How does the preservation of cultural heritage link to a city’s well-being? May al-Ibrashy, coordinator of Cairo-based initiative Athar Lina, describes how urban conservation can become a tool for urban development.
I was recently asked to speak about the conservation work we do in Historic Cairo at a workshop on gender in the Middle East, I gave a talk on city branding, and I presented our work at a conference on landscapes. How is it possible that a “niche field” like heritage consists of so many different stories, that it contributes to so many different disciplines? Many may view our work’s degree of variety with incredulity, even suspicion.
Talking about multiple stories of Athar Lina – the name of our initiative which translates to “Heritage is Ours”– instead of one story is not stretching it. Quite the opposite, they are only a fraction of the complex experiences we go through every day to link the wellbeing of a heritage site to the wellbeing of its neighbourhood.
At Athar Lina, we believe that people, as custodians of their own heritage, should be active participants in its preservation and management. To do so they have to feel they own it. And to feel that they own it, they have to benefit from it.
The Heritage Sites of Al-Khalifa, Historic Cairo
In 2012, we spent six months working with the residents of the neighbourhood of al-Khalifa in the southern area of Historic Cairo. We also included stakeholders from the government, civil society, and professional practice. We studied al-Khalifa’s heritage sites in the context of their urban and socio-economic setting: The neighbourhood is characterised by poorly-kept domed shrines, mosques, and historic houses set in a working-class neighbourhood that is famous for its skilled labour but at the same time suffering from poor services, infrastructure, and neglected public spaces.
Yet the heritage sites had not lost their beauty and elegance, and the community was tightknit and united in its love of its shrines, a love manifested in the community’s care of its religious buildings and exuberant gatherings to celebrate mawlids or religious holidays around its shrines. We asked ourselves what we could do for the heritage of al-Khalifa to become a resource the community benefits from and takes care of.
After six months of workshops, community meetings, interviews, and focus group meetings, we identified three main lines of action:
- Heritage education for children and women in order to foster a sense of ownership of heritage at a young age and at the level of the entire family,
- Conserving heritage sites and adapting them for reuse for the benefit of the community
- Grounding heritage in the socio-economics of its urban context and linking its betterment to the improvement of quality of life and urban space.
Urban Conservation in Practice
Since 2013, Athar Lina, has worked along these lines in an integrated manner under the management of Megawra – Built Environment Collective. It has created links to the community and partnered with governmental entities, most notably the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and Cairo Governorate. It has also collaborated with a large network of professional and academic partners and volunteers. Almost everything we do includes a strong component of training, dissemination, and debate.
So far, Athar Lina has implemented the conservation of four mausolea dating from the 12th to the 14th century, is working on a fifth one, and is about to start work on conserving a sixth building to convert it into a craft and design centre. Since 2013, Athar Lina has also run a heritage summer school for al-Khalifa’s children aimed at reconnecting them to their heritage in fun and interactive ways.
Conservation Efforts That Can Be Felt
Athar Lina has also explored the potential of heritage as a source of livelihood, promoting al-Khalifa as a destination for tourism and exploring ways of marketing and developing its crafts. We have now linked our children’s programme with the heritage industries activities to establish Athar Lina’s Heritage Design Thinking School. This will aim at bringing all ages together in a network of makers and doers that explore the potential of heritage for tourism, craft, design, and culture-based activities that put food on the table for its residents.
Finally, our biggest challenge is to connect these activities in a manner that maximises impact and is felt and experienced in al-Khalifa’s streetscape. Since 2014, we have created and updated a GIS map of the entire neighbourhood that is used as a base for our current efforts to create an urban conservation and management plan for al-Khalifa.
Our survey and daily interaction with the street have also helped us identify services and infrastructure as the main obstacle to improvement of quality of life and urban fabric. We study waste management and rise of groundwater as two of the most pressing problems and are now focussing on groundwater, which is mostly the by-product of leaking supply pipes. Fumes rising from the pipes affect monuments and modern buildings alike, threatening heritage and health. We direct our efforts on the urban level in two directions:
Research and advocacy, aimed at understanding the problem, proposing solutions, and pushing the government to action.
Pilot interventions focussing on derelict open spaces used as dumps. We collaborate with Cairo Governorate and businesses to transform them into spaces for sport and recreation. So far, we have rehabilitated three such plots. We also link this to groundwater issues: We are studying methods to reuse the groundwater extracted in the course of dewatering heritage sites for irrigation and cleaning. We are currently working on converting a 3000 square metre plot into a park with a forested area, play areas, sports facilities for women, childcare, shops and cafeterias. The park will be irrigated with the dewatering of two 13th century domes currently inundated with water.
Challenges and Outlook
In all the work we do, we face the common challenges of limited funding as well as the need for capacity building and institutionalisation. We also face major challenges with planning: Much of the work we want to do is postponed or cancelled, and a lot of the work we end up doing, we do because we can, not because we planned to.
Yet this organic way of working sometimes constitutes the most exciting part of the job. And as much as our team is challenged by their fluid job descriptions and work plans, it is this fluidity that allows them to learn and grow in ways they did not think possible. By necessity, we make as much use as possible of our web of partners and collaborators. In doing so we pool resources and get more done for less.
But we also need to constantly negotiate and reconcile different – sometimes even conflicting – mandates and principles between us and our governmental, professional, and academic partners. Nothing is simple. Everything is complex. Residents are not a homogeneous mass, they have different demands and needs that are often in conflict with each other. We stick to our mandate and we constantly remind ourselves that our mission is to do our job well, not to be “do-gooders”.
Athar Lina’s stories are fluid, nuanced, and complex. Our most important message is that urbanists should rethink their understanding of heritage as something of the past, or as something that stands in the way of cities’ growth. Our experience has shown us that heritage is a shaping force in city culture, and can also be a seminal actor in cities’ socio-economic development.