Weekly spotlight on state culture: Ministry to renovate Citadel area
Courtesy: Citadel photo from Shutterstock
 

A major rehabilitation plan for Cairo’s Citadel and the surrounding area has been announced by the Ministry of Antiquities.

An international bid for development proposals will be launched soon, Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim explained in a phone interview with the privately-owned television channel CBC on Tuesday. A technical committee in the ministry has been formed to draft the conditions and frameworks for bidders.

The medieval hilltop site in central Cairo includes 25 buildings, four mosques, seven museums, nine gates, four historical defensive walls and 19 defensive towers.

Construction on the Citadel started under Ayyubid ruler Saladin in 1176, and it expanded under the rule of various dynasties until Mohamed Ali Pasha came to power in 1805. Under his rule, the Citadel underwent major construction work. Mohamed Ali built a mosque in his name, walls, and a number of palaces, military and government buildings. It continued to be the seat of government until the 1960s. The British army occupied the citadel from 1882 until 1946, followed by the Egyptian military.

It was only in 1980 that the site was handed over to the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The renovations are part of a comprehensive action plan being drawn up by the ministry to renovate archeological sites facing urban encroachment nationwide. It also aims to help revive the tourism sector, which generates 11 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), according to the State Information Service website. Tourism revenues have dropped significantly since January 2011 due to security concerns and the halting of several restoration projects across Egypt.

As a major attraction for both local and international tourists, the Citadel has long been a key revenue generator. Still, the high number of visitors and renovation work needed to accommodate them has affected the buildings — parts of which still host military and government staff.

In the phone interview, Ibrahim acknowledged the site’s deterioration over the past three decades, but said it is now a priority on the ministry’s list. The plan will also extend to parts of the surrounding neighborhood, which includes many buildings of historical and architectural significance.

Many countries have offered to partially support the project financially. UNESCO is also expected to provide technical assistance and support in organizing international fundraising campaigns.

Once the Citadel plan gets off the ground, other districts are expected to follow suit, such as Gabanet al-Mamalik, which includes numerous Islamic monuments and heritage sites that are quickly deteriorating.

It will be a long process, said Ibrahim, explaining that given the resources available, as well as political and economic developments, progress will come one step at a time.

Ibrahim also discussed the National Democratic Party buildings overlooking Tahrir Square. The three buildings have been abandoned and shut down since they were set ablaze and looted on January 28, 2011. Ibrahim said that the two smaller buildings are on the verge of collapsing, and that the Cabinet has approved their demolition.

Several proposals have surfaced over the past three years, ranging from demolishing the buildings altogether to simply changing their function. Some wanted to replace the complex with a public garden, while others sought to turn them into a luxury hotel, since they have panoramic views of the Egyptian Museum and Tahrir Square from one side, and the Nile on the other.

The main building, which was home to the ruling party of former President Hosni Mubarak, cannot be torn down as it was designed by prominent Egyptian architect Mahmoud Riad, and has thus been registered as “historically significant.” Riad, a prolific modernist architect who served at the Ministry of Public Works and Cairo municipality in the mid-20th century, also designed the nearby Misr Insurance Company buildings and Arab League headquarters.

The minister said the main building was severely damaged by the fire and requires LE65 million for structural renovations, and at least another LE150 million to be rehabilitated for reuse. Ibrahim objected to the idea of turning it into a hotel because the edifice was designed as an office building, he said, and even more importantly because it borders the Egyptian Museum grounds.

“This would pose great risks to the museum,” Ibrahim asserted, explaining that a hotel would use the back area by the museum for warehousing activities.

The Antiquities Ministry’s vision is to return ownership of the land to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo if the building is declared unsafe for use. This is part of a multimillion dollar renovation plan the ministry had put together and announced in November to renovate the museum building and grounds. The plan envisioned turning the land into a garden area after digging two stories down to accommodate the museum’s massive collection. It also includes a redesign of the permanent exhibitions and upgrading the museum’s security system.

This plan is slowly materializing, but the ministry is waiting for the Cabinet’s decision on the future of the NDP building to embark on the second phase.

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