Refitting the lively jumble of Cairo's medieval quarters

Project aims to reverse decades of neglect and restore crumblingmonuments.

A walk along al-muizz Street in Cairo's Islamic heart is an assaulting mix of medieval stage set and modern poverty. The alleyway that winds through one of the city's most densely populated quarters is tangled with stalls, workshops, honking mules, mosques, and monuments - some dating back as far as the 11th century.

The glory days of this historic quarter are long past - the toll of decades of neglect evident in the grime-encrusted buildings, sagging balconies, and piles of rubbish.

But help is at hand.

Along the street are the telltale signs of a massive renovation project. Webs of scaffolding cling to towers and doorways; a sewage ditch tears up one stretch of road; and signs announce the restoration of fenced-off monuments.

It's all part of an 11th-hour bid to save some of the city's 650 monuments that might otherwise crumble beyond repair in the coming decades. These massive stone monuments - with fine stone carvings and huge arched entryways - are built on a scale not seen in the last 400 years.

It is also an exercise in persuasion and diplomacy. Restoring a district that is home to a quarter million Cairenes, most of whom don't give the declining monuments a second thought, is a delicate matter.

"The people there take the monuments for granted," says Gaballa Ali Gaballa, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, whose task it is to salvage Egypt's vast cultural heritage on an annual budget of $80 million. "Sometimes they think we are highbrow people who don't appreciate their problems."

The project, based on a study by the United Nations Development Program, will reclaim and renovate historic monuments of the Fatimid period (909-1171), relocate polluting and noisy workshops, rehouse families living in the medieval buildings, and construct a tunnel underneath the old walled city to divert the heavy traffic that now bisects it.

The secondary goal of the project, officials say, is to turn the quarter into a time tunnel of sorts, enticing tourists to extend their visits a day or two and explore Cairo's medieval treasures. (Tourism is one of Egypt's main source of hard currency.)

The history of this dense quarter goes back a thousand years to when Al-Muizz was first built and was the main thoroughfare of Al-Qahira - the city victorious, the Arabic for Cairo. At its height, Fatimid Cairo was the world's most opulent, cosmopolitan city, drawing traders, travelers, and scholars from around the Mediterranean and as far afield as India. "It was the biggest city the Western world had seen since the decline of Rome," writes Max Rodenbeck in "Cairo, the City Victorious" (Alfred A. Knopf).

The international effort to preserve this dense jumble of medieval Islamic architecture - some of the finest in the world, historians say - has had a long history. As far back as the 1790s, the French occupying forces under Napoleon had made attempts to restore the old city. But bureaucracy and mismanagement hampered even those earlier ventures.

Now a new urgency is evident. The 1992 earthquake caused severe structural damage to many older stone buildings. Further galvanizing authorities was a fire last October that started in a pile of rubbish and gutted Musafirkhana, an 18th-century palace.

The diplomacy of the current venture is evident in the first expensive steps: relocating families that live in the monuments.

"You can't force people out," Dr. Gaballa says sympathetically. "People feel you're cutting off their livelihood. We get criticized for being cruel."

He describes Al Khorazatti, a beautiful old house desperately in need of restoration but also home to 29 families. "We had to pay the government 600,000 (Egyptian; $145,000) to find flats for them all." And still one family is bargaining on its way out the door, he says.

Their reluctance to leave could be explained in part by the famously low rents many pay in the historic district. Based on decades-old leases that cannot be broken, 5 a month ($1.20) is not uncommon, Gaballa says.

To add to the complications, the Ministry of Awqaf (Endowments) owns the bulk of this unique architecture. So for preservation purposes, a delicate ballet of coordination must go on between the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the Ministry of Awqaf, the Ministry of Culture, and the Cairo Governorate. In the past, constant conflict between the parties led to years of delay as the monuments rotted away.

But now, time is crucial. Many of the older buildings may be only 20 years away from collapse, architectural historians say. Yet despite the enormity of the task, Gaballa is optimistic. A huge sewage system is already under construction to drain waste water from the foundations of the old city. Careful conservation work on 30 monuments is in progress. And digging for the traffic tunnel has begun.

ThIS last endeavor is controversial. In a city as ancient as Cairo, digging anywhere can produce unexpected results. As construction workers drilled into the ground, says architect Omar al-Farouq, a longtime advocate of conserving the medieval city, new layers of antiquities were discovered. But the workers were told to keep digging, he adds with dismay. History is piled so high that any new construction inevitably destroys a piece of the past.

The tunnel won't help, Mr. Farouq argues. The rumble of traffic underground will damage foundations, while the pollution remains.

Gaballa is unfazed by such objections and brushes them off as typical Egyptian contrariness. "It's part of our character," he says. "If I say left, someone else will say, 'No, it's right.' "

A number of the merchants along Al-Muizz seem to demonstrate this theory. Few know which workshops will be relocated. And others question the government plan altogether. "They say that they're going to move us," one workman says. "But it's just a rumor."

At another workshop, which makes the copper crescent or hillel that sits on the dome of a mosque, Hani Abdullah Salah says he doesn't know if their workshop will be moved. No one has come to talk to him, he says.

But confusion aside, many shop owners are enthusiastic about the renovation. Most see the cleanup as good for business, drawing more tourists to the area. At Al-Khayyamiyya - the narrow tentmakers market with its lurching second floor jutting precariously over the street below - the conservation process is well along.

Medieval apartments above the tentmakers shops have been carefully stripped, and the delicate wooden latticework known as mashrabiyya is next to be restored.

Fawzi Ali Hassan Nouno, whose family has been making tents for generations, is quietly hopeful. The government's plan will return the street to its former glory and respectability, he says, recounting the days when his grandfather and other shop owners used to "dress like sheikhs."

"The picture is not so bleak," says Gaballa. "We have a comprehensive plan and great support."

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