Statement on Cultural Heritage Losses in Cairo

Nov 28, 2023 by SAH News

Download the PDF Statement

The Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) joins with an international group of architectural historians, architects, preservationists, and others to express concern over the continuing damage to cultural heritage in Cairo. Efforts to alleviate overcrowding and transportation issues and modernize the infrastructure of Cairo, an ancient city that is now home to some 22 million people, has resulted in continuing damage to Fustat, the city’s oldest district. 

Modernization efforts include new gardens, parks, and extensive road and housing projects, all of which have led to the loss of large sections of ancient cemeteries at Al Qarafa, the UNESCO heritage site also known as the City of the Dead. As reported in the Washington Post and the New York Times, this transformation results from the construction of a series of roads and flyovers. Ironically, many of these improvements are intended to ease tourist access to other historic sites as a part of efforts to increase revenue for the state. Road construction in that district has resulted in the demolition of thousands of graves, some of which are over 1,000 years old. The district contains a diverse array of prominent Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish cultural heritage, including the remains of Queen Farida, the wife of Egypt’s last monarch, Farouk I. Queen Farida’s remains were disinterred and reinterred in the royal cemetery in Al Quarafa. 

To be clear, the impact of the construction extends beyond damaged or destroyed cultural heritage. Al Quarafa’s residents include some of Egypt’s poorest people, many of whom live amongst the ancient tombs. While heritage buildings are being demolished, historic neighborhoods and ancient cemeteries — including the 1,400-year-old City of the Dead — are being leveled. These demolitions not only threaten important sites of cultural heritage, but they have also resulted in the displacement of thousands of families who have lived there for generations. Landmark mausoleums are disappearing, too, and acres of gardens. A committee of Egyptian architects, planners, and preservationists presented a series of alternatives to the proposed project that reduced demolition by studying alternative routes for the proposed roads that avoided the historic cemeteries. These recommendations were not adopted. Cairo’s civil infrastructure has been in decline for decades, and the road network cannot service a rapidly expanding population. But congestion cannot be addressed by merely widening roads, nor will improved roads bring in more tourists, especially when the expansion comes at the cost of Cairo’s cultural heritage. 

As this project continues, SAH implores the government of Egypt to take its priceless cultural heritage into consideration, as the loss to Egypt’s patrimony—and to the world—will be irreparable. 

Bryan Clark Green, Ph.D., LEED AP BD+C
Preservation Officer and Chair, Society of Architectural Historians Heritage Conservation Committee 

Approved 20 October 2023 
Society of Architectural Historians
Heritage Conservation Committee 

Kenneth Breisch, Ph.D.; Anthony Cohn, AIA; Pushpita Eshika, Ph.D.; Yannick Etoundi; David Fixler, FAIA; Suha Hasan, Ph.D.; Priya Jain, AIA; Basak Kalfa; Patricia Morton, Ph.D.; Theodore H. Prudon, Ph.D., FAIA; Deborah Slaton; Ben Thomas, Ph.D.; Members, SAH Heritage Conservation Committee.