By Peter Schwartzstein
for National Geographic
PUBLISHED APRIL 18, 2014
On a blustery February morning, residents of Alexandria's Wabour el Maya district woke to the din of bulldozers and power drills tearing into the decorative brick portico of the historic Villa Aghion.
Within hours, much of the celebrated modernist mansion was in ruins; one of the great relics of the Mediterranean city's cosmopolitan heyday had been toppled to make way for an apartment tower.
The villa's owner, Mohammed Hosni Hamed, was unmoved by howls of outrage from conservationists.
"If it were illegal, we wouldn't have done it [in plain sight] during the daytime," he told the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper.
Egypt's cultural heritage has emerged as a key casualty of its fast-growing population's demand for housing.
The Pyramids at Giza were once isolated in the open desert, but they're now surrounded on three sides by Cairo's encroaching sprawl and an illegal cemetery.
Nearby mango plantations have been ripped up to make way for new buildings, according to local landowners, while the lesser known Layer Pyramid, which is also known as the Ahram Medawar, has disappeared into the urban morass.
Little appears safe from the consequences of an unremitting demand for land.
Two years ago, a group of French archaeologists went away for an extended summer break, and returned to find that eager developers had built upon their excavations of Cairo's earliest Islamic settlement in the ancient Fustat quarter.
Alexandria designer Mohammed Aboelkhier, a co-founder of the Save Alex cultural campaign, has seen his city's population swell from about one million in the aftermath of World War II to roughly 4.6 million today. He concedes that "without new housing, you don't satisfy the people's needs.
"But some of this is just crazy," he says.
The Perils of Growth
There are many forces behind Egypt's apparent inability to safeguard its heritage, but population pressures, as well as the political and economic woes associated with poorly managed growth, have played a big role.
Egypt is now home to some 86 million people, an increase of more than 13 million since the 2006 census.
That's a huge spike for a country whose numbers totaled a little under 20 million in 1948. But the boom continues: Egypt's Institute of National Planning projects Egypt will hit 150 million people by 2050 if current trends endure.
Government officials recognize the perils of such untrammeled growth. "Egypt faces a widening gap between resource demand and domestic supply," said Nabil Fahmy, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in a lecture in early March.
But the last few years of revolution, election, chaos, and coup have emptied the treasury, left the country 8 percent behind its long-term economic projections and compromised the state's capacity to care for its treasures.
Illegal buildings sprang up across the country after the popular revolt against then President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, when police and regulators largely disappeared.
Frequent changes in government personnel since then—the most recent of which saw the resignation of the interim prime minister and the replacement of many top ministers in late February—have further imperiled Egypt's prize monuments by paralyzing key departments, including those responsible for reining in the country's birth rates.
"In the past, there was a lot of care for family planning and it was easy to meet people and level out obstacles," says Sofia Hanna of DKT International, which provides subsidized contraception. "But it's more difficult at the moment, because everyone's afraid to make decisions."
Hanna's organization is currently grappling with the Ministry of Health to overcome a long delay in registering new contraceptive products.
Now, with popular frustrations intensifying and state services stretched far beyond capacity, effective family planning practices may be needed more than ever.
Egypt added 1.7 million people in 2010 and 1.8 million in 2011; its increase of 1.9 million people in 2012 was equal to the rise in population in France, Spain, and Italy combined.
Measures taken to combat the disorder that accompanied the military's overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last July are expected to help push those numbers higher still.
"Every day, I see more babies. My friends at other hospitals and clinics say the same thing," says Salima, a doctor at a Cairo hospital who declined to give her surname. She added that her overstretched ward was reeling from additional work.
"The [dusk-to-dawn] curfew should have a definite effect on fertility rates this year, just as it did after the revolution in 2011," says Iris Boutros, a senior program specialist at the Cairo office of the International Development Research Center.
"People were stranded in their apartments for months. What else were they supposed to do?"
The Ministry of State for Antiquities is even more bogged down than most in this mire of post-revolutionary politics.
Its payroll has climbed from 30,000 to 40,000 employees since 2011, when Mubarak's minister allegedly promoted 7,000 part-time workers to full-time status in what appeared to be an attempt to appease angry workers during the throes of the revolution. (A ministry spokesperson could not be reached for comment; an assistant in the press office insisted the ministry was "understaffed.")
Yet despite the large numbers of personnel on the books, security at key sites is lacking.
One day in January at the Giza Pyramids, two locals were wandering the far reaches of the necropolis wielding bags packed with what looked suspiciously like tools.
One of them, a youngish man who gave his name as Mohammed, smiled coyly when asked if he was digging for treasures.
"I'm not, but you couldn't blame people if they were," he answered, before ducking behind a small ridge and out of sight of the army detachment perched on the edge of the plateau.
Giza's famed monuments are swamped with security, compared to Egypt's less accessible sites.
The few guards to patrol Abydos, one of the great pharaonic settlements, are paid for by New York University, while the more distant reaches of Luxor's tomb- and temple-laden valleys appear to have been largely abandoned to treasure hunters.
Recently, on April 10, two small lion-head sculptures were stolen from the Luxor Temple enclosure.
Visitors there have complained of lax security in the past.
"It's bizarre that something that size was left hanging around," says Nigel Hetherington, a Cairo-based archaeologist. "Something that portable is supposed to be secured."
Living Among the Dead
Greater Cairo ranges across several governorates, so its population is hard to pin down, but around 20 million people is a good estimate.
Many residents live among centuries-old tombs in a vast cemetery called the City of the Dead.
With historical sites everywhere in the old city, any attempt to improve services can have unforeseen consequences.
An effort to connect the cramped and crowded neighborhood of Darb al-Ahmar to the city water supply, for instance, went badly wrong when officials hooked up main thoroughfares but refused to run pipes into the narrow alleyways where 80 percent of locals live.
Spurned residents paid the police small bribes to look the other way as they laid their own pipe and haphazardly hooked their apartment buildings to the mains.
The inexpert work, coupled with high levels of leakage elsewhere, raised groundwater levels and seriously damaged the foundations of dozens of Ottoman-era buildings.
Resident Sara Madbouly is unapologetic: "We needed water, and if the government couldn't provide for us, we knew we had to do it."
Some developers and landlords apply this flexible attitude to their interpretation of construction regulations.
Between 1992 and 2013, collapsing buildings in Egypt killed 1,566 people and injured more than 28,000, according to the Shadow Ministry of Housing, an environmental activist group. In 2012-2013 alone, 468 buildings collapsed.
Not all of the fallen buildings were shoddy new construction. One was a palace of Muhammad Ali, the 19th-century founder of modern Egypt.
City land values have risen so fast in the face of elevated demand from population growth that developers can make big profits by knocking down historically significant mansions and building tall tower blocks.
"Developers have to build higher to recoup their investment," says David Sims, an economist and authority on Cairo's urban plan.
Villa Aghion was the most recent of Alexandria's landmarks to topple, but with 36 buildings struck from the historic registry over the past few years, and another 90 pending court approval for destruction by developers, it won't be the last.
"The whole building environment is deteriorating, because there's just no vision," says Aboelkhier of the Save Alex campaign.
First settled by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., Alexandria has been particularly plagued by accidents resulting from sloppy work. This past March, a cement wall bordering a row of businesses collapsed and killed six people.
The Islamist Effect
Swaths of Alexandria, including parts thought to have the highest birth rates, boast strong Islamist support, and some secular residents have been quick to blame religious conservatives for recent spikes in population growth.
They're not entirely wrong.
A decline in effective family planning practices took hold in the dying years of Mubarak's 30-year dictatorship, and family planning deteriorated further under Morsi, a leader of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi's divisive year-long rule and ostensibly Islamist agenda provided a fertile environment for ultraconservative allies from the Salafist movement—those who aim to emulate the customs and beliefs of an early era of Islam—to espouse their views.
Many Islamists see current demographic trends as politically beneficial, and oppose measures that might restrict soaring growth—particularly in their strongholds in rural Upper Egypt, where birth rates are estimated at around 4.5 children per woman.
"Our big population is the source of Egypt's strength," said popular Islamist politician Hazem Salah Abu Ismail in 2011.
Although Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning, judged contraception permissible as far back as 1953, some Egyptians insist family planning casts doubt on God's capacity to care for his creation.
Conspiracy-minded Islamists suspect there's more than altruism fueling international interest in controlling population growth in the Middle East.
"Why would America care about our population? Because they're trying to reduce the number of Muslims," says Mohammed Mahmoud Saleh, one of the faithful attending prayers at Cairo's Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque recently. (The security services see the mosque as a hotbed of Morsi support, and policemen parked outside carefully eye its congregants as they stream out after Friday prayers.)
The Muslim Brotherhood's charitable networks, usually so assiduous in providing for their supporters' needs, declined to offer contraception in their now-shuttered health centers.
Terrorism and Turmoil
Power struggles in Egypt also left more immediate scars on the country's heritage.
Cairo's Museum of Islamic Art sustained significant damage in January, when an Islamist terror group opposed to Morsi's ouster detonated a car bomb outside a nearby security installation.
The damage to the collection "isn't as bad as we feared," cultural heritage expert Yasmine Dorghamy told National Geographic at the time, but "they're estimating that 20 to 30 percent of the artifacts will need restoration."
The pyramids have been unaffected by frequent clashes between police and Morsi supporters in the poor neighborhoods near the Giza plateau, but tales of unrest have deterred visitors.
Vital Tourist Dollars
Some Egyptians make the case that the country has more crucial concerns than its historical legacy. "People's living conditions matter much more," says Sara Madbouly in Darb al-Ahmar.
Yet it's Egypt's history that has attracted tourists, who have long helped bolster the economy—accounting for more than 11 percent of Egypt's gross domestic product (GDP) and about 12 to 14 percent of total employment.
Some cultural sites use ticket sales to fund the maintenance of their facilities, while most tourism employees depend on tips to supplement their meager salaries (civil servants moonlighting as taxi drivers are common in Cairo).
"I had to get out," says tour guide Hossam Ali Hassan. "I had no work after the revolution."
Hassan was lucky to have sufficient savings to open a restaurant catering to residents of the affluent Dokki district when the tourist economy slumped.
But most private-sector businesses, often strangled by red tape and corruption, are not well placed to boost hiring. And the government already employs 6.4 million people—out of a total workforce of 27 million—according to Egyptian government statistics.
Sadly, looting appears to offer an easy and increasingly tempting way to earn a living.
Mass of Trash
Other dangers—including those to the lone tourist attraction in one section of the desperately deprived Ezbet Khairallah district south of Cairo's downtown—can be tied directly to Egyptian government policy.
The 200-year-old barrack, marooned on a ridge high above the Nile, was built by Muhammad Ali to protect the Citadel's water supply from the river. Now local residents use it as place to burn garbage, and two corners of its imposing walls are charred and crumbling.
For decades, a group of Coptic Christians known as the Zabbaleen provided a cheap, efficient, and environmentally friendly garbage-collection service in the area: They fed organic waste to their pigs and sorted, crushed, and sold almost everything else.
But in 2009, Mubarak's political party ordered the culling of Egypt's entire pig herd. The government said it was acting to halt the spread of swine flu, but the Zabbaleen said it was appeasing the Muslim Brotherhood, who oppose the sale of pork.
"The impact is that you see garbage all over the streets of Cairo," says Suzie Greiss, a former parliamentarian and head of the Association for the Protection of the Environment, which campaigns for Zabbaleen rights. "There was a cycle, and when you remove or break that cycle, the system breaks down. The pigs played an important part."
Foreign firms hired to gather Cairo's waste in the Zabbaleen's stead have been a failure due to their unwillingness to collect garbage door-to-door. Many residents now deposit their refuse on street corners.
The Masalla section of Al Matariya district, which contains one of Egypt's few remaining freestanding obelisks, has become a dumping ground for bustling eastern Cairo districts, while inhabitants of the new neighborhoods at the foot of the pyramids have clogged the century-old irrigation canals with their trash.
It's a bleak picture, but not all the news is bad: The recent years of revolutionary fervor appear also to have energized the conservation movement.
Demonstrators have sometimes protected Egypt's heritage. During the chaos that accompanied Mubarak's overthrow, protesters in Cairo grouped together to protect the Egyptian Museum from looting after an initial break-in. Similar crowds surrounded and protected the Library of Alexandria.
In subsequent months, activists led several street-cleaning and garbage-collecting campaigns.
Last summer, the destruction of an Ottoman-era gate prompted an outcry across Cairo, with conservationists and bloggers calling for an inquiry into the demolition.
Much of historical and architectural value has been lost—and more will be—but not every developer is getting his way.
Fouad El Debakey has spent a lot of time plotting artful ways to demolish his colonial-era villa, which is listed on the historical register and is located in a leafy Cairo district just steps from the Nile.
"I want to build an apartment tower here," the medical supplies importer says wistfully, gazing out of a window at nearby high-rise buildings.
But so far he's been blocked by officials at every turn.
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