Ismail’s Cairo Reborn?

By Yasmine El Dorghamy

There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding Cairo’s khedivial city centre. Will the historic buildings be restored? Will they all be sold to private investors? We look at what’s in store for the city’s architectural treasure trove.

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I was inching through traffic in Korba (Heliopolis) the other day, when I saw that yet another small building had been destroyed. A large infuriating sign showing a drawing of a monstrous high-rise had been placed next to the ruins, informing us that another two hundred or so cars would be keeping us company in the near future.

A physical impossibility, you say? Unfortunately, I’m sure it will happen anyway.

My neighbourhood is being destroyed and it breaks my heart. Maadi seems to be succumbing to a similar fate and so are most of Cairo’s late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century neighbourhoods, such as Daher and Abbaseyya.

Ironically, while there has been a sudden surge of demolitions in Heliopolis and Maadi over the past two years, restoring the city centre seems to be the focus of everyone’s attention these days. We’ve been reading about competitions to redesign Opera Square, Khazindar Square, turning this street into a pedestrian area, painting that building … We’re being promised that the glory days of Cairo’s Ismailia (named after its founder, Khedive Ismail) will return.

Will they? I set off to find out for myself.

Some Background Information

The historic buildings of Heliopolis, Maadi and downtown Cairo are generally a decade or two shy of a hundred years old and are therefore not legally considered heritage. Thus, they do not fall under the authority of the Supreme Council of Antiquities; rather, they are the responsibility of the governorate and municipalities and are classified as buildings of ‘special architectural style’. Until 2005, these buildings were protected by a military decree that was overturned for being unconstitutional. The military decree imposed a prison sentence on the owner who demolishes a historic building, as well as the contractor, the responsible person at the municipality and practically everyone involved. It might have been unconstitutional but it was certainly quite effective.

After the military decree was overturned, Law 144 was issued in 2006 to establish a permanent committee, consisting of representatives from the Ministry of Housing, the governorates, academic staff and headed by a representative from the Ministry of Culture, to form a database of all the buildings of ‘special architectural style’ that deserve protection. The committee listed almost three thousand buildings all over greater Cairo, four hundred of them in the city centre, in the area surrounding Abdeen. The list is open for further additions as well as grievances from owners who do not agree with the committee’s evaluation and wish to demolish their buildings. Those who demolish and/or alter one of the listed buildings without the committee’s approval face one to five years in jail and fines from one hundred thousand to five million pounds; quite a bargain if you do the math.

In 2008, another ‘urban harmony’ law was issued to regulate building styles and register entire neighbourhoods, rather than single buildings. This law would demand that all new constructions conform to the general architectural character of the neighbourhood. The urban harmony law has not quite come into effect at this point, but Khedivial Cairo along with Islamic Cairo (as they are popularly known) are first on the list to be registered. Due to effective lobbying by the Maadi community, Maadi is presenting itself as a priority area on this list as well.

Agents of Change

The authorities in charge of Cairo’s historic buildings are like a tangled web. There is a committee for this and an organization for that and each decision and licence is issued from a different government entity. I decided to contact members from three of the major stakeholders in downtown Cairo: the National Organization for Urban Harmony (NOUH), the governorate, and a new player in the field: the Al-Ismaelia Company for Real Estate and Investment, a private investor.

Organizing Urban Harmony

The NOUH was established in 2004 with the goal to ‘permit the values of beauty to prevail all over the Egyptian urban space’. In order to achieve its target, NOUH is authorized to make all required decisions and recommendations in accordance with the current rules of law and legislation, in addition to helping draft detailed regulations. NOUH has therefore a scope of responsibility, which includes, but is not limited to, preparing a database comprising all buildings with special architectural features all over the country and setting the necessary rules to preserve them, as well as setting the building standards to ensure architectural harmony.

‘Other than setting regulations and norms for urban spaces, we also work on individual cases that are presented to us regularly’, says Abbas El Zaafarany, general manager of the Department of Policies at NOUH. ‘One such example is the Continental Hotel on Opera Square. Its owner, EGOTH (Egyptian General Authority for Tourism and Hotels), wants to restore and return it to its original use. To implement this, they have come to us for assistance.

‘We’ve also held competitions for the redesign of the Opera Square, Ezbekkeyya Gardens, Ramsis square and other urban spaces in Cairo’, continues El Zaafarany. ‘The proposal for redeveloping Khedivial Cairo [won by a joint team of two American/Egyptian architectural firms] proposes multi-story parking lots, revamping Emadedin Street, and turning the square in front of Abdeen Palace into a ceremonial area, among other recommendations. We do not only look over khedivial-era architecture: plans for the former Nile Hilton building were also presented to us for approval and we requested that the new design stay loyal to the original one that represented the construction era’.

In which case, I wondered, why are so many turn of the century buildings still being destroyed?

‘It’s usually not as simple as blaming it on the governorate being negligent’, says El Zaafarany. ‘Some owners and real estate developers will go to any lengths to pressure government officials to approve a demolition permit. They sue and harass them until they get what they want. There are many methods people come up with to get rid of their own buildings’. Protecting these buildings is a heavier burden than most can imagine, he tells me.

The Cairo Governorate Office

The NOUH can help draft laws and regulations, make recommendations and object to violations, but the power of direct enforcement lies in the hands of the governorates and municipalities. For this purpose, the governor of Cairo has decided to set up a unit that will be named The Cairo Heritage Conservation Centre and will be headed by Dr Tarek Wali, architect and heritage consultant.

‘There have been many scattered efforts made for the protection, documentation and regulation of Cairo’s Ismailia’, says Dr Wali, ‘My first task will be to bring them all together. We do not want to reinvent the wheel or waste time redoing anyone’s work. There have been documentation efforts made by CULTNAT [Centre for Documentation for Cultural and Natural Heritage], and the governorate itself, among other parties. All these people must sit together, exchange information and give their input collectively for future plans that will be carried out by the centre. There have been several competitions for the redevelopment of squares and areas around Cairo’s Ismailia. We would like to put them together and ensure that they all merge successfully into one master plan that would eventually cover all of Cairo’.

There is no doubt that the government is serious about restoring Cairo’s historic buildings. They also seem to be paying particular attention to the historic city centre, perhaps because it is more accessible to tourists. However, the main problem with all this talk is that most of the urban planning competitions and proposals for developing this or redeveloping that have no funding allocated for their implementation. So far, the governorate has been painting old building faҫades and issuing optimistic press releases. A more serious initiative for real restoration is yet to be seen.

On the other hand, funding the restoration of all of these buildings would empty any governorate’s coffers. Alternative and creative ideas need to explored. Among those ideas was creating a trust for the preservation of historic and Khedivial Cairo, which was indeed formed in 2009, and includes several prominent figures from the public and private sector, with the aim of raising funds for the preservation of these areas. Still in the planning phase, the trust fund has not announced any activities to this date.

Private sector interests have, however, evolved beyond philanthropy, they are now seeing the preservation of historic buildings as a lucrative financial investment.

The Private Sector Cometh

A few years ago, a friend of mine, an Egyptian who had come home after living abroad for many years, overcome with nostalgia, decided to rent an apartment in Khedivial Cairo. He found a real estate investor who refurbishes apartments in Cairo’s historic neighbourhoods and paid him a very handsome rent for one that was equipped with state-of-the-art fixtures and all the comforts of modern life in a classic 1930s building. His stay lasted three months. Frustrated with the rundown state of the building and its facilities, he had no choice but to opt for a more functional ‘modern’ construction, ugly as it was on the outside.

The investment may be considered a very intelligent one in spite of this experience. The idea of refurbishing old apartments and putting a high price tag on them is not a new one. Cairo’s classic architecture is indeed an untapped resource; but the damage to Cairo’s Ismailia is so severe, that restoring an apartment here or there would not have enough of an impact to draw the affluent clientele who can make the business model profitable. Many buildings are visibly decaying from structural problems and seeping sewage. Rent control, keeping the average apartment’s rent at the price of a cup of coffee, results in the owners’ refusal to pay for any repairs, that’s if there is a reachable owner in the first place.

Investing in the restoration of one luxury apartment in a decaying art deco masterpiece is a good idea, but isn’t quite enough… ‘A much larger intervention is needed for this kind of investment to really pay off’, Karim El Shafei, Chief Executive of Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investments, tells me. ‘That’s what we want to do’. Stirring up quite a controversy over the past year since it started buying one building after the other in the city centre, the Al-Ismaelia company kept a generally low profile in order to avoid a spike in property values, something which fueled attacks on them in the press.

Founded in 2008, the company is financed by a group of Egyptian and Gulf investors, including Samih Sawiris, and Sheikh Sulaiman Abanamay of Saudi Arabia, as well as two private equity firms, Amwal al-Khaleej and Beltone. The company currently has a paid-in capital of EGP 380 million and has already purchased twenty buildings. They hope to double that number in the next two years. 

Concern over the fate of the historic buildings and the low income residents has garnered sharp criticism from local press. ‘Some of the accusations made against us were quite farfetched. I remember one paper saying that we were going to physically transport the buildings abroad’, El Shafei says, unamused. ‘On the other hand, we are inviting art galleries and cultural centres to exhibit and use the spaces we own for free. We are currently funding a documentation project for the area’s oral heritage. A group of scholars are documenting the many stories of downtown Cairo funded by our company. Our investment largely depends on the preservation of the cultural and architectural heritage’. Tenants in downtown Cairo, however, are worried that the new developments will drive out the poor. Al-Ismaelia has been buying out leases from many tenants in the buildings it acquired, while those who rejected compensation have stayed. ‘Of the 570 units we purchased, only twenty were occupied in the first place’, says El Shafei.

With leases being inherited from one generation to the next, the children of deceased tenants insist on holding on to their lease even if they do not live in the apartment anymore, much to the dismay of owners of old buildings. ‘As owners of the buildings, we want to reclaim these abandoned apartments, which is not just legal, it is simply fair’, says El Shafei, ‘We do negotiate with the absentee tenants, in spite of this, and give them compensations’.

Changing the entire face of Cairo’s downtown doesn’t seem to be likely either, since over half of the area’s buildings are owned by state-run insurance companies. Al-Ismaelia is now developing an urban plan for their buildings, including a multi-storey, automated parking lot, which they plan to construct near Champollion Street, close to some of their properties. They are also planning to launch a few pilot projects in the near future as a proof of concept.

A Better Fate for Cairo’s Historic Centre?

Both government officials and private investors see the potential of tourist dollars pouring into downtown Cairo if the area becomes more attractive. So yes, perhaps there could be a better fate for the city centre. However, without existing regulations being applied – applied being the keyword here – no positive intervention will be consistent or make any real impact.

Al-Ismaelia company, or private investors in general, are not what people should really fear. What should be worrying them is the leniency and inconsistency of governorates in applying laws and regulations that are already in place. This inconsistency is what is destroying Heliopolis and Maadi and is what will keep all of historic Cairo under threat. Private investors will come and go, but government regulations need to be solid. This, we are still hoping to see.

Update from Al-Ismaelia Company: 

Currently, Al-Ismaelia For Real Estate Investment has acquired twenty-three signature heritage properties in the heart of the city with the objective of creating mixed-use concepts that blend residential, commercial, cultural, and institutional functions while maintain the historic value of the properties.

By 2018, Al-Ismaelia will be launching four mega-projects combining retails concepts, co-working spaces and an entertainment hub, based on restoring the iconic buildings to their previous grandeur while providing a uniquely modern experience.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 1, 2010



The Sednaoui Department Store building on Talaat Harb (formerly Suleiman Pasha) square. Architect: Giuseppe Mazza, built ca.1929. AHMED EL BINDARY

The cupola of the Tiring building, completed in 1912 as a department store, designed by Oscar Horowitz. ALIA NASSAR

Omar Effendi building (originally Orosdi Bek), designed in 1905 by Raoul Brandon. ALIA NASSAR

The Davies Bryan building, built in 1910. YAHIA EL HOSAFY

Yasmine El Dorghamy

Yasmine El Dorghamy

Yasmine El Dorghamy holds an MA in international education policy from Stockholm University and manages an educational foundation in addition to teaching visual culture at the American University in Cairo. She is the founder of Rawi, a boutique publisher based in Egypt and dedicated to art, history, and heritage.