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Multimedia: Saving Old Cairo Volume 55 Number 1, January/February 2002
by Mark Rose

[image] Medieval city walls on the boundary of Cairo's historic district are being restored. (Courtesy First Run/Icarus Films) [LARGER IMAGE]

Half a million people live in Cairo's historic district, with its nineteenth-century houses and medieval mosques and city walls. Ongoing restoration efforts in one of its neighborhoods, Darb al-Ahmar (the name means Red Road), are documented in Living with the Past, an hour-long film directed by Maysoon Pachachi and distributed by First Run/Icarus Films (www.frif.com). Monuments featured include the A.D. 1092 gateway Bab Zuwayla, the A.D. 1481 mosque of Emir Qijmas al-Ishaqi, the eleventh- twelfth century city walls of the sultan Saladin, and the A.D. 600 Church of the Virgin, but the film's focus is on people as much as on the restoration projects. Wandering through the streets, we hear from some Darb al-Ahmar residents who fear they may be displaced by the work ("If I had to leave, I'd be lost. It's my home.") and from others, like shoemaker Hisham Mahmoud, who has devoted himself to the repair and upkeep of the Qijmas al-Ishaqi Mosque. We also meet Egyptian and foreign specialists, like Polish engineer Agnieszka Dobrowolska, whose work at the Sabil-Kuttab of Tusun Pasha, a combination water cistern and school, is supported by the Dutch Government and the Ford Foundation.

The film does an excellent job of conveying the neighborhood's spirit and the dedication of those involved in the restoration there. Obviously, good people are doing good works with the backing of enlightened institutions, but it is not clear that there is any overall plan to meet the needs of the residents, preserve the buildings, and develop tourism (a goal stated in the film by Cairo's governor, Abdul Rahim Shahata). More information about this can be found at the website of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Founded by the Aga Khan, a hereditary leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, the trust became involved when its development of a park alongside the neighborhood exposed a stretch of medieval fortification walls. A five-part report (downloadable at www.akdn.org/agency/aktc_hcsp.html) provides much background on Darb al-Ahmar and issues facing restoration work there, complementing the film nicely. The film's rental fee, $75.00, places it beyond home use, and that is unfortunate.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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