'Blindsided by the beauty' : architects struggle to save Cairo's historic heart - GulfToday

'Blindsided by the beauty' : architects struggle to save Cairo's historic heart

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Alleyway and old buildings are seen in the Darb al-Labbana hillside neighbourhood in Cairo.

Alaa al-Habashi was looking for ingredients for a Ramadan feast when he stumbled on an Ottoman-era mansion being used as a slaughterhouse and butcher's shop in Cairo's historic Islamic district.

"I was blindsided by the beauty," the U.S.-trained architect said of the house which he first saw more than two decades ago.

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A young woman stands in front of an old wooden door by a historic house in Darb al-Ahmar neighbourhood.

Built of brick and stone, it has a large inner courtyard and a number of rooms with decorative painted wooden ceilings.

He struck up a friendship with the butcher, who owned the building, and received a call from him several years later saying a property developer wanted to buy it and tear it down.

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A child sits at the entrance of an Ottoman-era house in the historic Islamic district of Cairo.

"I'm not at all optimistic. I believe only 25% of the buildings will survive," said May al-Ibrashy, a restorer who has been working in historic Cairo for about 25 years.

Government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.

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A boy rides a scooter past an old house at an alleyway in Darb al-Labbana hillside neighbourhood.

The five-square-kilometre (about two-square-mile) historic quarter, which has one of the world's biggest collections of Islamic architecture, has been declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations' cultural agency UNESCO.

BUREAUCRATIC NIGHTMARE

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General view of buildings and historic mosques in an old neighbourhood of Cairo.

 Habashi's bureaucratic nightmare began when he applied for a permit to begin restoring the house soon after he bought it.

He said the government replied that the house was condemned as on the verge of collapse and that if he wanted to work at the site, he would have to demolish it and then rebuild it.

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Windows of an old house are seen in the Darb al-Labbana hillside neighbourhood in Cairo.

Habashi appealed to two state bodies: the Antiquities Authority, responsible for about 600 historic monuments, and the National Authority for Urban Harmony, tasked with preserving many other buildings.

Reuters