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Renovation work at historic Cairo mosque angers architects

Several Egyptian architects believe that the renovation project of Al-Hussein Mosque in Cairo’s historic district has ruined the area’s heritage and architectural aspect.
A man walks in the vicinity of the closed Al-Hussein Mosque, after the country's Muslim religious authorities decided to put the Friday prayers on hold in order to avoid gatherings and the spread of the coronavirus, Cairo, Egypt, March 20, 2020.

Egyptian authorities reopened April 2 the historic Al-Hussein Mosque in Cairo after conducting major internal and external renovation works to the mosque and the area surrounding it. 

Egypt’s Minister of Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa had issued a decision March 12 to close the mosque to carry out renovation works, sparking controversy among citizens who want to pray at the mosque, architects and those interested in architectural heritage who deemed the work as damaging the mosque’s historical aspect. 

This prompted the minister to issue a decision March 31 to reopen the mosque in April, during the holy month of Ramadan, to welcome Muslims who make up around 90% of the country’s population of 102 million. 

Salah Zaki, professor of architecture at the Faculty of Engineering at Al-Azhar University and a consultant for the mosque’s renovation project, told Al-Monitor that the works consist of several stages. The first of which is studying the history of streets and houses surrounding the mosque with a distinctive architectural heritage, then restoring them along with all the monuments in the area, as well as exploiting the lands surrounding the area to restore tourism to this ancient area in the center of Cairo.

He pointed out that some of the buildings there date back over 400 years, such as Qasr Al-Shooq, El Gamaliya and Umm al-Ghulam, all of which are historical buildings with a distinctive architectural heritage that will be exploited as tourist attractions.

Zaki noted that the state has already allocated an initial amount of 150 million Egyptian pounds ($8 million) for Al-Hussein Mosque and the surrounding area.

Abdel Ghani Hindi, member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs at the Ministry of Endowments, had announced on Sept. 18, 2019, that the total cost of developing Al-Hussein Mosque and the surrounding area to make it a global tourist attraction would amount to more than 1 billion Egyptian pounds ($54 million).

Zaki explained that the cost of developing Al-Hussein Mosque alone is $8 million, and the budget for the area as a whole is approximately $54 million.

He said, “The project to develop Al-Hussein area as a whole is a much greater project, but works in the mosque include renovating its floors, walls and ceilings; modernizing all electrical, water, sewage, air conditioning and surveillance systems; and installing new alarm and firefighting systems.”

Zaki noted that the overall development project for Al-Hussein area covers the restoration of the residential areas around the mosque, extending over an area of 11 acres, which includes many distinctive historical and archaeological buildings.

He stressed, “The project to develop the entire area includes painting the facades of buildings, restoring wooden windows and old Islamic decorations, as well as constructing a five-story garage that can accommodate more than 600 cars to overcome the problem of traffic congestion in the area.”

Zaki explained that the ancient public fountain of Ismail al-Maghlaoui will be converted into a tourist gift shop and the public fountain of Al-Bazdar into a tourist cafe.

However, many Egyptian architects are not pleased with the renovation project in the archaeological area, as some believe it is a distortion rather than a restoration of the area and the mosque.

On April 4, the Diwan of Architects objected in a post on its official Facebook page to “the placement of an iron fence in the courtyard of Al-Hussein Mosque, saying the move alters the landmarks of the area that is registered on the [UNESCO’s] World Heritage List, and such works do not count as preserving heritage.”

In another Facebook post April 6, the Diwan of Architects criticized “the alleged renovation of Al-Hussein Mosque, which included passing air-conditioning ducts on the facade of the mosque and through the archaeological dome. This is an architectural distortion and a violation of all professional norms and principles.”

An architect and planning professor told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that what is happening in the area could not be considered renovation works, but rather a destruction of the distinctive architectural aspect of the mosque and its surrounding area.

She noted that the yard in front of the mosque is considered a public space, but it has been fenced off separating it from the rest of the area, which, she said, is a grave mistake, because it does not serve an aesthetic purpose. "It is ugly and pointless," she added.

She noted, “A gate was built to enter the mosque after going around the fence surrounding it, and this small iron gate narrows the entrance, which would create overcrowding while we are still fighting the coronavirus.”

The source explained that the project included the uprooting of huge palm trees from the area in front of the mosque, which represents environmental and architectural damage. These trees performed an aesthetic function, in addition to absorbing groundwater, thus reducing the water’s impact on the foundations of the ancient buildings in the area.

She stressed, “Al-Hussein Mosque and the entire surrounding area are considered a World Heritage Site and registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage List [since 1979]. But the Egyptian government is paying no attention to UNESCO’s opinion, which usually objects to such projects that do not take into account the heritage and architectural dimensions during renovations.”

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