Arts & Culture

An Omnipresent Past: Reflections on Urban Encroachment on Egypt’s Cultural Heritage

An Omnipresent Past: Reflections on Urban Encroachment on Egypt’s Cultural Heritage

Daily life on al-Moez Li Dīn Allah al-Fatimī street. Credit: Hazem Khaled
Daily life on al-Moez Li Dīn Allah al-Fatimī street. Credit: Hazem Khaled

By Ingy Higazy

The interlacing, patterned motifs that adorn walls of smooth, dust ridden stone of a centuries-old structure –a mosque to be precise –stand adjacent to a small vintage shop as witnesses to the changes brought about by nothing but the progression of life itself.

Motorcycles bypass this mosque, roaming around with the buzzing, sometimes irritating sound of their engines. Inhabitants attend to their daily tasks, walking back and forth on the relatively new stone blocks of ‘the restored street’, contributing to its engulfing vibrancy. This street is where a caliph and his entourage once passed through, surrounded by lavish decorations that lined the left and right sidewalks of what was once a newly erected street, in a newly founded city.

Shari’ al-Moez Li Dīn Allah al-Fatimī, or shortly Shari’ al-Moez, was once the main street that extended the length of the then-newly-founded city of al-Qahira (Cairo). After approximately a millennium, the street still stands, with major architectural alterations that attest to the culmination of centuries of dynamic urban life in a bustling city that is Cairo. Urban expansion within Cairo has without doubt left its imprint on the city’s abundant historic sites; Shari’ al-Moez being no exception.

Vegetable vendors at al-Moez street. Credit: Yasmen Refaat El-Shaa'rawy/ Behance
Vegetable vendors at al-Moez street. Credit: Yasmen Refaat El-Shaa’rawy/ Behance

Urban expansion is a particular form of human settlement. It is precisely when houses and commercial centers are newly –and usually permanently –established as extensions to existing urban centers. Definitional attempts will not render concreteness, yet they may result in the rough statement that holds urban expansion as the process by which an already existing urban center is expanded to accommodate to novel circumstances.

Arguably, Cairo as an urban center retains a rich history of expansion unto its surroundings –whether they may be arable land or historic sites –thus growing into the metropolis that it currently is. This process of urban expansion can perhaps be traced back to the founding of the city itself. Nevertheless, historical pinpointing as to when an actual ‘process’ of urban expansion was put into play is the least strenuous and arguably, essentially impossible. Attempting to excavate the causes that catalyze such a process, on the other hand, is still fairly possible.

In many cases, urban expansion attests to a serious and aggravating problem: that of exponential population growth. Debatably, population growth can be construed of as an integral cause of urban expansion.

Soaring population numbers, unmet with the suitable economic and developmental growth levels, lead to unplanned urban expansion within and outside Cairo
Soaring population numbers, unmet with the suitable economic and developmental growth levels, lead to unplanned urban expansion within and outside Cairo

According to National Geographic, soaring population numbers, unmet with the suitable economic and developmental growth levels, lead to unplanned urban expansion within and outside Cairo. Therefore, the lack of planning that characterizes urban expansion renders its wide-reaching effects –historic sites not exempted –variably catastrophic. A compelling example of the predicament is one that took place in June 2013 when a historic gate at al-Darb al-Ahmar was demolished with the permission of the authorities.

Soaring populations, moreover, undoubtedly require housing and services alike. As noted by New York University’s “Urbanization Project”, bad housing policies lead informal settlements to spring. Hence, a rapidly growing population, lack of urban planning, mounting need for housing, coupled with institutional failings –embodied in bad housing policies –culminate into a sketchy process of urban expansion; one that, in many cases, encroaches on historic sites, with due and dire consequences that retain peculiar reverberations.

The new face of urban encroachment as evident on al-Moez street. From 'Save El Moez Street' Facebook page
The new face of urban encroachment as evident on al-Moez street. From ‘Save El Moez Street’ Facebook page

Shari’ al-Moez is quintessential of urban expansion –or rather of urban encroachment –unto a historical site. A Suzuki truck parked in front of a tall, box-shaped building that touches shoulders with an Ottoman madrasa is nothing but a regular scene of al-Moez. Additionally, urban encroachment has occasionally posed as a direct threat to the mosques, madrasas, and maristans that compose the bulk of the street’s historical sites. In 2012, broken sewage systems flooded the street for days at a time, and it was mainly because of the civil intervention of the “SAVE El Moez Street” Facebook community that the street was rescued.

“SAVE El Moez Street”, a community initiative begun on Facebook in 2011, had also posted photographs of missing pieces of wooden doors –presumably looted –and broken stone walls in the street. It remains however that even the uninhabited historic sites are still prone to looting and destruction.

Aside from the detrimental effects drawn unto the various historical sites of Shari’ al-Moez –and unto Shari’ al-Moez as a site in and of itself –some introspective and lingering questions arise. With the case of Shari’ al-Moez, a street that was once both literally and metaphorically the medieval city of Cairo, urban encroachment was inevitable. Can urban expansion, in similar cases, thus be perceived as a form of social continuity? In other words, do people who expand their settlements around historic sites, consider these sights rightfully ‘historic’?

Famous Sabil-Kuttab at al-Moez street
Famous Sabil-Kuttab at al-Moez street

Establishing urban centers around ancient and medieval buildings can surely be the result of a lack of both adequate spacing and urban planning. Yet, and bearing in mind the impossibility of historical pinpointing, they can be perceived as a continuity of the ancestors’ settlements, of a past that feeds into the present.

To further elucidate the point being made, one should dwell on the thought that al-Aqmar Mosque located in al-Moez Street is not solely reserved for touristic visits, but remains a frequently visited prayer venue for inhabitants of the street and of Cairo alike. In turn, one is to ask if any temporal distinction, as evident particularly in the case of mosques and other religious buildings for the fact, characterizes people’s collective conscience.

Such questions are rather quests that call for ventures into the latent perceptions that dwell around such a topic, namely urban encroachment unto historical sites. As an apparently and truly complex matter to delve right into, it still helps unearth the missing details of a contradiction that surrounds us. It pushes the shutters open, and beyond the mere description of how and why things are the way they are, it feeds into our comprehension of the bigger picture. With the strongest sense of linguistic contradiction, the past is still omnipresent –whether in reality or in mere question.

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