Cairo – Locally known as the “Wall of the Arched Canal”, the Cairo medieval aqueduct has felt the pinch of centuries-old neglect and informal housing. But not any more.
The Egyptian government has unveiled a plan to overhaul the aqueduct as part of an ambitious scheme to make Cairo a city of heritage and a tourist attraction as the country’s ailing tourism industry is recovers from a seven-year slump.
The relic dates back to the era of the 12th century Sultan Salah Al Deen Al Ayoubi, known in the West as Saladin. He ordered the aqueduct built to carry water through a canal above walls near the former capital Al Fustat to his Cairo citadel, by using water wheels.
In the early 14th century, Egypt’s Mamluke ruler Al Nasser Mohammad Bin Qalawoun ordered the renovation of the aqueduct and built a large cistern housing four water wheels on the banks of the Nile to raise water to the citadel in order to meet the increasing needs of his soldiers and irrigation.
In the subsequent eras, the aqueduct occasionally fell into disuse and turned into a military facility during the late 18th French expedition to Egypt, with some of its arches blocked to serve as fortifications.
The surviving part of the aqueduct now stretches for about three kilometres.
“The current plan to develop the area is aimed at highlighting the historical significance of this aqueduct, which stands out as one of the most fascinating examples of water-carrying architecture not only in Egypt, but also in the Islamic world,” said Mohammad Abdul Aziz, the head of the Historic Cairo Development Project.
“The development plan is based on restoring the historical relic, removing encroachments and renovating architecture of its surroundings as well as establishing an environmentally-friendly residential community,” Abdul Aziz told Gulf News.
“The overall aim is to achieve architectural, social and economic harmony in the area by making the local community part of this development,” he added.
In recent months, authorities have begun dismantling dozens of leather tanneries south of the aqueduct and relocating them to a purpose-built zone outside Cairo.
The unlicensed tanneries and informal housing have taken their toll on the aqueduct, causing damage to it by their pollution, a primitive sanitation system and rising ground water.
“After the relocation of tannery workshops, the area will be turned into an open museum by setting up several projects in cooperation with several ministries,” Abdul Aziz said.
The project envisages restoring the aqueduct and its water wheels, revamping the infrastructures of the area, rehabilitating the residential community and establishing a handicraft hub there. A greenery-lined promenade will also be built along the aqueduct where locals and foreign visitors can walk.
“Two museums will be established: one tracing the evolution of the leather tanning activity and the second featuring the water system in medieval Cairo,” added Abdul Aziz, who did not provide a timeframe for the project’s completion.
In the early 2000s, antiquity authorities worked out a somewhat similar restoration project for the aqueduct. That project was eventually abandoned due to a shortage of funds and opposition from the area’s residents.
This time, officials say both obstacles do not exist. The current scheme, estimated to cost 6 billion Egyptian pounds (Dh 1.2 billion), mainly depends on private investments.
The project has been touted to the locals as being vital to improve their living conditions and providing them with a healthy and economically rewarding environment.
Most owners of tanneries have agreed on relocation to Al Robeiky, a town outside Cairo. Others have received compensations from the government.
In recent weeks, several tannery workshops have been demolished to make room for implementing the plan, which officials term as a long-term project.
“The removal operation continues with follow-up from the ministries of industry, antiquities and finance as well as the [governmental] Slums Development Fund,”said Mohammad Zain Al Abdin, the head of the Old Cairo where the aqueduct runs.
He added the Al Robeiky town, where nearly 1,000 tanneries will be relocated, is well-prepared for keeping the craft alive.
“A main objective of the relocation is to modernise the tanning industry through the use of advanced machines for which owners of tanneries will pay nothing,” said Zein Al Abdin.
The government has promised to provide housing units for workers in their new location, which is about 45 kilometres from Cairo.
“This relocation marks a U-turn for this industry, which depended on primitive tools amid a slum community that has damaged the aqueduct,” added Zein Al Abdin.
Over the past few years, the government has carried out restoration works on 19th century buildings in central Cairo, once dubbed “the Paris of the East” due to their Parisian-style architecture.