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‘An iconoclasm’: Demolishing Egypt’s heritage for modernisation


Government-commissioned bulldozers continue to raze to pieces one ancient tomb after another in the City of the Dead, a sprawling necropolis in eastern Cairo that is older than the Egyptian capital itself.

So far, a huge number of tombs and burial sites in this cemetery have been torn down, including ones belonging to important figures in Egyptian history and others registered in Egypt’s heritage lists.

In other sites across Cairo and other Egyptian cities, whole residential areas have been demolished, trees torn down, centuries-old mosques and domes smashed, ancient palaces razed to the ground and gardens destroyed.

These demolitions of Egypt’s historic buildings are intended to give way to development projects, including roads, flyovers and railways, ones that aim to ease the movement of traffic, especially in Cairo, the Egyptian metropolis of more than 20 million residents.

Nevertheless, the same demolitions are viewed by the public as doing away with everything that is beautiful and has historical value in Egypt, thus fracturing precious chapters in the collective history and memory of the nation.

They are, like an Egyptian writer put it recently, causing people to feel alienated, even as they continue to stay in their houses.

“A whole country is constructed to suit a specific taste: its homes, streets, mausoleums, media, festivals, trees, stars and sea,” Omar Taher wrote recently on Facebook. “This is done in total disregard for the people who own this country, its roots, thoughts, tastes, conditions and way of life.”

Many historians and residents have expressed stark opposition to the obliteration of Egypt’s heritage in the name of development, and the effect of current demolitions on Egypt’s landscape and the aesthetic appeal of the areas where this development is made.

“These demolitions are destroying layers of Egypt’s past, which means they are destroying the Egyptian people’s history, essentially,” explained William Carruthers, a British historian of archaeology and lecturer in Heritage Studies at the University of Essex.

“Obviously, the demolitions are in some cases also destroying the homes of contemporary residents who are a part of that history,” he told The New Arab.

Bursting at the seams

Advocates of these developments argue that these infrastructure projects elbowing aside Cairo’s ancient and historical sites are necessary due to the deteriorating conditions of the Egyptian capital as its population keeps growing and the vehicles running on its streets keep increasing in number.

Cairo’s traffic is chaotic at best and suffocating at worst, making the city one of the most polluted in Africa. Commuters travelling even a few kilometres inside the Egyptian capital on the way to or from work can spend hours on transport before they reach their destinations.

Among many other considerations, the unease of travelling inside Cairo was one of the reasons behind the relocation of government offices to a new capital. The administration of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is investing tens of billions of dollars to construct the capital in the desert.

Advocates say these projects are also cutting down the travel distance between different parts of this country and making Egyptian villages and cities more connected.

“Cairo could have turned into a gigantic parking lot where vehicles are not able to move an inch, if these road projects had not been implemented,” Hassan Mahdi, a professor of road engineering at Ain Shams University, Egypt’s second largest university, told The New Arab.

“The continual population growth just means that more people are using the same roads which had not been expanded or upgraded for decades,” he added.

Iconoclasm

Nonetheless, some of these new projects require the destruction of notable cultural and historic buildings in Cairo, shifting the landscape of the city whose construction dates almost 1,400 years back.

Egyptian political scientist, Heba Raouf Ezzat, described these projects as an ‘iconoclastic‘ attempt to assertively destroy long-established images of the Egyptian capital and substitute them with a new image with the aim of obliterating every memory of historical Cairo.

Carruthers expected the demolitions and the physical reshaping of the Egyptian landscape and of its people’s lives to keep happening.

“This seems to me a disaster, not only in terms of the loss of historical material, but also in terms of the social loss accompanying the historical one: there’s no way to claim these two things aren’t connected,” he said.

Some of the buildings demolished to give way for road projects are pieces of art, not to mention their historical value. They include tombs, domes and mosques built by some Egypt’s finest artists at the time.

The sheer beauty of the engravings and the decorations inside these sites merits preservation, not destruction, analysts say, and stands in stark contrast with some of the new infrastructure projects, intended to give Egypt a more modern aesthetic. 

New flyovers butt into residential buildings, jostling for space with balconies and windows. The public take on some of these projects has been bitterly sarcastic, while some decry the ongoing demolitions and some hope they will solve Egypt’s acute transport problems.

On social media, one man posted a photo of a new flyover being built next to residential balconies in a residential building and joked: “How did she die? Nothing, she was hit by a car while cooking in the kitchen!”

Cash-strapped

These demolitions and major infrastructure projects come at a time Egypt suffers a profound economic crisis, one the government blames on Covid-19 and the current war in Ukraine, but many blame on its economic mismanagement and the failure of the government to arrange its spending priorities in a calculated manner.

Amid soaring inflation and currency devaluation, cash-strapped Egypt has scrambled for international financial support, including from the International Monetary Fund.

“I think our government is badly in need of rationalising spending, especially given the growing budget deficit and accumulating debts,” Aliaa al-Mahdi, the former dean of the College of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, told The New Arab.

“Infrastructure projects, including roads and flyovers, are not a priority at all now,” she added.

For the Egyptian people, millions of which are struggling to afford basic necessities, these infrastructure projects are coming at a heavy price. Thousands of families have been forcibly expelled and had their houses demolished to give way to the construction and expansion of new roads and developments. 

Families left in this scenario complain that the compensation they received for their properties was unjust, and others say the compensation to them is far short of the amount needed to secure alternative housing.

Essam, a salesman in his late forties, was kicked out of his house in southern Cairo when the house was marked for demolition to give way for the construction of a flyover.

The government gave him 350,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly $11,300) in compensation.

However, he could not buy an alternative flat with the same amount of money. Instead, he was forced to rent a flat in another area in southern Cairo.

“I lost my house of 25 years in a few days,” Essam told The New Arab. “I lost with it my neighbours, my memories and everything I was accustomed to in these years.”

Source: The New Arab

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