The neighbourhood of al-Darb al-Ahmar has a long history that spans almost 700 years. Having been located in close proximity to the citadel (the seat of power from the time of the Ayyubids until the 1860's) it was the center of Cairo's political, cultural and economic activity. Its streets and alleyways are (or were) littered with impressive monuments and historical buildings that are a testament to it's once vibrant past - structures built by the patrons, elite and governors of the city. When Khedive Ismail moved the seat of power to Abdeen Palace in the 1860's, the neighbourhood began to witness a steady decline. Although this decline rapidly accelerated in the last few decades, exacerbated by bad planning policies (or lack thereof) and a disregard to the area's heritage, historic character or tightly knit urban fabric, the antiquity of the place remained apparent. Behind the piles of rubbish and raw sewage, the derelict buildings and dilapidated monuments still expressed the area's strong historical character. A revitalization program was begun by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture at the beginning of 2000 and aimed at preserving the historic character of this extremely important part of Egypt's heritage. Mosques, a palace and Ottoman houses were restored, as were many turn-of-the-century residential buildings. The neighbourhood was being transformed.
|Old building in the neighbourhood|
|Part of an alley in Darb al-Ahmar with old buildings still preserved|
However, today, and for the last two years, a real catastrophe has unfolded. Taking advantage of the almost complete absence of authorities from the municipality and interior ministry (who also never carried out their jobs properly prior to the revolution), construction companies have begun tearing down 3-4 storey old houses and registered monuments, and replacing them with ugly 10 storey monstrosities. Most of these new residential buildings have been built along the eastern edge of the neighbourhood overlooking the Azhar Park. It is clear from the pattern of construction that the contractors' goal is to take advantage of the view of the park and consequently sell their new apartments blocks at exorbitant prices - an action motivated purely by greed. Ironically when first envisioned, one of the goals of the park, located at the edge of al-Darb al-Ahmar, was to conserve the neighbourhood's past and restore it's vitality. Today, the park has pushed contractor's to do the exact opposite. Authorities have on their part failed to take any form of action to counter these blatant violations. The only reaction noted so far is to fine contractors for exceeding the height limit allowed for a building (a fine contractors are more than willing to pay and which in turn keeps the authorities pockets full and happy).
|One of many examples of the horrible buildings overtaking the neighbourhood|
|One of the new constructions towers over an Ottoman Sabil Kuttab|
|The new apartment buildings leave no breathing space|
|A building still under constructions dwarfs the original houses of the area|
|Several new buildings spring up along this narrow alley|
|Less and less of the original houses and structures remain|
|All compete for view of the park|
|A new building next to one of the old houses restored by the project|
I walked through al-Darb al-Ahmar last week, a place I had worked in for almost 6 years, and found it unrecognizable. The small alleyways that were once lined with stone structures and turn-of-the-century buildings, now host towering apartment buildings that are glued to one another and which have succeeded in shutting off any light or air from reaching the street. What has happened and is continuing to happen in al-Darb al-Ahmar is by all means, a disaster. It is an attack on our history and our heritage - an attack that has unfortunately become all too common in Egypt today.