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Egypt Struggles To Save Cairo's Islamic Heritage

Earthquake shakes response from international experts to crumbling ancient buildings

A YEAR after the earthquake that rumbled through Cairo's medieval Islamic heart, damaging 170 historic buildings, deep concern remains not just at the destruction wrought by nature to the historic fabric of the ancient city, but also at the past four decades of neglect.

Egyptian specialists have long complained that the foundations of Islamic Cairo have been saturated by a seemingly endless tide of corrosive waste water and disturbed by the ceaseless pounding of heavy traffic in Africa's most populous city. The crisis triggered by the earthquake has won international endorsement for their protests.

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``The damage caused by the earthquake seems to have only added to a long and ongoing process of deterioration that predates the earthquake. The primary reason for such damage is high groundwater,'' concluded Dr. James Wight, one of a team of University of Michigan professors, who like a dozen missions from around the world, were drawn by Cairo's international architectural significance to respond to the urgent call for assistance from the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO) in the days after the earthquake.

They came because Cairo has more than 500 outstanding examples of every major period of Islamic architecture, some dating back a thousand years. From the austere magnificence of the 9th-century mosque of Ibn Tulun to the 19th-century palaces built by rich merchants, no other Islamic capital can rival Cairo. While Cairo's importance as the seat of the Islamic empire dwindled in the 18th century, it remains the most significant living example of architecture knitted together in streets that can still provide glimpses of the Arabian Nights.

``The only thing we could compare it to in the West is Venice,'' explains Dr. John Rodenbeck who has long campaigned for the preservation of whole neighborhoods in Islamic Cairo to retain its special quality: ``one of the reasons for preserving medieval Cairo ... is precisely because it resembles what a medieval London or Paris must have been like, but of which we can no longer have any first-hand experience.''

Today many of Cairo's architectural treasures remain encased in fantastic scaffolding as the hard-pressed EAO tries to sort out its priorities. The EAO insists that its slow pace is necessary to ensure that complicated restorations are done correctly. But its many critics doubt that the EAO has the organizational structure or the political backing to take on a task that involves a bureaucratic minefield, including everything from the construction of a local sewage system to relocating the workshops that are an integral part of the ground floor of mosques.

At the Al-Ghuri mosque, built in 1505 by the last Mameluke sultan, Prof. Saleh Lamei Mostafa (known as Professor Lamei) bends down to examine the foundations of the towering structure. With a gentle thrust of his hand, he dislodges fists full of crumbling limestone and mud mortar.

``This building was constructed at time when all water in the area was delivered by donkey cart; then clay mortar was appropriate. Now we have piped water, 80 percent of which is lost through bad plumbing connections. It means that the clay which they used is simply washing away with the fluctuations of waste water,'' explains Dr. Lamei, an internationally renowned Egyptian architect whose lifework has been restoration of Islamic buildings.

It was hoped that the water problem would be solved with the completion of the massive multimillion-dollar Cairo Waste Water Project, built by an American-British consortium. But the project has avoided the tiny streets and alleyways of Islamic Cairo. A senior British engineer argues that ``it is the responsibility of the local authorities to hook up neighborhoods to the main system.'' But the labyrinth of conflicting local jurisdictions has interfered with the extension of the waste-water scheme to Islamic Cairo.

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``The local authority tried to do it at the mosque of al-Mu'ayyad Sheikh, but they had to stop because the Egyptian contractors are still working using the techniques of the Pharaohs; the workers are untrained, and they don't have the appropriate machines to work in narrow streets where all these old buildings have to be reinforced before the pipes are installed,'' explains Lamei, who is now advising on the restoration of the Al-Ghuri mosque.

So while EAO specialists blame the local authorities for failing to keep the streets clear of rubbish and sewage water, they counter that they don't have the funds to do such a complex job. Meanwhile the foundations of Islamic Cairo continue to crumble, a microcosm, observers say, of the problems of bureaucracy and lethargy that have beset so many initiatives in Egypt.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, money has been pledged for the restoration effort from UNESCO, from the European Community, and most recently the United States government has set aside $15 million to restore Egyptian antiquities, including Islamic Cairo. But the problem is huge and not simply one of money; the EAO earns millions annually from Egypt's heritage that remains unspent.

Skilled restorers are in short supply. They have died out or drifted away during the decades of disinterest in restoration work. An elderly craftsman confides as he works away on a damaged dome that ``for 35 years, I have worked in restoration but there are fewer and fewer like me; we need stonemasons badly, but it takes time to train them. Now we have the money, but not the skills.''

At the Al-Ghuri mosque, untrained workers linger over their cups of tea with only desultory interest in their current task of painstakingly removing its inlaid marble floor, buckled and warped from the water that used to lap over it.

Specialists hope that sinking new foundations will help the Al-Ghuri and certain other showpieces, but it clearly won't be done for whole neighborhoods.

``To salvage the streets of Islamic Cairo would take massive amounts of money and tremendous effort. Can you see that happening?'' Lamei asks sadly, with the air of a man whose dream is wrecked but who is still trying to guard the remnants.

So visit Cairo soon. Today the devotees of the ``Cairo Trilogy,'' written by Egypt's Nobel-laureate, Nagib Mahfuz, can still walk along the medieval street immortalized in ``Palace Walk''; but they must do it in waterproof shoes. Observers doubt that these neighborhoods can survive much longer. In 20 years, it may still be possible to visit the Al-Ghuri mosque and that of Ibn Tulun but they will probably be isolated monuments surrounded by collapsed neighborhoods.

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