Cairo’s downtown, with its old European-designed buildings, is wrestling to preserve its cultural heritage as Egypt readies a new capital in the desert.
A stroll through the district takes pedestrians past buildings that meld Islamic and European motifs, neoclassical columns and ornate decorations.
But its elegance and prestige are fading, as the one-way streets and former palaces fall into ruin and shops selling cheap clothes and odds and ends have moved in.
“Some buildings are in a seriously dilapidated state,” said Ahmed El Bindari, an architectural historian and volunteer tour guide, in the middle of a group of tourists.
He enthusiastically recounts the history of the old buildings, some housing government ministries, and little passageways but complains of a lack of political will in heritage preservation.
Bindari and others fear for the future of the district’s old vacant buildings and worry that those in urgent need of repair will fall victim to a drive for urban renewal.
In the heart of Cairo and bordering Tahrir Square, the district is commonly known as Khedivial Cairo after Khedive Ismail Pasha, an Ottoman ruler who governed Egypt in the mid-19th century.
He is credited with transforming Cairo into a modern metropolis with European influences after being inspired on a trip to Paris.
Khedive Ismail ordered the building of the first opera house in the Middle East in 1869 to celebrate the inauguration of the strategic Suez Canal.
He also commissioned French architects to design geometric, tree-lined streets and downtown became the cultural hub of the city flourishing with cafes, cinemas and shops.
With its big avenues, facades and bronze statues recalling the French or Italian capitals, the district has also long hosted a lively literary cafe scene, as well as government ministry buildings.
Authorities have traditionally been careful to ensure the buildings retain their style, and many in the city of around 20 million residents are fond of the area.
Since the 1950s however, middle-class residents have progressively moved out of the area in favour of quieter, smarter and more modern suburbs.
The ministries and public authorities still there are due to move too, once the new administrative capital being built in the desert some 45 kilometres (28 miles) from the city centre is ready.
“What will become of the many ministries such as agriculture, education and health housed in historic palaces and buildings?” Bindari asked.
He points to the gentrification of the so-called Maspero Triangle area hugging the banks of the River Nile which the government is redeveloping into a financial centre, with luxurious shopping malls and hotels.
It has led to thousands of residents in informal housing being relocated to alternative accommodation.
“I’m afraid that under the banner of regeneration, entire urban areas… will be razed to the ground,” Bindari added.
But Riham Aram, director of the Historic Cairo Restoration Project, is more upbeat.
Since 2014, some 350 buildings have already been restored under an initiative for Khedivial Cairo, she said.
“We’ve repainted entire buildings and restored decorations using similar material to what was originally used during construction,” she said.
“We must maintain this historic district so it doesn’t turn into slums in the future,” she warned.
And she said that ways to reuse 18 government buildings in central Cairo would be examined.
The private sector has also become involved in efforts to preserve the downtown area.
In 2008, a group of businessmen from local construction firm Ismailia Consortium set up an arm of the company to restore city centre cultural heritage.
“We found that the best way to conserve downtown Cairo is that there needs to be economic returns,” said managing director Karim el-Shafei.
“A lot of the apartments are empty. They can be renovated and rented out or sold bringing in profits because they are being used productively,” he added.
The firm has bought 32 downtown buildings as well as the historic Cinema Radio located on Talaat Harb street.
But it faces several bureaucratic hurdles even for routine procedures such as opening a new cafe.
Shafei is also keen to draw tourists to the centre and to shop for locally made brands.
But it is not all about investing just to make money, when it comes to restoring important sites, some experts note.
“Along with the focus on the new capital, we hope that interest is not lost in the conservation of Cairo’s cultural heritage,” said Soheir Hawas, a Cairo University professor, who authored a volume on the area’s architecture.
Hawas, also a member of the National Urban Harmony Committee, wants to see government buildings turned into museums and cultural centres. “These are important pages in Egypt’s long and continuous architectural record and must be preserved,” she argued.
Benin prepares to receive centuries-old artefacts taken by France
The display cases at the royal palace in Benin’s southern town of Abomey are coated in dust and the exhibition halls plunged in darkness. But local tourism chief Gabin Djimasse hopes all this will change with the return of 26 artefacts from former colonial master France and the construction of a new museum to hold them.
“These objects are a chance for the survival of the site,” Djimasse said as he toured the vast courtyards lined with bas-relief dating back to the 18th-century Dahomey Kingdom. “They will allow us to build a new museum and make the royal palaces more economically sustainable.”
In November, President Emmanuel Macron took the landmark decision to return the artworks – including a royal throne – taken by French troops over a century ago and housed at the Quai Branly museum in Paris.
The move has piled pressure on other former colonial powers to hand back looted artefacts to their countries of origin – and fired up dreams of a lifeline in Abomey. The Kingdom of Dahomey reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries and became a major source of slaves for European traders before the conquest by Paris in the 1890s ended its rule.
Now, a loan of €20 million from the French Development Agency will fund the new museum and aims to make the 47 hectares UNESCO World Heritage Site more attractive for visitors.
While Benin has welcomed France’s decision to return the objects, it has cautioned against doing so too quickly. Macron wants the artworks returned “without delay” but the museum in Abomey is only set to be opened in 2021 and Benin’s heritage agency says the country needs time to be “truly ready”.
Great opportunity –
Djimasse said plans for the museum to showcase its history and heritage have already gone through several changes. At first “it was all 3D videos, and you would have thought you were at a theme park or in Dubai,” he joked.
The latest project is set to be more low-key, fitting in with the local architecture and relying more on natural lighting and less on plasma screens. But building the physical infrastructure is only one part of the challenge.
Djimasse said the other major priority is finding people to work as guides and develop the expertise to properly care for and restore the artworks. “Four years ago, the Quai Branly in Paris wanted to train two young people from Benin in restoration,” he said.
“We looked everywhere for scientists but we couldn’t find any — and in the end, we sent a history student.” At the School for African Heritage in Benin’s capital Porto-Novo, a dozen students aged from 23 to 53 are diligently working to be part of the project.
This is the “first batch” of a new training programme aimed at cultivating the various skills required, said their teacher Richard Sagan. “At a museum, there is more than just the curator,” said Sagan, a specialist at Benin’s heritage agency.
“There is a whole chain of trades, from skilled technicians and craftsmen.” Those in the class have already been working in the cultural field and insisted they felt the return of the artworks from France could be a big boost.
“It is a great opportunity for young people,” said Messie Boko, a 28-year-old student, and guide at a museum in the city. “It is our duty to know how to spread this heritage”.
World heritage –
Alain Godonou is called “Mr. Benin heritage” by his colleagues at the national agency. He may have studied in France but he has never gained access to the roughly 5,000 artefacts from the Kingdom of Dahomey held by the country.
A former UNESCO official, Godonou said preparing for the return of the objects has been a “goal” of his life. But he insisted that Benin still needs to pass a comprehensive legal framework to protect heritage.
As for the 26 objects – they should just be the start of a broader process. Gordon said Benin wanted to “reclaim its property rights” over all the artworks held abroad – even if that doesn’t mean returning them home permanently.
“We want the works to move around, that is our philosophy,” he said. “In the end, they are part of world heritage.”
Contents of two ancient pyramids unveiled in Egypt
A team of archaeologists had uncovered sarcophagi and the remains of an ancient wall dating back some 4,000 years ago.
Egypt on Saturday opened two ancient pyramids south of the capital Cairo and unveiled a collection of newly found sarcophagi, some containing well-preserved mummies.
Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani told reporters the Bent Pyramid of King Sneferu, the first pharaoh of Egypt’s 4th dynasty, and a nearby pyramid would be reopened to visitors for the first time since 1965.
He also said a team of archaeologists had uncovered sarcophagi and the remains of an ancient wall dating back to the Middle Kingdom some 4,000 years ago.
The finds were made during excavation work in the royal necropolis of Dahshur on the west bank of the Nile River, in an area home to some of Egypt’s oldest pyramids.
“Several stone, clay and wooden sarcophagi were found and some contain mummies in good condition,” the antiquities ministry said in a statement.
The ancient wall stretches some 60 metres and is situated south of the pyramid of 12th dynasty pharaoh King Amenemhat II, also in the Dahshur necropolis.
The finds also included funerary masks as well as tools dating back to the Late Period — which spanned almost 300 years up to Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BC — used for cutting stones, the ministry said.
Egypt has in recent years sought to promote archaeological discoveries across the country in a bid to revive tourism, which took a hit from the turmoil that followed its 2011 uprising.
eSwatini bans “weird” witchcraft competition
The proposed competition of witchcraft and magic spells was unheard of and regarded as an anomaly in the country
A competition pitting witchdoctors against each other in a battle of skills this weekend in eSwatini — formerly known as Swaziland — has been banned, according to a government statement.
Organisers had planned to hold the competition in Manzini, the second city of eSwatini, a country in southern Africa ruled by King Mswati III, one of the world’s last absolute monarchs.
“The proposed competition of witchcraft and magic spells was unheard of in the country and it was regarded as an anomaly in the lives of the people of eSwatini,” government spokesman Percy Simelane said in a statement.
“Government will not sanction any competition of that nature. Anyone who will persist with any activity related to witchcraft will face the full might of the law.”
The statement, released on Tuesday, said the Witchcraft Act of 1889 defines witchcraft, sorcery or the practice of voodoo as a punishable offence.
“Government cannot sit back and watch while the lives of the citizens of this country are exposed to illegal and weird practices that have the potential to poison the minds of (Swazi people), especially children,” Simelane added.
“Government will not allow the voodoo competition — period!”
eSwatini has a population of 1.3 million people, with many following Christianity and indigenous beliefs.
The Times of Swaziland on Wednesday quoted “Africa Gama”, the organiser of the event, as saying the competition would have pit witchdoctors against traditional healers as under the previous king Sobhuza II, who died in 1982.
“The King was concerned about unnecessary competition among healers so he called them to one place so that they could demonstrate their powers,” he said.
“I was competing with traditional healers, doctors, and prophets from across the world.”
Herve Renard resigns from Morocco coaching job after AFCON flop
Libya’s GNA suspect new military escalation by Haftar-led forces
Campaign against corruption begins in Zambia
PepsiCo to buy South Africa’s Pioneer Foods for $1.7 billion
Prime Minister under Muammar Gaddafi’s rule freed in Libya
Rwanda’s Ubumuntu Arts Festival and the celebration of humanity
Campaigners demand arrest of Nigerian pastor accused of rape, set for court
Court in Sudan orders authorities to resume internet services
Ivory Coast hope on Nicolas Pepe to banish memories of disastrous AFCON outing
Foreign investors are flocking to Nigeria’s film industry
Feature Stories & News2 months ago
Egypt’s new Ramadan series-streaming app scrutinised by critics
Lifestyle News & Gists5 months ago
Five killed in South Africa coal mine blast, others trapped
Op-Ed6 months ago
What are the critical issues facing Africa in 2019?
Top Story3 months ago
Boat capsize: DR Congo declares national mourning over 13 dead, 114 missing
Top Story6 months ago
Spotting fake news: Which is the real video of VP Osinbajo’s chopper incident?
Op-Ed6 months ago
What Brexit means for Africa
Culture & Tourism7 months ago
The market in Togo where money doesn’t change hands
Op-Ed6 months ago
For the record: Ahaji Shehu Shagari (1925-2018)