Bayn al-Qasrayn, refurbished


“The Minister of Culture sees heritage tourism as ‘the ultimate panacea for the
Islamic monuments in Cairo.’ Others see the government’s plan not as preserving
that heritage for Egypt and the world, but of selling it to tourists and of turning
medieval Cairo into a sanitized tourist district featuring inauthentic but atmospheric
monuments deprived of their living character. The Minister of Culture’s vision of this
area as an open-air museum and an important tourist destination is one that calls for a
delicate and sensitive balance between the forces of preservation and those of renewal.
When tourism, rather than history, becomes the prime motive in restoring
buildings restraint is negated and authenticity goes out the window.”

This is Caroline Williams’s harsh assessment of the Ministry of Culture’s Historic Cairo Restoration Project, in the Middle East Journal (2002). They didn’t line Sharia al-Mui’zz with trees (yet). And the buildings do glow at night — right across from the unvisited shops selling yet more shishas. As an architect working in preservation told me in a recent conversation, about the government’s “rehabilitation” on Sharia al-Mui’zz, particularly the northern section near al-Hakim, which was once home to bustling lemon and onion markets: “The entire street is a shisha market! The entire medieval Cairo of our times is a shish market!”

The two photos show Bayn al-Qasrayn, or “between the two palaces”, the central, ceremonial plaza of Fatimid Cairo on Sharia al-Mui’zz lil-Din Allah, so named because it sat between the eastern and western palaces built by the Fatimid caliphs. Well-crafted woodwork on display in the Museum of Islamic Art are all that remain of these palaces, but the name has stayed. The Mamelukes asserted their power and architectural might here, in complex of Sultan Qalawun (built in just 13 months in 1284-1285!) and the Madrasa-Khanqah of Sultan Barquq.

“By the end of the month Al-Muizz will have regained its mediaeval allure,” Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly in 2008. “”Workers whose small enterprises adversely affect the monuments will be transferred elsewhere unless they change their activities.” The Mameluks definitely illuminated their monumental architectural with sunken floor lighting, and surrounded themselves with water pipes.

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