Egyptian authorities struggle to secure funding to repair UNESCO-listed monuments in capital’s Islamic quarter
The capital’s Islamic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979 often referred to as historic Cairo, boasts some 600 listed monuments. But the task to patch up decades of dilapidation is immense, and Egyptian authorities are struggling to come up with the cash after unrest and jihadist attacks have driven away tourists and slashed crucial income.
Islamic Cairo is packed with ornate monuments, mosques and mausoleums, and its narrow streets are punctuated with trinket shops, cafés and traditional old homes—an urban fabric layered in centuries of history.
For Luis Monreal, head of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, refurbishing the area is a never-ending project. “It’s like painting an aircraft carrier: when you finish one side, you have to start over again on the other,” he said.
Part of the Aga Khan Foundation, his outfit has been working on restoration projects in the area since the early 2000s. In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s 2011 fall, many of the area’s squat traditional buildings were torn down and replaced with structures of six to eight floors.
Meanwhile, rampant theft saw centuries-old objects disappear from mosques.
And even if looting and illegal construction have since decreased, according to authorities, the historic heart of Egypt’s teeming capital of 20 million is still choked with pollution, its streets cluttered with rubbish.
UNESCO has warned several times in recent years of increasing degradation in historic Cairo, raising the alarm as it has for many other heritage cities across the globe. In 2017, its World Heritage Committee urged Egyptian authorities “to take all needed measures to halt the rapid deterioration” of sites across the quarter.
In an October visit to monitor new restoration work, Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Enany highlighted budget issues as one of the central challenges facing the district. “It’s always said that Islamic antiquities are in bad condition. It’s a fact,” he said, adding that failing sewers and monuments in residential areas had also created issues.