best remembered for her dramatic end: After she killed her husband, then-Sultan Izz al-Din Aybak, she was beaten to death with clogs by the servants of Aybak’s first wife. Family drama aside, the mausoleum has one of the best-preserved mosaics of that era — depicting a tree of pearls (a literal interpretation of Shagarat al-Dor’s name) — which had been concealed beneath layers of dirt since the last renovation, sometime in the 1980s. A wooden frieze with an ornate Kufic inscription lifted from a nearby monument from the older Fatimid era, is also one of the space’s defining features. Renovating this mausoleum was Athar Lina’s first project when they moved in.
Across the street is the shrine of Sayidda Ruqaya, believed to be the Prophet Mohamed’s great granddaughter, which contains the largest stucco mehrab (prayer niche) in Egypt. This arched alcove with geometric carvings was renovated and reopened by Athar Lina in January 2016. Neighboring the shrine are the domes of Al-Ja’fari, believed to be a descendant of Ja’far al-Sadiq, considered by Shia Muslims to be the sixth Imam, and Sayidda Atika, believed to be either the prophet’s aunt or the wife of Mohamed Bin Abi Bakr. Their renovation was funded by the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation.
Ibrashy tells me Megawra approaches heritage “in a totally different way” to top-down renovation projects that fix up building facades, then pack up and leave. “Of course these buildings are important,” she says, “but we cannot view them as disconnected from everything else that’s happening in the neighborhood.”
Khalifa Street was historically called Al-Mashahid (“the visions”) due to its large number of mausoleums, each erected to commemorate the appearance of the holy figure to the founder of the shrine in a vision. These spaces are revered despite the fact that none of the figures they commemorate are actually buried there. Their histories intermingle to create a tapestry of tales that Megawra hopes will continue to keep them relevant to current residents.
“Our main aim is to get people to start looking at heritage as a resource and not a burden,” says Ahmed Tarek, a 24-year-old architect working with Megawra and Athar Lina. After a short-lived job in an architecture firm, he joined the team around two years ago, after the move to Khalifa. He cycles his 30-minute commute from his home in Maadi, taking the back roads through a massive cemetery, where Megawra is also working on a huge restoration project.
Tarek describes how residents can view heritage buildings with no religious significance as burdensome — occupying land that could otherwise be used, but too dilapidated themselves to be of use to anyone. Like Megawra’s own space before renovation, they are often transformed into junkyards and left to rot. Key to the success of Megawra’s vision is linking residents’ personal benefit to heritage preservation, and the belief that for monuments to be in good condition, the people who live among them must have good living conditions. Hence its two-pronged approach: restoration and community development.
In 2014 Megawra began a summer school for 20 to 30 local kids, teaching them basic literacy and arithmetic, sometimes by integrating heritage terms and concepts: Megawra’s illustrated English alphabet book spells out “A for Arch” and “D for Dome.” Now Tarek tells me they have also started programs for older children, aged 14 to 15, as well as organized tours for private schools as a way to sustain their other developmental activities. “It’s important that the children understand that their formation is related to that of the street,” says Ibrashy. “The shops, the cafes, these are things that are a part of their heritage, the stories that are told are a part of it also. If they understand that, they’re more likely to take care of them.”
Last year Megawra worked with the Cairo governorate to convert an abandoned lot being used as a dump into a football field. Contrary to romanticized notions of grassroots development, Ibrashy has found that working with government entities has given Athar Lina the legitimacy they lacked when they first moved in. In the political vacuum following the uprising of 2011, Ibrashy and her colleagues accidentally stumbled into the role of intermediaries between Khalifa residents and the government. “We discovered that we now have a role as the voice of the community, which is not something we aspired to at all,” she says.
Khalifa, which lies at a lower elevation than the surrounding areas, has a chronic water drainage problem. It seeps into the foundations of historic buildings, eating them away, and increases humidity. Residents of lower floors complain of cold, coughs, rheumatism and mosquitoes. On one of my visits, a few days before Sayidda Ruqaya’s moulid, sudden flooding in her shrine stripped the walls of a layer of plaster. The pervasive issue is likely a combination of groundwater seepage and bad plumbing, but nobody really knows.
With heritage as their primary mandate, Megawra have lobbied government entities to address the problem. Now, the Ministry of Housing has commissioned a study of water problems in the area, and the Ministry of Antiquities and the Cairo governorate are acknowledging this as a major issue, which Megawra considers a moderate success.
Although Megawra have partnered with the Antiquities Ministry on several projects, it’s a delicate balancing act. “We try not to be enablers who allow the government to not do their work,” says Ibrashy, adding however that real impact can only be achieved with the cooperation of all parties involved. “We’re just a small NGO with limited resources,” she says. “But if we succeed in nudging the government in the direction we want, this is where impact will happen.”
Restoration is painstakingly slow work. This is evident in a project expected to stretch out over four to five years, recently started by Athar Lina in a different area: the sprawl of cemeteries bordered by the autostrade on one side and Salah Salem on the other, known as Al-Qarafa al-Sughra (the lesser cemetery), in southern Cairo. Here, as in Khalifa, the dead and living cohabit, although the living are vastly outnumbered. It is not densely populated, but has been continually inhabited since as far back as the 9th century, first by graveyard custodians, then by those seeking knowledge at the area’s many religious schools, and later by recent migrants into the city, Sufi religious devotees, and people who simply have nowhere else to go.
In the graveyard’s center looms the mosque and mausoleum of Imam al-Shafi’i, one of the four great Imams credited for codifying much of Islamic law, paving the way for the Shafi’i school of thought within Islamic jurisprudence. Athar Lina have been working on restoring the mausoleum for six months, with a team of over 40 renovators, laborers and engineers working on a daily basis.
Mohamed el-Shafei (unrelated to the imam), is a soft-spoken environmental architect working with Megawra, and a site manager of the Imam al-Shafi’i project. On the day I visit the site the 29-year-old could easily be mistaken for an archeologist: Waist-deep in a rectangular trench dug in the mausoleum’s entryway after removing the mosaic flooring for restoration, Shafei debates whether the underground structure they have run into could be an old staircase or an adjacent tomb. “We keep uncovering layers of the building as we work,” he says. “We’re never sure what we’re going to find.”
Shafei tells me they expect to be working another two years on phase one of this AFCP-funded project, addressing urgent structural issues, as well as tracing and documenting every part of the dome’s heavily ornamented interior, before they can even begin to get to the real work. The dome was erected by Sultan Malek al-Kamel in 1211 in honor of Imam al-Shafi’i (who had been buried in that spot some 400 years earlier) and as a burial place for Kamel’s mother, Malika Shamsa. Today Malek al-Kamel himself as well as Islamic scholar and Mufti Ibn Abdel Hakam, are also buried there.
It is the largest wooden dome in Egypt. Looking at its current state, you can discern the layers accumulated as rulers came and went, renovating and altering its structure. Original features include the elaborate lower frieze, portraying a plant print in striking greens, reds and blues, and the upper frieze with Kufic script describing the dome’s foundation. Records show that the dome was renovated more than half a dozen times, with each ruler leaving a golden inscription on the interior attesting to his contribution. Prominent green wooden beams were added during the Mamluk era as a hanging place for lanterns. An adjoining mosque was built in the early 19th century, and later connected to the mausoleum by a passageway.
Although the Shafi’i mausoleum is possibly the best known, the area contains dozens more domes, shrines and tombs that have fallen into disrepair. “Our focus would be to use the Shafi’i as a node to something bigger that would drive more traffic to the other monuments,” says Ibrashy, who previously worked on restoring the burial site and sabeel (public drinking fountain) of Radwan Agha al-Razzaz, adjacent to the dome, from 2008-2011, as part of a separate initiative, the Cemetery Salvage Project. She adds: “It would require a concentrated effort and real thought into how to make these places accessible.”
Although Athar Lina has had to close off the mausoleum to visitors during renovation, they have no plans to sterilize the shrine by turning it into a cultural tourist attraction. It receives dozens of visitors on a regular day, and hundreds on a religiously momentous occasion. People crowd around the cenotaph and fling coins and banknotes inside, along with notes with scribbled prayers. While these activities have been temporarily suspended, Athar Lina hopes to preserve the mausoleum’s role in the community here, as a symbol of a neighborhood that connects residents to a layered history of which they are a continuation.
Through Megawra’s work in Khalifa, Ibrashy says they realized that the biggest impediment to successful projects was a lack of trust. Half-finished renovation projects and a flurry of researchers who study the area and then leave had built up distrust among residents. “We learned that the worst thing we can do is to disappear,” said Ibrashy. “Words have a life of their own. Once you start talking to residents about how their lives could be better, you have a responsibility. You’ve awakened images and aspirations, and you can’t just walk away.”
Sitting in Megawra’s Khalifa space, the half-finished mosque, Ibrashy tells me the Megawra team has had sessions with a storyteller, in an attempt to figure out how to tell not just the street’s story, but the story of their own presence in Khalifa, and their work as an organization. After three sessions of discussions and reminiscences, the plan was put on the back-burner as Megawra members got caught up in other projects. It’s a project they keep meaning to return to, Ibrashy tells me, seeming unhurried. I’d have to agree that there is no rush: Like conservation and restoration, good stories take a long time, possibly decades or centuries, to unfold. “It’s a very complicated story,” she smiles. “But most of what we do is about the stories that are told. Because that is an integral part of what heritage is, and that’s what keeps this connection alive.”
All photos by Roger Anis.