Skip to main content

Cairo's heritage sites threatened with demolition

Restoration projects and demolitions are not only threatening the historical character of Old Cairo, but also causing forced displacements and anger among residents.
Men carry out cleaning work at Al-Azhar Mosque, in the old Islamic area of Cairo May 8, 2014. As the Egyptian state presses its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the man expected to become president has deployed a new weapon in the battle with the Islamists: his own vision of Islam. Sisi, the former army chief who deposed the Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi and is expected to be elected president later this month, has cast himself as a defender of religion and taken aim at the doctrinal foundations of Islami

CAIRO — Egypt has made several requests through various forums for assistance in protecting world heritage sites in the country from terror and other physical attacks. For instance, UNESCO's Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict met May 21 to discuss plans for Egyptian heritage sites after the government requested special protection for the ancient city of Thebes. At the same time, however, the Cairo governorate appears bent on demolishing homes and other buildings in historic Old Cairo without regard for their potential and actual heritage value.

On May 4, the Cairo governorate completed the removal of residential buildings on ​​18 acres in the ​Ezbet Abu Qarn area of Old Cairo in a three-day demolition campaign. Governorate authorities claimed the buildings were “encroachments on the governorate’s land.” Maher Subhi, an engineer and Old Cairo district chief, said the 34 residential buildings had been illegally built and stressed the need to form a urban planning commission to develop and implement a plan for the area.

On June 3, a number of residents evicted from Ezbet Abu Qarn filed a complaint with the attorney general against the governor of Cairo, the Old Cairo district chief and a police station bailiff, accusing them of trespassing and of forcibly evicting them from their homes. They requested that legal action be taken to financially compensate them, find alternative homes for them or both, and that all evictions stop, pending determination of the complaint.

Forced displacement has been a growing issue in the last three years in Egypt. Sectarianism is cited as one cause along with the concentration of wealth in the hands of businesspeople. In one incident, five Coptic families in Bani Suef were forced from their home after being beseiged by Muslim neighbors upset by a Facebook post about the Prophet Muhammad by a Christian relative living abroad. Another example came from the Ramlet Bulaq district, where a businessman who owns two high-rises and a big hotel in the area had wanted to acquire more land. After many residents refused to leave or sell their land, the police burned houses and conducted raids and arrests to evict them.

On June 6, Cairo governorate representatives and heads of Old Cairo neighborhoods met to discuss how to transfer a number of families from the area, including the Sayeda Zeinab neighborhood, to other parts of the city and provinces. The government claims that the transfers are necessary because the ramshackle state of the buildings pose a danger to residents’ lives. A final decision has not yet been announced.

Samrat Hafez, chairman of the Central Administration of Islamic Antiquities and former head of the Islamic Monuments Sector, said that houses that have architectural and archaeological value and are more than 100 years old should be considered historical sites and documented. The governorate would then be required to restore them and be prohibited from demolishing them.

He told Al-Monitor that it is better to renovate the houses than tear them down, to preserve the architectural and historical character of the area, especially since the state had succeeded in having the neighborhoods of Old Cairo acknowledged by UNESCO as part of Historic Cairo.

Hafez also admitted that some of Old Cairo’s neighborhoods are slums and that removing them will not affect the area’s historical character. If, however, houses in certain areas — such as the Religion Complex in Old Cairo's Fustat neighborhood — are demolished and replaced with newer ones, the nature of the neighborhood would be greatly affected. “Most of the people have no archaeological awareness of the neighborhood and its heritage value,” Hafez said.

Reham Arram, supervisor of the heritage unit for the Cairo governorate, said in an interview with Moheet that the priority for urban projects in Old Cairo is the people and that the governorate is preparing statistics on the neighborhood’s social and economic conditions and evaluating components of the living environment.

She told Al-Monitor that at the moment, she is unable to determine how much the restoration of some houses and demolition of others will affect the ​architectural heritage and character of the area, especially since they vary from one section to another. She pointed out that the unit she heads is only concerned with properties that have already been designated as heritage sites.

Old Cairo, which lies in the southern part of the Egyptian capital, includes several important sites, including the Hanging Church, one of the oldest Egyptian churches; the mosque of Amr Ibn al-Aas, the oldest mosque in Africa; and the church of Abu Abu Serga, which includes the cave in which the holy family is said to have lived after escaping to Egypt. These monuments are collectively known as the Religions Complex. Also located in Old Cairo are Magra al-Oyoun, a long section of an aqueduct built by Salah al-Din al-Ayouby and the palace of Mohammad Ali, founder of modern Egypt.

The neighborhood has for centuries also been a site for the production of various handicrafts, such as pottery, leather and silverwork. Such products continue to be made there and sold to tourists. Artisans have clashed on several occasions with the governorate, which on May 21 shuttered nine businesses manufacturing and storing leather. In addition, the governorate intends to move the pottery shops to another area to free up space and preserve that profession.

Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, head of the Historic Cairo Restoration Project and assistant minister of antiquities for the Islamic and Coptic unit, said that some houses in Old Cairo are not heritage sites but have a unique architectural style and therefore require restoration. Such work would fall under the purview of the National Organization for Urban Harmony and the Cairo governorate.

Neither the governorate nor any other party has the authority to demolish the heritage houses, according to Abdel-Aziz, who also told Al-Monitor that if houses are to be demolished and rebuilt, approval must be given by the HCRP. No construction is to take place without the permission of the project’s administration.

The HCRP, established in 1992, manages 143 sites. It focuses on three goals: renovating the 143 sites, developing the surrounding area and using the antiquities after their renovation. The project is financed by several ministries, but primarily the Ministries of Tourism and Antiquities, in addition to foreign grants. Its cost to date exceeds 1 billion Egyptian pounds ($130 million). The project has been halted several times, and it is unknown when it might foreseeably complete work on all the designated sites.

Abdel-Aziz told Al-Monitor that in light of conflicts caused when state institutions issue differing decisions, “A ministerial working group headed by the prime minister and including nine ministers and Cairo’s governor was formed to avoid these conflicts and unify decision-making regarding Historic Cairo.” He said some problems with residents were due to conflicts between private and public interests.

The HCRP is trying to address conflicts by engaging more people in the project. It encourages then to submit their restoration proposals, provides funding to assist with restorations and consults residents before work begins. It also solicits opinions through questionnaires and tries to educate people on the importance and objectives of the project and on ways residents can benefit from it.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

The Middle East in your inbox Insights in your inbox.

Deepen your knowledge of the Middle East

Trend Reports

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (4th R) attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (3rd L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on February 22, 2019. (Photo by HOW HWEE YOUNG / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP via Getty Images)

From roads to routers: The future of China-Middle East connectivity

A general view shows the solar plant in Uyayna, north of Riyadh, on March 29, 2018. - On March 27, Saudi announced a deal with Japan's SoftBank to build the world's biggest solar plant. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

Regulations on Middle East renewable energy industry starting to take shape

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial