“The sewer is the conscience of the city,” Victor Hugo famously wrote in “Les Miserables.” In Cairo, architect Salma Nassar used the photos of sewer covers to shed a light on the city’s sanitation, and strangely enough, political symbols.
The “Cairo Sewer Covers Exhibition,” which took place March 20-28 at the Cairopolitan art gallery, featured photos of various forms of sewer covers that date back to 1915. Some covers were green portraying three crescents with three stars, symbolizing the unity of Egypt, Sudan and Nubia in the ancient Egyptian flag. The flag's main color was green, indicating the fertility of the Nile Delta.
Another icon, which appeared on the sewer covers until the revolution of July 1952, was a crescent with a star. From the 1950s onward, an eagle appeared on the sewer covers, symbolizing the Egyptian Republic. This symbol is still used today. The logos of the state companies that made these covers also appeared on the sewer covers.
“Hugo said that 'the sewer is the conscience of the city.' So we launched this exhibition to explore the history of the capital Cairo through its sewer covers,” Nassar — whose passion of urban architecture and urban development led her to years of research, documentation and taking photos of covers — said at the opening of the exhibition.
The exhibition was sponsored by Al-Ismaelia Real Estate Company and showcased dozens of photographs of the city's sewer covers, in different shapes and sizes with maps that show their places of origin. The earliest ones, located in the Zamelek area in western Cairo, date back to 1915, a year after the country's sanitation authority was established.
Nassar said that the idea of showing the city's sewer covers in an art exhibition was born as she was looking for other ways to explore the history of Cairo and to reveal the story of its urban and cultural development over the past decades.
“It took me three years to accomplish this project. I managed to create a database of 400 sewer covers in Maadi, Heliopolis, Zamalek and central Cairo that are among the first areas to have a sewage service,” she noted.
Nassar gathered the information from different documentation centers, the American University in Cairo and interviews with ordinary citizens. Besides the exhibition, she also produced a documentary and aphoto book on the city's sewer covers.
“The sewer covers contribute to preserving the history of the capital. They are made of long-lasting solid materials that bear the date of construction, destination and the material used in manufacturing,” she said.
“It is really interesting to see the history of Cairo through sewer covers. Normally no one pays attention to them,” Hoda Ibrahim, a civil engineer, told Al-Monitor at the exhibition. “Placing them in the spotlight and displaying them at an exhibition to give the residents of Cairo a different perspective of the architectural history of the capital [is interesting].”
Hossam Kamel, an architect who visited the exhibition, said that the sewer covers give an insight into the history of infrastructure and architecture in Cairo over the years.
“The sewer cover is the memory of the city. It is made of a material that can withstand difficult weather conditions such as heat, pressure and rain, among other things. Like the residents, it endures all,” he told Al-Monitor.
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