Downtown Cairo battles to keep cosmopolitan heritage alive

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This picture taken on March 8, 2019 shows a view of a historic building in the Egyptian capital Cairo's downtown district. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
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This picture taken on March 8, 2019 shows a view of the central Talaat Harb square in the Egyptian capital Cairo's downtown district. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
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This picture taken on March 8, 2019 shows a view of the Said Halim Pasha Palace (1896-1899) in Champollion street in the Egyptian capital Cairo's downtown district. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
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This picture taken on March 8, 2019 shows the Baehler building, dating to 1929, in the Egyptian capital Cairo's downtown district. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
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This picture taken on March 8, 2019 shows a view of the Said Halim Pasha Palace (1896-1899) in Champollion street, in the capital Cairo central downtown district. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
Updated 02 April 2019
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Downtown Cairo battles to keep cosmopolitan heritage alive

  • A stroll through the district takes pedestrians past buildings that meld Islamic and European motifs, neo-classical columns and ornate decorations
  • In the heart of Cairo and bordering Tahrir Square, the district is commonly known as Khedivial Cairo after Khedive Ismail Pasha, an Ottoman ruler who governed Egypt in the mid-19th century

CAIRO: Cairo’s downtown, with its old European-designed buildings, is wrestling to preserve its cultural heritage as Egypt readies a new capital in the desert.
A stroll through the district takes pedestrians past buildings that meld Islamic and European motifs, neo-classical columns and ornate decorations.
But its elegance and prestige are fading, as the one-way streets and former palaces fall into ruin and shops selling cheap clothes and odds and ends have moved in.
“Some buildings are in a seriously dilapidated state,” said Ahmed El Bindari, an architectural historian and volunteer tour guide, in the middle of a group of tourists.
He enthusiastically recounts the history of the old buildings, some housing government ministries, and little passageways but complains of a lack of political will in heritage preservation.
Bindari and others fear for the future of the district’s old vacant buildings and worry that those in urgent need of repair will fall victim to a drive for urban renewal.
In the heart of Cairo and bordering Tahrir Square, the district is commonly known as Khedivial Cairo after Khedive Ismail Pasha, an Ottoman ruler who governed Egypt in the mid-19th century.
He is credited with transforming Cairo into a modern metropolis with European influences after being inspired on a trip to Paris.
Khedive Ismail ordered the building of the first opera house in the Middle East in 1869 to celebrate the inauguration of the strategic Suez Canal.
He also commissioned French architects to design geometric, tree-lined streets and downtown became the cultural hub of the city flourishing with cafes, cinemas and shops.
With its big avenues, facades and bronze statues recalling the French or Italian capitals, the district has also long hosted a lively literary cafe scene, as well as government ministry buildings.
Authorities have traditionally been careful to ensure the buildings retain their style, and many in the city of around 20 million residents are fond of the area.
Since the 1950s however, middle-class residents have progressively moved out of the area in favor of quieter, smarter and more modern suburbs.
The ministries and public authorities still there are due to move too, once the new administrative capital being built in the desert some 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the city center is ready.
“What will become of the many ministries such as agriculture, education and health housed in historic palaces and buildings?” Bindari asked.
He points to the gentrification of the so-called Maspero Triangle area hugging the banks of the River Nile which the government is redeveloping into a financial center, with luxurious shopping malls and hotels.
It has led to thousands of residents in informal housing being relocated to alternative accommodation.
“I’m afraid that under the banner of regeneration, entire urban areas... will be razed to the ground,” Bindari added.
But Riham Aram, director of the Historic Cairo Restoration Project, is more upbeat.
Since 2014, some 350 buildings have already been restored under an initiative for Khedivial Cairo, she said.
“We’ve repainted entire buildings and restored decorations using similar material to what was originally used during construction,” she said.
“We must maintain this historic district so it doesn’t turn into slums in the future,” she warned.
And she said that ways to reuse 18 government buildings in central Cairo would be examined.
The private sector has also become involved in efforts to preserve the downtown area.
In 2008, a group of businessmen from local construction firm Ismailia Consortium set up an arm of the company to restore city center cultural heritage.
“We found that the best way to conserve downtown Cairo is that there needs to be economic returns,” said managing director Karim el-Shafei.
“A lot of the apartments are empty. They can be renovated and rented out or sold bringing in profits because they are being used productively,” he added.
The firm has bought 32 downtown buildings as well as the historic Cinema Radio located on Talaat Harb street.
But it faces several bureaucratic hurdles even for routine procedures such as opening a new cafe.
Shafei is also keen to draw tourists to the center and to shop for locally made brands.
But it is not all about investing just to make money, when it comes to restoring important sites, some experts note.
“Along with the focus on the new capital, we hope that interest is not lost in the conservation of Cairo’s cultural heritage,” said Soheir Hawas, a Cairo University professor, who authored a volume on the area’s architecture.
Hawas, also a member of the National Urban Harmony Committee, wants to see government buildings turned into museums and cultural centers.
“These are important pages in Egypt’s long and continuous architectural record and must be preserved,” she argued.


Lefaucheux revolver ‘Van Gogh killed himself with’ up for auction

Updated 17 June 2019
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Lefaucheux revolver ‘Van Gogh killed himself with’ up for auction

  • Van Gogh experts believe that he shot himself with the gun near the village of Auvers-sur-Oise north of Paris
  • The seven-millimeter Lefaucheux revolver is expected to fetch up to $67,000

PARIS: The revolver with which Vincent van Gogh is believed to have shot himself is to go under the hammer Wednesday at a Paris auction house.
Billed as “the most famous weapon in the history of art,” the seven mm Lefaucheux revolver is expected to fetch up to $67,000 (€60,000).
Van Gogh experts believe that he shot himself with the revolver near the village of Auvers-sur-Oise north of Paris, where he spent the last few months of his life in 1890.
Discovered by a farmer in 1965 in the same field where the troubled Dutch painter is thought to have fatally wounded himself, the gun has already been exhibited at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
While Art Auction, who are selling the gun, say there is no way of being absolutely certain that it is the fatal weapon, tests showed it had been in the ground for 75 years, which would fit.
The Dutch artist had borrowed the gun from the owner of the inn in the village where he was staying.
He died 36 hours later after staggering wounded back to the auberge in the dark.
It was not his first dramatic act of self-harm. Two years earlier in 1888, he cut off his ear before offering it to a woman in a brothel in Arles in the south of France.
While most art historians agree that Van Gogh killed himself, that assumption has been questioned in recent years, with some researchers claiming that the fatal shot may have been fired accidentally by two local boys playing with the weapon in the field.
That theory won fresh support from a new biopic of the artist starring Willem Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate.”
Its director, the renowned American painter Julian Schnabel, said that Van Gogh had painted 75 canvasses in his 80 days at Auvers-sur-Oise and was unlikely to be suicidal.
The legendary French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere — who co-wrote the script with Schnabel — insisted that there “is absolutely no proof he killed himself.
“Do I believe that Van Gogh killed himself? Absolutely not!” he declared when the film was premiered at the Venice film festival last September.
He said Van Gogh painted some of his best work in his final days, including his “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” the local doctor who later tried to save his life.
It set a world record when it sold for $82.5 million in 1990.
The bullet Dr. Gachet extracted from Van Gogh’s chest was the same caliber as the one used by the Lefaucheux revolver.
“Van Gogh was working constantly. Every day he made a new work. He was not at all sad,” Carriere argued.
In the film the gun goes off after the two young boys, who were brothers, got into a struggle with the bohemian stranger.
Auction Art said that the farmer who found the gun in 1965 gave it to the owners of the inn at Auvers-sur-Oise, whose family are now selling it.
“Technical tests on the weapon have shown the weapon was used and indicate that it stayed in the ground for a period that would coincide with 1890,” it said.
“All these clues give credence to the theory that this is the weapon used in the suicide.”
That did not exclude, the auction house added, that the gun could also have been hidden or abandoned by the two young brothers in the field.
The auction comes as crowds are flocking to an immersive Van Gogh exhibition in the French capital which allows “the audience to enter his landscapes” through projections on the gallery’s walls, ceilings and floors.
“Van Gogh, Starry Night” runs at the Atelier des Lumieres in the east of the city until December.