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How Cairo’s Heliopolis heritage managed to remain uncovered

The residents of Cairo's Heliopolis neighborhood have succeeded in stopping a government decision to build a new bridge in the heart of its historical and heritage area.
This picture taken on August 18, 2019 shows restoration works ongoing at the historic "Le Palais Hindou" (also known as the "Baron Empain Palace") built by in the early 20th century by Belgian industrialist Edouard Louis Joseph, Baron Empain, in the classical Khmer architectural style of Cambodia's Angkor Wat, in the Egyptian capital Cairo's northeastern Heliopolis district. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)        (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Residents of Cairo’s affluent district of Heliopolis have recently succeeded in stopping at the last minute the construction of a bridge in the heart of the neighborhood that in the eyes of its residents would have threatened its main heritage area. The project was part of the Egyptian authorities' ongoing plans to develop the capital's infrastructure with the aim of solving its increasing traffic problems and improving the connection with surrounding cities.

The new bridge in Heliopolis would have stretched 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) across the neighborhood’s largest and oldest heritage sites, according to the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative, a civil initiative aiming to protect and revive the district’s quality of life that led efforts in stopping the construction of the bridge. The bridge would have run across the most important square in Heliopolis, where its famous 108-year Basilica is located, several buildings of historical importance and Ittihadiya Palace.

“This is the heart of the heritage area,” Choukri Asmar, chairman of the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative, told Al-Monitor. “The Basilica is the center and located on the main square of Heliopolis, and the next street [that the bridge was to cover] is the commercial area of Heliopolis. It would also have been built over two other churches that are more than 100 years old, two or three schools with buildings dating back at least 100 years and roughly 70 heritage buildings.”

The urban planning of Heliopolis — also called the City of the Sun — was initially based on roundabouts acting as focal points from which a network of streets emerged representing the rays of the sun, according to Ahmad Yahia, an architect who has studied its urban design. Heliopolis is also known for its French-style avenues and Islamic buildings following the vision of its founder, Belgian industrialist Edouard Empain, who is buried in the Basilica. “It is a special, one-of-a-kind urban planning in Egypt,” Yahia told Al-Monitor.

Given its singularity, local authorities have recently started to pay more attention to the most significant buildings of Heliopolis, including the exotic Baron Palace, which opened its doors to the public last June, after almost three years of restoration following decades of neglect; the Palace of Sultana Melek, which is located next to Baron Palace and is also being renovated; and the Heliopolis Hippodrome, which was about to be demolished and is currently under restoration.

Yet at the same time, local authorities have also been transforming the urban fabric of Heliopolis for the past three decades, according to Yahia. This process has included the removal of most of its distinctive roundabouts, its iconic tramline, public parks and gardens in order to widen streets and build multiple bridges to allow wider traffic flow and connect the district to major highways. Residents have noted in the past that while some of these goals have been partially accomplished, they are erasing the singular identity of the district and have a negative impact on its environment, security and the quality of life. These changes have accelerated the last two years, Asmar and Yahia said. “It all started 30 years ago with the first roundabout removed and changed into a flyover,” Yahia noted.

The new bridge, however, would have threatened the very heart of Heliopolis, and its residents warned that it would have caused irreversible damage. According to Asmar, rumors about the construction started to circulate at the end of December, but it was on Feb. 2 when they realized that the construction works had commenced without prior notice. 

The news circulated widely on social media and the residents rapidly took action. A document prepared by the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative expressing a strong rejection to the bridge and asking the authorities to reconsider the project using less expensive solutions to traffic problems collected some 10,000 signatures, Asmar noted. Some parliament members, including Amr El Sonbaty and Dina Abdel Karim, and the Society of Egyptian Architects also expressed their rejection to the bridge.

The Heliopolis Heritage Initiative argued that this project violates the Law on Protection of Heritage Areas issued in 2008. Asmar noted that in 2014 a special regulation for the Heliopolis heritage area defining different categories of protection was also issued. The area of the Basilica falls under Category A, i.e., no bridge or barrier that impacts the skyline view and the urban heritage shall be built. Article 50 of the Egyptian Constitution states the state’s commitment to protect its heritage.

“The bridge was a threat to all Heliopolis residents,” Abdel Karim told Al-Monitor. “[Residents of Heliopolis] prepared a well-organized presentation. I took over from there and met with top decision-makers who showed great flexibility and took into consideration all the points shown in the presentation,” she said. “The crisis [is] a symbol of collaboration between civil [society], parliament members and decision-makers.”

Abdel Karim and Asmar both noted that the project — even if not rolled back — remains on hold, noting that the authorities are reassessing the initial plan and trying to find a solution that can serve both its original purpose and the protection of the heritage area.

Asmar believes that the crisis can be turned into an opportunity in their efforts to protect and revive the heritage in Heliopolis. “We protected the area from a bridge, and now [we] want to go back to our initial plans to revive the heritage areas of Heliopolis, remove all violations, bring back greenery to the area, value the gardens we have, enhance the whole urban heritage fabric, pavements for walking and cycling. These are the next steps. These are thing we have always pushed for, and with the very strong support we received over the last week, we think this is the right time to create something good out of the challenge we have recently faced,” he concluded.

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