Cairo, Egypt – Anyone who’s lived or been through the Egyptian capital will tell you there are two Cairos – one dotted with architectural marvels, the other plagued by telltale signs of urban decay.
With its history extending through thousands of years, Cairo has a wealth of architectural styles, ranging from elaborate Islamic themes to ornate European motifs. In recent decades, however, the city’s planners have not only turned it into a concrete jungle of eyesore cement buildings, but have also neglected or actively destroyed its historic constructions.
Many sad examples exist, but one that artists particularly gripe about is the dismantling of the once-iconic Aboul Ela Bridge.
Inaugurated in 1912 under Ottoman royalty, it belonged to that “Paris on the Nile” period that witnessed the heydays of Downtown Cairo – a different time during which journalists were invited to a champagne breakfast buffet to celebrate the bridge’s opening.
“Any self-respecting city would never touch any of its structures that are older than 100 years. It was an essential part of the city’s character that was meant to immortalise the era it was built in.“
– Tarek Maamoun, museums official
Made of intricate steel beams, people mistakenly thought it was the creation of Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, who designed the famous Parisian tower. It was indeed built by the French, but was actually designed by Chicago’s William Donald Scherzer, who invented the rolling lift bridge mechanism.
The bridge served as a crossing from Zamalek – where the rich and powerful live – to the working class neighbourhood of Boulaq Aboul Ela. Linking two different lifestyles, the romantic connection was not lost on filmmakers, who chronicled this in several black-and-white movies.
The head of Egypt’s national museums, Tarek Maamoun, reminisces about how Aboul Ela Bridge was more than just a crossing. “It was a place for romance, the perfect leisurely walk for lovers,” Maamoun says.
It all abruptly came to an end in 1998, when officials decided the bridge could no longer take Cairo’s growing traffic. The steel parts were dismantled and the bridge was replaced by a non-decorative concrete crossing, in what Egyptian artists describe as a downright travesty.
“Any self-respecting city would never touch any of its structures that are older than 100 years,” says Maamoun. “It was an essential part of the city’s character that was meant to immortalise the era it was built in.”
Since it was removed, its steel parts have been stacked on top of each other and left on the banks of the Nile River, ironically stowed near a hideous modern-day bridge under minimal security. There have been concerns that some parts may have been stolen, but officials deny that.
For years, the ministry of culture squabbled with city officials and other branches of the government over what to do with the bridge’s remains. Should it serve as an open space for artists? Why not turn it into an income-generating investment? What’s a suitable location and how will it be placed in relation to the river?
In the end, the city approved a $60mn proposed plan to turn the bridge into a tourist attraction – a convention centre with bazaars, restaurants and shops – rebuilt parallel to the river across one of the city’s international hotels. The project was initially floated before the revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, and is now being revived again.
“It’s good for the economy, will generate quite some revenue, and will help attract tourists who would want to see this historic construction revived,” said Adel El Borolosy, chief engineer in charge of bridges and tunnels in the city authority.
But artists say the project is the furthest possible thing from the bridge’s original identity. The situation reflects the classic tug of war between art conservation and a culture of consumerism.
“This is absurd. To turn it from public property belonging to the people into some investment or convention centre has nothing to do with its role as a bridge,” says Maamoun. “It must serve as a crossing over the Nile. The value of this structure does not lie in its construction, but in the historic relation between it and the generations that interacted with it.”
The move, sadly, is not surprising in an ancient city where a three-story KFC and Pizza Hut franchise was built appallingly close to the legendary Giza Pyramids.
|A bridge crossing the Nile River on February 9, 2006 in central Cairo [Getty Images]|
After the revolution, multiple rounds of street violence have also left the city’s landscape in an even worse state. Emboldened by the absence of police, squatters and street vendors have aggressively spread to previously picturesque quarters, including another iconic crossing – the 1930 Qasr El Nil Bridge, whose famous large stone lion statues have been defaced with graffiti.
The balance between appreciating new-found freedoms after the revolution and conserving the city’s façade is not an easy one, particularly as the state of the economy pushes people to find new ways to make a living, irrespective of the impact of that on order and aesthetics.
It requires not only political will, which has been clearly absent, but also an appreciation of the importance of nurturing a healthy relationship between citizens and the space they live in.
Given the economic struggle and lingering political squabbles, some say it’s understandable that officials haven’t had time to pay attention to urban planning.
But if Cairenes keep losing the last few reminders of their city’s great history, what would they be left with? This, many say, is about more than the story of a building here or a bridge there – it’s the tale of a city, its lost heritage, and eroding identity.