Between red tape and neglect: Cairo’s contested heritage
Fustat, Cairo

The Cairo Governorate’s plan to build a public garden on a piece of land in a historical area of Fustat has been stalled by a successful campaign spearheaded by activists and civil society groups.

Today, the land in question is marked by a large, black sign reading, “This land belongs to the Cairo Governorate. It has not been operated on and is not allowed to be operated on.” The brick walls surrounding the land have been smashed to make way for new bricks and tiles, but the construction materials lay dormant. The land is completely abandoned, save for a pack of dogs.

But as the dispute between governorate and the group of activists comes to a standstill, the disputed land is threatened by a return to its previous state as a dumpster, due to a lack of funds for excavation and the Ministry of Antiquities’ inability to protect Cairo’s archaeological sites.

Across from the parcel of land is a compact residential area made up of modest, makeshift houses for a largely low-income community.

“If you had come here while it was still a garbage dump, you wouldn’t have been able to stand here,” says Ali Nour, an area resident. “People with respiratory problems used to get sick when they would burn the trash.”

Fellow resident Mahmoud Gaber agrees. “Out of nowhere, [Prime Minister Ibrahim] Mehleb visited the site three times. They cleaned it out, covered it with sand, and nobody knows what’s happening now.”

Gaber hopes that the site gets turned into a garden, or something else to “benefit the country,” like a hospital or a hotel.

“I’m very happy they cleaned it,” says Mamdouh Ahmed, who owns a pottery business across the road. Ahmed believes that the authorities found artefacts while they were cleaning it out, and therefore there is no need to worry about the area’s archaeological value being lost.

However, Sally Suleiman believes otherwise. Suleiman works for the campaign Save Cairo, which started off as a Facebook page last year and aims to bring light to violations of the country’s archaeological sites.

“Fustat reveals information about a very important era of Cairo’s history,” she says. “And while they’re claiming there are no artefacts, there’s no way to know for sure until the land is excavated.”

Built in 641 by Amr Ibn al-Aas, Fustat was the first Egyptian capital under Islamic rule and is recognized today as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Located south of Cairo, the area is home to the first mosque ever built in Egypt. Fustat is known for its glassware and ceramics industry, and modern archaeological digs in the area have unearthed ancient artefacts from around the world that were traded in the old capital. Some of the findings were put on display at the recently destroyed Museum of Islamic Art.

“Fustat is one of the most important places to review in the city’s history. This is where Cairo was born,” says Salim Ikram, an archaeologist who has taken part in many excavations across Egypt, and an author of several books on Egyptian archaeology. “It is where the origin of Cairo can be perfectly understood.”

Even though the area belongs to the Cairo Governorate, its historical value makes it subject to the Ministry of Antiquities under the protection of the Antiquities Law. This means that the governorate cannot execute a project here without first getting ministry approval.

Although there was never an official statement to this effect, the initial signs of intervention on the land indicated that the Ministry of Antiquities had given a green light to the project — although the Antiquities Law states that permits cannot authorize the construction of buildings and cemeteries or agricultural development near archaeological sites.

According to Mohamed Abdel Aziz, head of the Development of Historical Cairo project at the Ministry of Antiquities, almost 70 percent of the land in Fustat has been excavated. Therefore, he is “75 percent certain” that there are no antiquities to be found in this particular site.

However, Ikram disagrees, arguing that only a small fraction of Fustat has been excavated.

“There’s more to be done in order to understand how the earlier population of Cairo lived and died,” she contends, adding, “I would say that in Egypt, a historically rich country, it’s hard to think of anywhere where there’s no evidence of early human habitation and history.”

Abdel Aziz argues that if he thought there was historical significance to the land, he would not hesitate to excavate it.

“If we do find artefacts, then it’s beneficial for me. This is my job. It will be an accomplishment for me,” says the ministry official. “Whoever is speaking up about the land, why are you speaking in the first place? Who would be more cautious over artefacts, you or me?”

Addressing the activists who spoke out against transforming the site into a public park, he exclaims, “Who told you that I don’t feel bad that I am not able to preserve the land?”

However, the ministry’s track record proves otherwise, as illustrated by Abdel Aziz himself.

The Ministry of Antiquities was designated as a private entity in 2011 following a Cabinet reshuffle under former President Hosni Mubarak’s administration, just days before his ouster. Zahi Hawass, who came to be known as the Mubarak of Antiquities, was named minister after previously serving as the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities since 2002.

Hawass was well known for his close ties to the Mubarak regime, and faced charges of corruption and wasting public funds after being dismissed from his short-lived ministerial post in July, 2011. He was recently cleared of accusations of neglecting Egypt’s heritage sites and smuggling artefacts abroad, as well as contracting the gift shop at the Egyptian Museum to a private company that he is affiliated with.

“The situation under Mubarak was bad — archaeological land was encroached upon, looted and neglected. But it definitely has gotten worse since his overthrow,” says archaeologist Nora Shalaby, who is outspoken about the state’s violations of Egypt’s historic property.

“Many have taken advantage of the security vacuum and absence of authorities to grab more land and build freely,” she adds. “But it is important to remember that under Mubarak this existed — albeit not at such a rapid rate.”

A recent case occurred last year in the neighborhood of Darb al-Ahmar, near the Citadel, which is home to several historical buildings and monuments. Following the 2011 revolution and the lack of proper security, private construction companies demolished some of the area’s registered monuments and replaced them with tall, residential buildings that encroach on the neighborhood’s small alleyways.

In the case of Fustat, though, the land has been contested since well before the revolution.

In 2005, the Ministry of Antiquities requested that the construction company Arab Contractors evacuate the land — which they had used for years to load and unload construction trucks — so it could be excavated.

But in fact, Abdel Aziz admits that the site was actually going to be used for an organization owned by the former first lady Suzanne Mubarak. The land was privatized by the governorate for the organization, but construction had not yet begun by the time Mubarak was overthrown.

After 2011, the site turned into a dumping ground for garbage and scraps. The ministry claims that it had applied for the land to be excavated, but never obtained approval.

“What are we supposed to do now? Preserve the land or let it turn into garbage again?” says Abdel Aziz. “Isn’t it better that they do something to liven the area, something that we can all benefit from, and a project that could attract tourism to the area?”

However, Suleiman argues that the groundwater that will be used to construct the public park could potentially harm any artefacts that are hidden underneath the land.

“There’s nothing called a public garden. Is there no space in the entire country except for this piece of land to build a park on?” Suleiman asks rhetorically. “The issue is not so innocent. I believe they were planning on building on it rather than transform it into a garden.”

Although Suleiman cannot say definitively what the land was going to be used for in the end, she assumes that the governorate was planning on selling it to a private company or to build administrative buildings there.

Shalaby agrees.

“I can’t really say if either side [the ministry and the governorate] is somehow benefiting from whatever construction company will be granted rights to develop the land, since that is what is predicted will eventually happen. It seems likely,” she says. “But then again, there is no hard proof.”

On the other hand, Ikram is not opposed to the idea of building a public park — on condition that the land is properly excavated first.

“I don’t think a place of archaeological value cannot be transformed,” says Ikram. “I’m sure the area would benefit from a public park, if excavations could first be carried out to explain what this area means in historical times.”

“I applaud public parks in Egypt. If it’s already been excavated, then we would not be giving up a very valuable archaeological resource and a crucial part of Egypt’s history,” she adds.

Ikram believes that the main obstacle to excavating the land is purely financial, as an archaeological dig requires significant funding.

“It’s a difficult time for us working in antiquities,” she explains. “Right now, we’re facing challenges in day-to-day life. So how do you manage to attention to your own past?”

According to Shalaby, local archaeological missions belonging to the Ministry of Antiquities or public universities do not have a hard time acquiring permits to excavate, while foreign missions are forced to go through a lengthy application process before usually being turned down.

On the other hand, the ministry does not grant the Egyptian missions much funding, and they are forced to carry out their excavations using the most basic tools.

“I think in the Fustat case, it is a combination of both,” says Shalaby. “Not enough money is allocated to excavation work in the ministry; and Fustat, since it is an Islamic period site, is not given as much importance as an ancient Egyptian site would be, for example, and so is consequently neglected.”

For the Ministry of Antiquities, Abdel Aziz believes that the challenge lies in maintaining a good relationship with the state’s institutions.

There had been a “friendly effort” between the governorate and the ministry, he claims. But now that archaeological activists have filed reports against Cairo’s governor, Abdel Aziz warns that there might be some sort of retaliation on the part of the governorate, which would make things harder for the ministry.

“If we don’t find any artefacts, I will be the first one to spite the activists and call for this land to no longer belong to the ministry,” he says. “Afterwards, hit me with a shoe [referring to the governorate] if I opened my mouth again about any other piece of land.”

But Suleiman and Ikram both believe that the government needs to try harder to lobby for the preservation of archaeological land.

“We are dealing with history in a manner that is extremely demeaning,” says Suleiman. “If we can market it properly, it could be very lucrative — no other country has as diverse of a heritage as we do. I don’t understand this massacre that is happening in silence.”

Suleiman also points to the example of the Islamic Museum of Art, which was destroyed by an explosion in January and is still waiting to be renovated.

Ikram believes that the government needs to raise awareness about the importance of heritage preservation.

“On the one hand,they’re trying to make things better for people by making them a park. But on the other, they’re giving up a larger part of their heritage,” she says.

Meanwhile, Shalaby suggests that the government raise funds to allow for an archaeological team to conduct a rescue excavation mission, and afterwards either protect the site or turn it into a visitor’s center to highlight the land’s historical value.

“But it’s obviously not a priority for them,” she claims.

Right now, the land is neither being excavated, nor being turned into a public park. It sits out in the open, similar to the year 2011 when it slowly transformed into a garbage site.

Fustat resident Nour recalls that after the land was cleared of garbage, security forces stood guard in order to prevent people from throwing their waste there again. However, soon after the construction was halted, the security trucks all abandoned the site.

“But at the end of the day, people wouldn’t throw garbage on it. Egyptians are good people and they always do the right thing,” he says.

After a brief pause, he smiles, asking, “Or what do you think?”

Passant Rabie 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism