Cairo — Midaq Alley, made famous by one of Egypt's leading novelists, is located in Gamaliya, in the heart of medieval Cairo. Small, unprepossessing, it is surrounded by examples of some of the finest architecture in the Muslim world: Fatimid mosques, Mameluke caravansaries (inns), Ayyubid fortifications, the public fountains of the Ottoman Turks.
Even in the 1940s, when "Midaq Alley" was written by Naguib Mahfouz, Gamaliya was crowded and poor, its narrow, twisting streets filled with craftsmen and peddlers.
But today this ancient quarter is choked with people, filled to overflowing, and its immense architectural wealth is slowly disintegrating.
The crumbling monuments represent a continuous historical stream of architectural development dating back to ad 969, when the Fatimid caliphs captured a provincial fortress town called Babylon, and began to build their royal capital, which they called El Qahira (the Conqueror), now Cairo.
After the Fatimids came the Ayyubid sultans, who were then overthrown by the Bahri Mamelukes. Then came the Circassian Mamelukes, and after them the ottoman Turks.
Each new invader built: the Fatimids the famous Al-Azhar Mosque and the three city gates; and Ayyubid princes their palaces and tombs; the Mameluke emirs their trading depots. Each new ruling dynasty expanded, modified, and added to what had come before.
To the knowledgeable observer, the thicket of minarets in Islamic Cairo provides the signpots of different historical periods. Fatimid minarets are octagons based on squares. Those of the Mamelukes are more slender, with round and octagonal stages, topped with two or more small domes or "chimney pots," while the Turkish minarets are thin and pencil shaped.
Two major causes are contributing to the deterioration of the 500 or so monuments in Islamic Cairo. The first is sewage. Another reason is the presence of the squatters or tent people, living in or around monuments or mosques because they can find no other place.
While the population of Cairo has expanded from 3 million in 1960 to 10 million today, the city's ancient sewer system has neither expanded nor been modernized.
Thus Cairo city officials today face the awesome problem of a city being swept away by its own waste. The excess sewage undermines the foundations of buildings, and water and salt rise into the walls and eat away at the stonework.
The same sewage that is slowly destroying the monuments is causing even more serious damage to the more flimsy structures in the area. Egypt is currently 1 million housing units short and 200,000 new housing units are needed each year.
Added to that, a minimum of 10,000 houses collapse each year in Cairo. For the past eight years, the poor of Gamaliya have taken refuge in the surrounding mosques, thereby adding to their deterioration.
The southern and northern cemeteries in Cairo, which contain important historical monuments, also house some 500,000 squatters, mostly immigrants from the provinces, waiting for houses. The guard at the tomb of the Sultan Barquq in the City of the Dead (the southern cemetery) says that recently the government provided housing for 50,000 of the people in the cemetery, but 50,000 more promptly came in to take their place.
lately, there has been increased activity among both Egyptian and foreign groups trying to save what is left of Cairo's architectural heritage. A committee founded by Jihan Sadat, wife of President Sadat, called the Egyptian Society for Friends of Antiquities, has been effective in stirring up interest in schools and among community groups about the plight of the monuments.
Dr. Shehata Adam, president of the State organization for Antiquities, has been instrumental in bringing in a UNESCO team to do a study of the problems of restoration in the old city of Cario. Gamaliya, at last, has been put on UNESCO's world heritage list.
West German, Italian, and Polish institutes, in conjunction with the Department of Antiquities, are engaged in restoration of a number of monuments.
Restoring Cairo's monuments, however, has become entangled in the city's modern social problems.
On Sharia el-Muezzidin Illah, the main street running through Gamaliya, a new sight has been added. Outside the Barquq Mosque and the Qalaun Madrasa a colony of tent people evicted from the buildings huddles around charcoal braziers in the chill winter air. Promised government housing has not materialized.
An organization called the Center for Egyptian Civilization Studies, headed by an energetic woman named Nawal Hassan, has been trying to aid the evicted squatters and the other residents of the quarter whose houses are crumbling.
But, as in the rest of Cairo, the real problem is that they have no place else to go.