On the roof of Zamalek’s Greater Cairo Public Library, local media platform Welad El-Balad celebrated on Sunday the closing of its first regional campaign, The Country’s Architecture: Identity Not Worth Demolishing, opposing the demolition of architectural heritage which takes away the Egyptian integrity that was built over the centuries.
Many abandoned, time-worn authentic buildings that were once precious gems representing the architecture of a glorious era have now become homes for rubbish, stray animals, and their walls sprayed with random passersby’s thoughts. This is now a natural scene for people in Egypt. Many such places, that once resembled Egypt’s flourishing in architecture and lifestyle, are soon after demolished, usually to be replaced by modern, soulless skyscrapers.
In an attempt to restore and save Egypt’s lost architectural heritage, Welad El-Balad kicked off the campaign last month, aiming to raise people’s awareness of maintaining the nation’s lost identity represented in its architecture that is facing continuous negligence and lack of restoration, before being completely destroyed and replaced with similarly designed buildings.
“The idea came up while we noticed that it has become normal for most of us to pass by a deteriorated heritage site being demolished without even blinking or caring. That’s when we decided that we need to prevent this from happening with the help of people; whether those who read about these places or who still live in them,” said Tamer El-Mahdy, the campaign’s coordinator.
The one-month campaign included several activities, workshops, and seminars discussing the status of architecture in the Arab world.
The campaign focused on forgotten heritage and buildings falling apart, not only in Cairo and Alexandria, the main two cities known for their enriching architecture, but it mainly spotlighted the legacy left in the form of the construction style in most of Egypt’s forgotten governorates.
Through a set of articles, written by journalists based in such governorates, they spotlighted their cities’ most ancient buildings that suffer from lack of renovation or that have been privately restored, the campaign successfully reached over 2 million citizens from east to west, leading them to share their stories with the places that present their governorates’ identities.
The campaign held several awareness-raising sessions in Upper Egypt and photo exhibitions for the most remarkable buildings of the region.
“When we talk of our nation’s architecture, [most people] assume that we mean the buildings of Cairo and Alexandria. However, Egypt’s different governorates have a lot of places that deserve to be preserved to present to the world our identity,” said Fatma Farag, founder of Welad El-Balad, in her closing ceremony speech.
Facing several challenges to convey the campaign’s aims to people from different backgrounds, Amira El-Noshokaty, the founder of Welad El-Balad’s heritage section spoke of how hard it was to convince people living in historical places to speak about them. “For them, it is better for the buildings to be bulldozed because they will either get money or a modern place to stay at. The mission was to convince them of how important it is to document the identity of that place,” she explained.
The campaign included hosting the Middle East’s first regional conference on the role of media in protection of cultural heritage, where the status of the region’s most dilapidated sites and how the media can play an effective role in conserving architectural heritage, was discussed.
The forum, which was held in Alexandria in cooperation with the Swedish Institute Alexandria, was attended by several prominent Middle Eastern media figures and the some of the world’s heritage conservation activists, including associate professor of the archeology of cultural heritage Monica Hanna; France Desmarais, the director of programmes at the International Council of Museums (ICOM); Yasmine El-Dorghamy, founder of Rawi Egypt’s heritage review publication; Christian Triebert, a journalist focused on conflict and underdevelopment; and Ali Cheikhmous, president of the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archeology (APSA). From Egypt, came the participation of anchor Ahmed El-Meslemany and director Ayman Makram.
The forum declared a set of principles to develop the masses’ awareness regarding heritage conservation as well as trainings for mid-to-senior level journalists to build influence through social media and publications. The discussions included communicating how the media can change public attitudes towards heritage.
One of the forum’s panels was the connection architecture builds between art and place. Through the discussion, prominent Egyptian writer Khaled El-Khamisy spoke of the international novels that documented certain place’s identity through times and kept this image alive despite the change of time that led to the change of place.
“At the end, these places are what identify us, and turning them into cultural centres, instead of demolishing them, is what we seek,” El-Noshokaty concluded.