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Cairo Tries to Reclaim Lost Treasure Amid City's Trash

Egypt: Blighted quarter may have world's finest medieval Islamic architecture. Restoration plan aimed at tourists.


CAIRO — Along narrow Al Muizz Street, it is difficult to imagine that this tumbledown, trash-strewn lane was, in its day, the most important street of the most opulent city on Earth.

Today, it is far from glorious. Lost in the enormous sprawl of Cairo, this 1,000-year-old lane barely 15 feet wide is crowded with polluting aluminum smelters and other small workshops. Cars thread their way through throngs of pedestrians, and squatters hang laundry from dilapidated, earthquake-cracked buildings. Garbage is thrown into the adjoining alleys, and often there's a whiff of sewage in the air.

Overcrowding--more than 300,000 people live in the 1 1/2-square-mile area around Al Muizz--and urban decay are the lot of many a city.

But what makes this street and its environs different is that this quarter, for all its moldering decrepitude, contains what a U.N. study called the richest trove of medieval Islamic architecture in the world, once-amazing buildings dating from the 10th century up to the Ottoman period.

"If you call yourself Egyptian, you should weep--weep!--at the condition of the monuments," says Gaballah Ali Gaballah, head of Egypt's Supreme Council on Antiquities, whose job is to rescue as much of the country's vast cultural heritage as possible on an annual budget of $80 million.

Now, Egypt's central government, the mayor of Cairo and the antiquities authority have announced a joint project to save "historic Cairo," as this medieval district is being called, before it crumbles into nothingness.

Based on a study by the U.N. Development Program--and with help anticipated from foreign donors, including the U.S. government--they have an ambitious blueprint to restore buildings, evict polluters, ban automobiles and build a pair of underground tunnels that will allow the dismantling of a major thoroughfare that bisects the historic district.

Economic Incentives Fuel Restoration Push

Why did it take so long to try to stop this decline? One reason is that Egypt is awash with antiquities--and most of the state's limited means have been aimed at preserving the country's Pharaonic past. Medieval structures, no more than about 1,000 years old, were deemed barely worthy of notice.

But the new market policies espoused by President Hosni Mubarak and his business-driven prime minister, Kamal Ganzouri, have given the plan a powerful economic incentive: the potential dollars to be made if a restored medieval Cairo can persuade tourists to extend their stays in Egypt a few days after seeing the Pyramids.

"We think we have a treasure in Cairo. We think that treasure can generate income. . . . We have to search for that treasure as soon as possible," Mayor Abdel Rehim Shehata said.

By all accounts, the original medieval Cairo was a glory. It contained the world's largest and most spectacular mosques, imposing palaces, tiled fountains, fruits and pleasures of every description, all within towering high walls upon which two horsemen could canter abreast.

It was built in the 10th century as a palace city to inspire awe and fear of the caliph, who at the time ruled an empire stretching from Morocco to Arabia, and who controlled the lucrative spice caravans to the Orient and the gold-and-slave trade with the rest of Africa.

The Fatimids, Shiite believers from Tunisia striving to surpass the Sunni caliph in Baghdad, invaded Egypt in 969. In their triumph, they laid out a capital they named El Qahira--"the Victorious One."

Emerging Cairo Eclipsed Baghdad

On the profits of their military successes, the new city that rose above the Nile flood plain soon supplanted Baghdad as the richest city in Islam, and hence, at that time, the world, wrote historian-author Desmond Stewart.

"Baghdad was, in former times, an illustrious city," said Maqdisi, an Arab traveler who visited Cairo in 985. "But it is now crumbling to decay and its glory had departed. I found neither pleasure nor aught worthy of admiration there. Cairo today is what Baghdad was in its prime."

Today, however, few of the monuments are in anything like a presentable state. Walls are cracked, and bricks and plaster are flaking or fallen. Sewage from the city's overburdened drainage system is eating foundations.

In this century, as most of this area slowly became little more than a slum, both the government and the residents treated the edifices in their midst with callous disregard.

Restorers Marvel at Discovery of Arcade

In the courtyard of one derelict 18th century palace, a previous government dug a bomb shelter. Fishmongers from the neighborhood around Bab el Zuwelya Gate, built 900 years ago, threw fish heads, rotting shrimp and other debris into a moat formed by rising ground water around El Salah Taleai mosque.

A fetid green-gray pool of garbage resulted, standing for as long as the older residents could remember. When it was finally drained and cleared this year, delighted restorers discovered a medieval arcade of low, arched stone shops built into the side of the mosque.

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