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The Ghost Buildings of Cairo

The Florida Mall in Cairo. Photo by Andrew A. Shenouda, via Wikimedia Commons.

In The Guardian, Oliver Wainwright reviews Mohamed Elshahed’s new guidebook of Cairo that offers a look into the city’s haphazard approach to architecture:

Looming above the affluent Zamalek neighbourhood in the centre of Cairo, the Forte Tower has stood as the tallest building in Egypt for the last 30 years – yet it remains unfinished and abandoned. A ring of faintly Islamic pointed-arch windows encircles the uppermost floor of the great cylindrical shaft, creating a forlorn crown on the skyline, like a host awaiting party guests that never arrived.

Begun in the 1970s, the 166-metre tall building was planned to house a glamorous 450-room hotel, with restaurants, shops and a nightclub. It was to be the first part of a ‘new Manhattan of Egypt’, a cluster of skyscrapers imagined by president Anwar Sadat to rise from Gezira Island in the middle of the Nile, signalling Cairo’s place on the world stage. Following Sadat’s assassination in 1981, the project hit the rocks. Under subsequent president, Hosni Mubarak, the developer faced battles for permits and licences, seeing the project mired in lawsuits that ultimately halted it. The towering carcass has been left empty ever since, a single showroom furnished with bedding, lamps and an old TV providing an eerie relic of the dream.

‘This building sums up the Egyptian way,’ says Mohamed Elshahed, author of a new architectural guidebook, Cairo Since 1900. ‘A developer gets direct permission from the president, then another president comes in with his own circle of businessmen who want a piece of the cake. The original investor says no. The project is abandoned. What kind of city is this, that allows the built environment to be shaped in such a way?’

The result of several years of digging through haphazard archives, Elshahed’s guidebook is an intriguing example of the form. It includes 226 buildings, some unfinished, some demolished, some never even built. Many appear to be unremarkable, everyday buildings, not the kind historians would necessarily regard as worthy of veneration. And that’s precisely the point. ‘The book is not only intended as a sample of Cairo as it is now, but a record of what once was, or could have been,’ says Elshahed, a curator and architectural historian who founded the Cairobserver blog. ‘So much of the city has been demolished before we’ve even discovered and documented it. It means that, despite the generations of development, Cairo is not a place where you can walk around and really feel history, or identify who did what when. It’s so muddled.’

Elshahed was motivated to compile the book after witnessing a new generation of Egyptian architects take what he saw as no apparent interest in the recent history of their own city. ‘Twentieth century architecture here is a huge blind spot,’ he says. ‘Students are learning things that are irrelevant and producing designs that might as well be in New Jersey.’ Coupled with this, he says, is the alarming increase in the pace of demolition. Egypt’s heritage laws require a building to be at least 100 years old before it can be considered for protected status, which has translated into a kind of deadline for owners to intentionally damage or demolish their buildings before they reach their centenary year.

In other news: Astronomers say they have captured an unexpected spark from a collision of two black holes. “If confirmed, the discovery would mark the first time that astronomers have captured light produced by the joining of the darkest objects in the universe.”

Nessie returns: “Challice told the Daily Record that he thought this creature was a catfish—a long-standing suggestion is that Victorians may have introduced this breed into the Loch. ‘In my opinion (and I’m no expert) I think it’s a large fish that got into the Loch from the sea,’ he told the paper. ‘As to what it is personally, I think it’s a cat fish or something like that but a big one. Someone suggested it may be sturgeon. It’s very large as the bit you can see must be at least 8-foot-long and who can tell what amount is below the surface. The water is very dark in Loch Ness so it’s hard to tell.’”

Brazil’s replica of the Temple of Solomon: “The Pentecostals of the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus have a mighty vision.”

A former Louvre curator has been arrested for antiquities trafficking in Paris: “French art police arrested five art experts this week as part of an investigation into the widespread trafficking of looted antiquities from the Near and the Middle East. According to a legal source, those arrested include a retired curator from the Musée du Louvre in Paris and an employee of the Pierre Bergé & Associés auction house. The same source says the case concerns ‘the sale of hundreds of pieces for tens of millions of euros’, which were allegedly looted from Egypt, Syria and Yemen as well as zones in Libya under Islamic State control. The criminal investigation into gang fraud, concealment of stolen goods, and money laundering was launched in 2018.”

Mark Leib on Yuval Noah Harari’s nihilism: “One of the greatest publishing successes of the last 10 years is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by the Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari. This attempt to sum up all of human history in a few hundred pages first appeared in Israel in 2011 and promptly became a bestseller. It has since been translated into almost 50 languages and has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. The English edition appeared in 2014 and rapidly reached the top of the New York Times charts. The Washington Post called it ‘important reading for serious-minded, self-reflective sapiens,’ Forbes recommended its ‘superb job of outlining our slow emergence, and eventual domination, of the planet,’ and London’s Guardian called it one of ‘the ten best brainy books of the decade.’ Following the publication, Harari became an intellectual superstar, showing up at the World Economic Forum at Davos (after Angela Merkel and before Emmanuel Macron), on YouTube, addressing Google and Instagram, and meeting with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter. According to a long New Yorker profile earlier this year, Harari, who has since published two other bestsellers, now works out of an office of 12 in Tel Aviv, where plans are afoot to publish a graphic novel of Sapiens, Sapiens children’s book, and ‘a multi-season “Sapiens”-inspired TV drama, covering sixty thousand years, with a script by the co-writer of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.’ It would seem that the world has found its favorite new historian. But for all its crisp and entertaining explanations of everything from the disappearance of the Neanderthals to the mixed accomplishments of global empires and the probable future of genetic engineering, Sapiens is a distinctly nihilist tract, rejecting every sort of theism, every claim that life has meaning, and every assertion of human rights. According to Harari, there’s nothing the least bit sacred about human life, the Declaration of Independence is in error about liberty and equality, and the word ‘nature’ itself—as in human nature—is meaningless. Insofar as Sapiens is a work of philosophy, it’s Nietzchean in its rejection of the most central human values, as well as in its suggestion that a superman—created by genetic or ‘inorganic’ engineering—may be on the way.”

Photo: Bangor Pier

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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