Alaa al-Habashi was looking for ingredients for a Ramadan feast when he stumbled on an Ottoman-era mansion being used as a slaughterhouse and butcher's shop in Cairo's historic Islamic district.


Determined to save the building,1 Habashi bought it in 2009, only to be told he could raze it but not restore it. He refused to give up and won the right to restore it in a two-year legal battle. A decade after he bought the building, the restoration is almost complete.

His battle was part of a larger fight to save old buildings which some professional restorers and architects fear is being lost because of bureaucracy, official corruption and laws which they say do little to protect Egypt's architectural heritage.

"I'm not at all optimistic. I believe only 25% of the buildings will survive," said May al-Ibrashy, a restorer who has been working in historic Cairo for about 25 years.2

The five-square-kilometre (about two-square-mile) historic quarter, which has one of the world's biggest collections of Islamic architecture, has been declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations' cultural agency UNESCO.

But though its main monuments are not under threat, many houses and smaller buildings are being demolished.

Government inspectors, fearing they could be held legally responsible for any problems, have declared many centuries-old buildings in danger of collapse since earthquakes in 1992 and 2005.3 Many have been demolished and replaced by cement and brick high-rise buildings that critics describe as garish.


  • 1. "I was blindsided by the beauty," the U.S.-trained architect said of the house which he first saw more than two decades ago. Built of brick and stone, it has a large inner courtyard and a number of rooms with decorative painted wooden ceilings.
  • 2. Government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.
  • 3. Destruction of historic buildings since 2011 has been extensive, said a foreign restorer who studied historic Cairo's Darb al-Ahmar district, much of which is inside the old city walls. ... Nearly 100 historic buildings in Darb al-Ahmar were replaced with high-rise buildings as central authority collapsed after the 2011 uprising that ended autocratic president Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years in power, said architect Tarek el-Murri, who has years of experience working in the district.