Al-Mu’izz li-Dîn Allah Street: Where the Past Meets Cairo’s Urban Expansion
When walking down Al-Mu’izz li-Dîn Allah Street in Fatimid Cairo, one observes some of the most ancient monuments and foundations of Cairo, thus becoming a witness to how the city has developed and extended beyond its original walls to a megapole of more than 20 million inhabitants today. Along the way one passes old neighborhoods with their people, markets such as the Khân al-Khalili or ones along Muski street, Al-Azhar and Al-Hussein mosque, and finally comes to a busy commercial axis that has become Al-Azhar street. The walk along Al-Mu’izz li-Dîn Allah Street is both a story of Cairo’s ever-present past and its restless urban expansion.
Al-Mu’izz li-Dîn Allah Street is part of what is known as Historic Cairo, a somewhat debatable delimited area and a World Heritage Site under UNESCO since 1979. Before receiving this recognition, the buildings and monuments in this area had either not received great attention from the government or had been included in urban plans without a clear agenda for preservation, protection, or rehabilitation. This has led to a patchwork of century-old run-down buildings, along with improvised or informal buildings leaning dangerously against one another, and remnants of demolished buildings in the backstreets.
Despite being a World Heritage Site, thus being under specific protective regulations, Historic Cairo, specifically along Al-Mu’izz street, has been the target of several projects. The latest proposal is to make Al-Muizz street an open-air museum , in an effort to restore Egypt’s main economic sector, tourism. With such huge potential, actions taken over the past years have resulted in the beautification of the street and its space, including adding a new gloss to the buildings. Yet none of these actions have taken into account the social component of what keeps this place alive. Valuable buildings and part of this space’s cultural heritage seem nevertheless to have been forgotten, for now at least, and doubts have been raised about whether renovation techniques are respecting the structure and other elements that give value to these monuments. If this area becomes an open-air museum, then any walker, whether a tourist or a local, wandering down the street from one end to the other – Bab al-Futuh to Bab Zuwayla – would only see what is put forth to be seen and would only witness a small representation of a valuable area that stretches beyond one street.
Moreover, the open-air museum project and others have mainly focused on the buildings, emphasizing the historical architecture of this area, thus creating an important gap between the people and this space. With the help of international organizations such as USAID, UNESCO and The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, local organizations such as Megawra and Al-Rab3, have engaged with the civilian population and merchants who give life to this street and surrounding neighborhoods. These people contribute to the place’s character in a daily and lively manner, through their work, skills and art crafts, and family stories and ties, as can be seen through Naguib Mahfouz’s novels for instance.
Any rehabilitation of the buildings along Al-Mu’izz and in Historic Cairo needs to take into account the daily dynamics of this popular neighborhood. The frequent dismissal of these issues raises questions about what is intended by preserving this area as a World Heritage Site and an open-air museum: does this space exist to be displayed and turned into a museum, and for whom? More importantly, whose interests do these projects serve? The relationship between tourists, merchants, and inhabitants has to be carefully considered, as the past can be shaped through various discourses, be it personal, national, or universal. Could one even say that the world heritage status this place has acquired means that we all have a common past, since it is universal?
When the past is being displayed and modeled through a certain discourse, it can alter a place’s identity, its surroundings and, slowly, affect the memories that have been created and perceived about Al-Mu’izz street’s past. This is where the link between the past, identity, and story of a place needs to be maintained along with its people and their dynamics and cultural foundations. The danger of any other path would be a growing disconnect between an official discourse and the reality within these neighborhoods.
Al-Muizz street has also become a place where inhabitants and passers-by now mingle together and re-appropriate the public space on their own, thus creating a place to be seen and socialize. To what extent and results this will lead to is yet to be seen, as projects have been interrupted and timidly started again, along with the changing social dynamics of this place and broader Cairo. When using the past by making it immobile and yet mobile enough to integrate within Cairo’s urban development plans, one must not forget about the multiple layers – social, economic, cultural – that actually shape and continue to bring life to Al-Mu’izz street and make it worthwhile to visit.
 See the book “The Great Street, Al-Mu’izz Li-Din Illah, Historic Cairo”, from the Egyptian government and a foreword by Farouk Hosni, former Minister of Culture for my details on the project.
Linda Peterhans was born and raised in Switzerland. Her interest in the Middle-East and North Africa (MENA) began when she started to study Arabic as an undergraduate student and then further developed when she spent a year in Jordan. Linda continued her academic path in anthropology and sociology while focusing on the MENA region. Her studies brought her to Cairo, Egypt where she began to work on her thesis. Struck by the beauty of the landscape and its complexities, Linda took a growing interest in urban studies and therefore combined it into her final master work. She is now focusing on incorporating urban studies into humanitarian affairs in the MENA region.