Skip to main content

Cairo metro drillings put heritage buildings at risk

Construction work on Cairo's third metro line caused cracks in the heritage building that houses El-Galaa Hospital, and residents wonder if more old buildings are at risk.

CAIRO — Doctors and patients at El-Galaa Teaching Hospital, housed in one of the oldest heritage buildings in central Cairo, felt a series of strong tremors Jan. 21. People were seen rushing out of the building following the blasting sounds. The earthquake-like shaking of the building was the result of the drilling works on the third metro line, which is due to operate by November 2021.

El-Galaa Hospital is a center for obstetrics and gynecology established under King Fuad in 1934. According to Suheir Hawas, member of the National Organization for Urban Harmony, the hospital was previously known as the Fuad I Maternity Hospital and the building was registered in accordance with Law No. 144 of 2006, regulating the demolition of non-derelict monuments and preserving architectural heritage.

Following the incident, the Ministry of Health and Population ordered the evacuation of the hospital’s free clinics, and the formation of a technical committee comprising experts from the National Authority for Tunnels (NAT) and the company implementing the third metro line project in order to examine the damage. Preliminary inspections showed only minor cracks.

The governmental Information and Decision Support Center issued an official statement Jan. 28, denying reports about the government’s intention to demolish El-Galaa Hospital to make way for the metro line drilling works. The statement explained that the Ministry of Health and Population’s decision to evacuate the hospital came as a result of the series of tremors due to the excavation works, which did not show any structural damage to the building.

The NAT official website shows that the drilling works are part of the construction of the third phase of the metro line. The line connects Ataba Station to Rod al-Farag Corridor Station, north of Imbaba, all the way through the cross point, heading south to Cairo University, passing through Arab League Street, then toward Bolak al-Dakror and connecting with the second line at Cairo University Station.

The first part of the third phase of the new metro line will stretch about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Ataba Station to Kit Kat Station, and will include four stations: Nasser, Maspero, Zamalek and Kit Kat.

Imad Abdel-Azim, a road and bridge construction consultant and engineering professor at Ain Shams University, told Al-Monitor that there is a phenomenon called "soil liquefaction" whereby some soil types lose strength and stiffness in response to an applied stress such as an earthquake or strong tremors. He explained that this is what is happening currently in Cairo because of the drilling works that induce vibrations similar to those of a train.

Research has shown that the drilling works have only a slight impact on archaeological buildings and edifices, as most have load-bearing walls that are resilient to strong vibrations. Modern buildings in Egypt are more likely to be affected by excavation works.

Abdel-Azim explained that people in the surrounding areas are likely not to notice the work taking place underground. He recommends the drilling machines to dig at a lower rotation speed in order to reduce vibrations, even if this means the project would take longer to finalize.

The construction of the new metro line and the potential effects on the infrastructure of nearby neighborhoods, including Cairo’s prestigious suburb Zamalek with its many heritage and agricultural buildings, raised the ire of residents.

According to the website of the National Organization for Urban Harmony, Zamalek neighborhood has several heritage buildings including Zamalek Palace on Mohamed Mazhar Street, which is of great architectural value and was registered as an Egyptian landmark as per government decree No. 185 of 2001. Aisha Fahmy Palace is another gem on Swiss Institute Street. There is also the office of the minister of culture on Shajar al-Durr Street, in addition to buildings of great architectural and heritage value on Ismail Mohamed Street, where the new metro line is set to cross.

Ahmed Hashish, a member of the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Engineers Syndicate and the rapporteur on the technical committee that conducted the studies on the construction of the Zamalek Station, told Al-Monitor, “We recommended the government in an official report to inspect the nearby buildings — especially old and archaeological monuments — in a bid to gauge the soil erosion of buildings and which one could tilt as a result of the works.”

He said, “Unfortunately no studies or inspections have been implemented as part of many projects in Egypt, except for areas of a sensitive nature such as the Zamalek neighborhood. Drilling and excavation works could cause cracks in broken-down soil and run-down buildings. But there are always architectural solutions for such a problem. If a building is found to be in good shape upon inspection, it could be repaired or treated for soil stabilization."

Hashish added, “But as usual Egypt is always too late to flag a problem. As far as I know, what happened to El-Galaa Hospital was a result of the drilling works that destabilized the old building’s soil. Buildings housing hospitals are affected more due to the presence of electrical equipment and ventilation openings, which weakens their structure over time as is the case with factories. The soil erosion has led to some cracks in the building of El-Gaala Hospital.”

He noted that a new technical report will be issued soon on the next phase of the metro drilling works and the effects on the buildings in the area.