Living Histories or Lost Legacies?

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Tue, 22 Aug 2017 - 08:00 GMT

Wikala of Nafisa al-Bayda - Photo for Egypt Today by Yasmine Hassan

Wikala of Nafisa al-Bayda - Photo for Egypt Today by Yasmine Hassan

If you walk onto the historic Al-Muizz Street and take a turn to the south, away from the famous mosques and treasures we commonly visit, you will find yourself in El-Ghoreya, a narrow alley and crowded souk, crammed with small shops on both sides and almost always loud and bustling with people.

A little further on the left, a rounded luxurious façade attached to a grim and gloomy building that welcomes you with a garbage dump at the gate begs for attention. At the entrance, a fairly new banner announces Monument No. 358 in the Sabil-Kuttab of Nafisa al-Bayda complex. Attached to it is the Wikala of Nafisa al-Bayda, listed as monument No. 395. But the cracked walls and shattered doors, and the gloomy, rickety stairs that take you to a set of slum-like rented apartments do not seem to fit with the “usual” definition of a monument.

The Wikala of Nafisa al-Bayda, known as Wikalet El Shamaa (Candles Caravanserai), is an Ottoman building dating back to 1796 AD. Cairenes have been coming to the heritage caravanserai since the Middle Ages to buy candles for birth and wedding celebrations. Foreign merchants would store their goods and spend a night or two in the inn, located near the southern walls of the old Fatimid City. The sabil (public water fountain) and kuttab (Qur’anic school for children) were built by Lady Nafisa next to the Wikala, the sabil at street level and the kuttab on the upper floor, was financed by the revenue of the Wikala.

Today, the conditions of the heritage hostel are saddening to say the least. No longer serving its original function, the Wikala is used mainly for workshops and local housing, and it has fallen into disrepair.

Among the ministries of antiquities, awqaf (endowments), culture and education, there seems to be a wide range of conflicting responsibilities and overlapping authorities, in the midst of which lots of our legacy is getting lost. Our attempt to find out which jurisdiction the Wikala falls under or whose responsibility it is to maintain the registered monument was met with a series of closed doors. The Ministry of State for Antiquities says it is the Ministry of Awqaf’s property and the Awqaf argues that, as a registered monument, it falls under Antiquities. As for the residents and merchants occupying the heritage building, they say they have rented the property from the government, legally and officially.

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Photo for Egypt Today by Yasmine Hassan


Falling between the cracks

The Wikala, like a significant part of our cultural heritage, exemplifies a dual responsibility between the Ministry of Awqaf and the Ministry of Antiquities.
Nafisa al-Bayda, a very wealthy Muslim woman, endowed the building in the 18th century as a waqf (endowment designated to generate income for good deeds); however, the façade of the building was later registered as a monument, entailing responsibility on the part of the Ministry of Antiquities.

Today, the monument/waqf supposedly falls under the authority and responsibility of both entities, becoming a living example of the dilemma of who is in charge of what; and, in this unfortunate case, who is to blame for the degradation of a valuable piece of history.
The way the awqaf have been managed, the entities in charge of these properties and the relation between the Ministry of Awqaf and that of Antiquities have been in constant flux from the reign of Muhammed Ali in the 19th century until today. A turning point was the new antiquities law in 1951, which separated the “Comité de Conservation de Monuments” from the Ministry of Awqaf, and dropped any reference to the type of relation between the two entities or the properties they share responsibility for.
Since then, nothing legal seems to be governing the relationship between Awqaf and Antiquities, according to a 2014 study conducted by Dina Bakhoum, a specialist in cultural heritage conservation and management. She explains that one building can be managed by the Ministry of Awqaf, the Awqaf Authority and the Ministry of Antiquities—all at the same time.

“The management of such sites is a very complex process and there are numerous interest groups involved in it,” Bakhoum says. “The responsibilities of each body need to be set clear, especially when it comes to conservation and maintenance, and more importantly, who is designated to pay for these activities.”

The antiquities law stipulates that the “Ministry of Awqaf, Egyptian Awqaf Authority and Coptic Awqaf Authority shall bear the costs of restoration and maintenance of registered archaeological and historic properties” under their jurisdiction. According to the provisions of Law 44/1962, the Awqaf Authority is to retain 15 percent of the revenue generated by the charitable endowment, such as rent, and spend it on the maintenance and management of the waqf.

The agreement sounds lucrative—until you found out that one room on the roof of the Wikala costs a mere 35 piasters a month.

As for the Ministry of Antiquities, Bakhoum explains, it is responsible for the supervision and oversight of the monument. The fate of the Awqaf monument is therefore a joint liability between the supervisor and the funder.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario, where the Antiquities Ministry prepares a bill of quantities and sends it to Awqaf, urging it to restore that very unique monument that is in a deplorable state. The Awqaf, which will bear the costs, replies and says the bill is too expensive or unpersuasive. Letters keep going back and forth until the monument decays or collapses; and each entity finds its way out by blaming the other.

The Wikala is just a case in point—our monuments and heritage are divided among the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Antiquities, the Ministry of Awqaf, the Ministry of Education and Technical Training and the Egyptian army. None of these has full authority over heritage assets and the law has, as shown above, disregarded establishing any guidelines to regulate this hodgepodge of authorities and responsibilities, not to mention conflicting interests.

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Photo for Egypt Today by Yasmine Hassan

Divided authorities, divided blame

To address the management-funding issue of Awqaf-owned antiquities, a decree was issued in 2012 to form a committee of representatives from the two ministries to coordinate the process.

In her study, titled Awqaf Properties Maintenance and Management, Bakhoum cites an Awqaf Authority official reporting that the ministries had signed a memorandum of understanding, dividing the funding burden of their shared properties. According to the agreement, the Awqaf reportedly agreed to pay for structural restorations, while the Ministry of Antiquities would be responsible for the studies of the projects and the conservation. Egypt Today was unable to confirm whether the memorandum was put in action.

The Heritage Preservation General Administration in Cairo Governorate has also recently assumed a limited role of supervision and coordination among the different entities responsible for monuments and heritage sites in the governorate. Founded in 2013, the administration has become the only executive authority in charge of the urban surroundings of the monuments and all kinds of heritage buildings in Cairo. In addition to executing its independent projects, the administration has assumed a monitoring and supervisory role over all heritage sites.

As part of a revitalization project in Cairo’s Darb Al Ahmar district in 2016, the administration signed a protocol with Awqaf concerning the Wikala of Manasterli, which has been turned into a heritage boutique hotel, Riham Arram, general manager of the administration, tells Egypt Today. The project, which Arram explains “has been funded entirely by the governorate,” also includes developing the streets of the neighborhood and the surroundings of the monuments, and working on the buildings from inside and outside to achieve adequate urban rehabilitation.

Yet the scope of the administration’s authority in terms of registered antiquities is limited to removing any infringement on the monument and urban rehabilitation of the surrounding neighborhood, while neglected or abused monuments still fall under the Ministry of Antiquities, Arram explains. As for Awqaf properties, any interference from the administration has to be preceded by a protocol between the two entities.

Living histories or lost legacies?

Back on Al-Muizz, and having established the story behind the “Antiquities” banner hung on the door of a desolate Awqaf building, we take a step inside.
The ground floor of the Wikala consists of a number of shoemakers and wax workshops and a small supermarket upfront. Somewhere in the dark courtyard inside, rows of barrels line what seems like an abandoned storage area.

The dark, shaky staircase to the roof leads to a small corridor with dozens of doors on the side. Beyond the beautiful view of one of the minarets of Old Cairo, the yard of this heritage roof has been turned into a garbage dump. Two doors to the left of the shared bathroom lives a man in his 50s who says he has been renting his apartment since the 1980s.

“The most expensive apartment here costs 35 piasters a month,” he tells us, explaining that some of the apartments have one room, others have three, and some have rooms and a small corridor. “There is no water or natural gas and almost no rent,” he says. “But if you asked me to move out, you would be harming me because I will have to pay for all of this.”

By law, these residents have the right to keep their properties, as long as they pay the 35 piaster rent to the Ministry of Awqaf, who is then tasked with using this revenue for maintenance, management and technical work expenses.

While to many the idea of residential and workshop rentals using and abusing a piece of our heritage seems perplexing, experts and activists agree that the concept in itself is not totally wrong. The problem rather lies in the implementation and awareness. “Part of the culture and heritage is using the heritage itself,” Mariam Dawood, a researcher at RISE AUC and a volunteer at several heritage conservation initiatives, explains. “If the heritage keeps its main function, this is very successful.”

“Sustainability means having these buildings remain in function for a ‘socially useful purpose,’ as stated in the Venice Charter (1964), because this is what will save them for future generations,” Bakhoum says. “If you stop the use, you stop the benefit.” She adds that evacuating the buildings and sites from their local users and communities and transforming them to solely touristic attractions is unacceptable and contradicts with the sustainable development goals set by UNESCO.

According to culture and archeology activist Sally Soliman, “clearing out the buildings would actually be the biggest mistake. . . . We have to look at the monument as part of the social structure in the locality and respect the functions it was originally built for,” Soliman says, stressing that there is nothing wrong with keeping the Wikala as a commercial and residential property “if it is made sure that it fits with the conditions of the 21st century, in a way that preserves the safety of the people and the monument. We must see if the type of workshops in the Wikala is safe, install modern alarm systems, and ensure the safety of the building because it has become a monument; however, evacuating it is not called for.”

Although this is “what should be done,” Soliman points out that there are no policies or ideas being put forth to preserve the building nor use its functions in a way that generates revenue to be spent on its maintenance or restoration.

Sustainable solutions

Wikalas by nature are at the center of this controversy. Unlike mosques, castles or citadels for example, the main function of the wikala is residential and/or commercial. Since experts agree that fencing the heritage and turning it into a museum is not always a sustainable solution, only two available options remain: one is what, in antiquities terms, would be called adaptive reuse, and the other is incremental awareness.

Adaptive reuse means adapting a historic building for a contemporary use in a way that it remains beneficial in terms of current needs, without endangering its heritage value. An example of this approach is Wikalet El-Ghouri in Cairo’s busy Al Azhar area. After being restored in 2005, the Wikala has been turned into an arts center, operating under the Ministry of Culture and the Cultural Development Fund (CDF). It hosts a number of cultural events, such as the bi-weekly El Tannoura dance performance, and its rooms are currently being rented as studios for artists.

While the experience has been deemed successful, as it revives the cultural and historic value of the building while ensuring its maintenance and adequate usage, evacuating all wikalas and implementing the same adaptive approach is hardly an option. The other possibly sustainable, but quite long-term, solution is community awareness. Bakhoum explains that heritage sites carry diverse values and meanings for different interest groups and that understanding of this complex matrix of values and respecting them all is crucial for safeguarding the heritage and the spirit of these sites. “Working with the different interest groups and stakeholders is a very long, but necessary process.”
One independent initiative that is built entirely on this concept is AtharLina (Monuments Are Ours). The main idea of the project has been that “heritage is a resource and should be seen as such,” says Project Coordinator and Chairman of the holding NGO Megawra May El-Ebrashy.

“If they have a sense of ownership that derives from a sense of benefit, people will take care of the heritage,” el-Ebrashy says. “For the people to hold the government responsible and help it take care of the properties, they have to feel that they derive benefit from heritage.”

AtharLina was first launched in June 2012 with a participatory design workshop focusing on the neighborhood of Al-Khalifa in Old Cairo. Exploring the relationship between heritage and community, El-Ebrashy explains it has come up with three conclusions: Conservation of heritage buildings should come with benefit for the community, awareness and education has to start with children, and whatever work done has to be done with an understanding of the socioeconomic conditions and be contextualized within improving the quality of life.

“There shall be a smarter use of heritage, so that it becomes beneficial and becomes a resource, in a very pragmatic matter,” El-Ebrashy says.

Focusing on Al-Khalifa neighborhood, AtharLina has restored four domes, launched a free school for kids in the summer where heritage education is mandatory, and worked on upgrading open spaces and infrastructure. It also holds an annual “spend a day in Khalifa” event, hosting guided tours and cultural performances to raise the profile of the neighborhood.

About the Wikala and the best way to preserve it, El-Ebrashy believes, “part of the value is related to use and function in history. People should use it; it is a wikala and it is meant to be used for trade. However, there should be some sort of monitoring to ensure that it is not misused,” she adds.

Several other initiatives, either international or grassroots projects, are also contributing to the efforts of preservation and conservation of the local cultural heritage. Among them, the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) has been remarkably active in supporting scholarship, training and conservation efforts in Cairo and Luxor. ARCE carried out the architectural conservation project of the Wikala in the late 1990s, with funding from USAID. It restored the street front and the gateway to the courtyard, which are the only parts of the property registered as historical monuments, while the rest of the building is still only listed as Awqaf.

Apart from non-governmental initiatives, Cairo’s Heritage Preservation General Administration is also playing a role in developing and rehabilitating heritage sites and neighborhoods, “as part of the state plan is to take care of heritage sites and revive them,” Arram explains.

“We want to restore the monument without affecting the interest of the citizens,” she adds, pointing out that the administration focuses on reviving and reusing heritage and that the inhabited sites are the biggest challenge.

As Bakhoum puts it, “If you have a diamond in your hand, and you were not taught the difference between the diamond and a piece of glass, you might think it is glass and throw it away. The same applies to heritage; if we are not taught to appreciate its values we would also not protect it or appreciate its significance.”

Historically, both the government and the Egyptian public have been dedicating attention and funds to the “polished diamonds” that are immortalized in our sizeable monuments and famous touristic venues. Sadly, we have been overlooking hundreds, if not thousands, of priceless heritage sites that capture the story of who we are and where we come from. et

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