Integrated Urban Conservation for Older  City Districts,

 a Case From Historic Cairo


Ahmed M.Salah Ouf, Ph.D.



Older City districts in the developing world had been suffering neglect and loss of their original vitality to modern city districts since the turn of the twentieth century as they could not adapt to the forces of industrialization and infrastructure modernization.   However, the era of globalization during the last decades of the last century are promising such older city districts a new life because of the global trend for heritage conservation and the possibilities of  accommodating non-polutive acctivities within their physical settings.


Cairo’s older urban structure is a good exampl of such previous neglect and deterioration that is beginning to give way to a much hoped for revitalization depending on tourism attracted to conserved urban heritage and their attraction of non-pollutive activities.


This research paper presents an on-going research effort funded by Cairo University  in Al-Khalifa district to the south of historic Cairo as an example of a long-neglected historic district in need of a good study for the possibilities of its revitalization.  The research reports on the physical charecteristics of the targeted district, its economic activities, the needs of tourism, availability of developable land, and the possibilities for creating an integrated urban conservation strategy for its revitalization.


1- Introduction,  Cairo the growing capital

Cairo is one of the few continuously-inhabited capitals of any nation  that has 1035 years of architectural and urban heritage since its inauguration by the Fatimid Khalifate in the year 969.  The city was much contained within its original defensive walls of the twelfth  century up to the nineteenth century.   Cairo suffered the threat of abolishing its local urban character by adopting alien urban standards twice in its modern history, first was Ismail Pasha’s 1867 transformation of Egypt’s capital into a “piece of Europe” and second was the adoption of global business standards during the second half of the twentieth century[1].


However, the city never lost its drive for keeping its identity resulting in a dual urban structure that had a European-styled CBD next to Cairo’s original CBD.  Both urban forms -- despite the resulting duality -- were learning to co-exist side-by-side as they started to have specialized urban functions attracted to each part of the city.  The forces of modernization during the second half of the Twentieth Century complicated the matter even more as both existing centers of the city were not suitable for modern economic activities.  Cairo's current CBD sprung on the fringes of the Nineteenth centry CBD as a continuation of its activites that could not modernize within its Baroque-styled buildings still keeping the city's dual structure which kept its original CBD for manual crafts, wholesale actvities and retail goods for the lower-income population groups in absolute low urban standards[2].  The loss of Cairo’s traditional urban identity was viewed as “normal” in order to provide the business community with acceptable workspace standards.  Furthermore, the older core of the city was surrounded by modern transportatoin lines that helped connect it to the rest of the growing urban context without ever penetrating its thick urban mass except in al-Azhar street which halfed the historic city[3].  It became easier for economic activities to locate in the inexpensive buildings of the traditional city core and still operate within the city's modern economic structure leading to even more deterioration of the urban quality of the area.


By the mid twentieth century, Cairo's original CBD was hosting a meriad of economic activities that could not compete in its modern CBD.  The older city districs were continuouosly loosing its population to other parts of the city because of its deteroirating urban mass and the inability of its people to maintain it economically because of the rent-control laws of the 1960s.  For example, the older cor of Cairo lost 8.6% of its population between 1966 and 1976 while the city xpanded only by 3%[4].   Combined with a neglect of the city's urban heritage becase of the country's tight political and economic conditions, the original CBD of Cairo deteriorated even more.


Urban planning interventions of the 1950s and 1970's were unable to improve the traditional core's urban structur as neglect of the area's heritage and the local people's inability to maintain it posed real threats.  The 1990s onward concern for conserving Cairo's urban and architectural heritage was a long waited intervention to improve the Capital City's urban structure that was transformed by then into a modern multi-nuclie structure to replace the traditional concentric structure.



2- Impact of globalization on older city districts


The forces of Globalization had been evolving strongly during the last decades of the twentieth century in the fields of economy, commerce, and politics to the extent that the world is effectively becoming a "small village.”  globalization pressures on world cities during the last decades of the twentieth century affected both their content (land use distribution, transportation system, and quality of urban life) and appearance (urban mass, urban character, and architecture).  Less developed world cities were converging into a universal urban image, image of the more developed cities, as a consequence of globalization.  The universal urban image was expected in the modern urban districts and CBDs of our evolving cities while older city districts did not have the same consequences of globalization at the same intensity.  Older city districts were expected to play the role of their cities' cultural CBDs to balance their real economic CBDs.  Consequently, the expected impacts of globalization differ from one urban context to another based on its level of integration into the newly evolving global system and its internal structure.


Shift of the global economies towards more services and less manufacturing resulted in lost industrial jobs in most of the major world cities.  Cities as London lost half of its industrial employment, Philadelphia about 60%, and Bilbao over 50% resulting in empty industrial buildings and derelict areas.  However, in Asian cities like Singapore, industry did not collapse but was pushed to the outskirts of the city. (Baugard and Haila, in Marcus, p.25).   Available data from Cairo suggests that small and medium scale industries in older city districts did not have to move as their production cannot be classified as "industrial" but rather "craftwork" that did not benefit from the advanced technologies nor the mobility of world capital.   Skilled labor capable of performing such crafts found it even more suiting to their housing needs to stay in the dilapidated residential quarters of the city that were deserted by the upward movement of the original population.  Moreover, the lack of technically advanced processes was another good reason to keep their little scale manufacturing businesses in place since they do not make much of a threat to the residential environment.  In addition, being in dilapidated residential quarters did not raise much rejection voices against their existence, Small and Medium Scale manufacturing enterprises (S&MEs) were able to escape dislocation and loss of function so far.  A criteria of globalization noted by Marcus and Kempen (p.258-259) with some skepticism whether it is going to: grow and/or turn into something “new?”.  Their argument about the benefits to large as opposed to small scale enterprises is clearly valid for the case of Cairo  to the extent that some “new” trends for S&MEs developmen in central city locations of Cairo should be viewed as plausible.  This concentration of S&MEs in older city districts is expected to intensify even further as a result of the “trickle up” of the benefits of growth in favor of the middle class and the rich (Todaro, P.158) as was peviously experienced by most Less Developed Countries.


Urbanists need to believe in the postive role of S&MEs as “small is still beautiful” (Using the terms of Schumacher, 1973) if well integrated into the local community without causing pollution or lower urban qualities.  Better local productivity needs to be related to improved education, better training, and better management and not necessarily to improved technology nor operation size (Todaro, p.239).  Within the growing context of more globalization in Cairo, where local S&MEs are loosing grounds to large and globally linked enterprises, older city districts are exposed to further dilapidation of their economic vitality.  Recognizing that the process of globalization is real but the limits of its effects are unclear in different cities (Marcus & Kempen, p.262), the type of the expected “new” trends for S&MEs development is also unclear.  


Older city districts are increasingly becoming the object of both attention and investment mainly because of the benefits expected from tourism that is targeting their architectural and urban heritage .  Acquiring the status of tourist locations, should not mean that  older city districts be emptied of their S&ME functions or sterilized off their social activities for the sake of intensified architectural experience or a safer environment for the tourists.  The traditional “whole” urban experience (rich interactions and multi-faceted) of such older city districts needs to be kept “intact”, including the functioning of their S&MEs.  Urban regeneration of older city districts that is powered by their S&MEs could easily improve the social profile of its population, upgrade the economic role of S&MEs in its community, and conserve their urban heritage.  In addition, such an innovative approach for urban regeneration is capable of achieving functional and urban continuity.

The contrast of old and new, the accumulated concentration of the most significant elements…. Will in time produce a landscape whose depth no one period can equal…” (Lynch, 1972, p.57)



The process of Globalization is offering older city districts an opportunity to house clean high-tech activities such as computer programming, data entry, and software development which do not need massive physical alteration of the already existing urban structure (Mitchell, p.155).   In addition, the accommodation of high-tech small and medium scale enterprises within older city districts reduce air-pollution levels and lower their consumption of energy as they substitute telecommunication in place of surface transportation (Mitchell, p.148- Roger, p.37).  Even if such high-tech enterprises would not be attracted to the older city districts, city administrators need to think of ways to reduce the intensity of surface transportation in order to encourage the utilization of the readily available inexpensive telecommunication tools to improve the physical settings of such districts (Hall, 1991, p.960).  Such successful reduction of the intensity of surface transportation could reduce air-pollution, improve urban safety, and enhance the working conditions of both local crafts and any newly located non-polutive activities.  Older districts' regeneration would need to avoid dislocating local S&MEs and disrubting their social networks.


3- Global tourism and urban conservaion in Cairo.

Cairo have witnessed relentless efforts to revive the city's urban heritage with increased intensity after Cairo's 1992 earthquake as continued neglect of the urban heritage might end with loosing the city's urban heritage all together[5].  Being a source of local identity and a concern of the international community because of its being on the World Heritage list (WHL) since 1979[6], Cairo's older city districts proved to be in dire need of protection and conservation.  An interest that started at 1799’s Napoleon's campaign to Egypt with varied attitudes and depending on the persons in charge and their purpose for urban heritage conservation.  The main organized state effort was that of "the committee" that started at 1882 to look after Cairo's Islamic urban heritage with an eye on local pride while satisfying the international interest of keeping the "oriental" urban image.  First few decades of the committee's work were responsible for keeping most of Cairo's urban heritage that would have been otherwise lost forever.  However, the committee's work itself was responsible for demolishing part of Cairo's urban heritage that it believed to be insignificant or even disturbing for the viewers' experience of the remaining conserved urban heritage.  For example, many of Cairo's Islamic monuments were separated from their surroundings by "gutting" them down to make such monuments easily seen and recognized when they stand-alone in their urban context.  An alien vision of urban heritage that adopted the formalistic appreciation of Islamic urban heritage without understanding that each of such conserved monuments lost much of their meanings and symbolism by severing them from their direct contexts.  In addition, backwardness of the local crafts within that urban context was seen as a source of pollution that should be removed instead of being kept as a component of the direct environment of the recognized monuments.  As a consequence, Islamic monuments were singled out for conservation while their direct contexts and communities were alienated and emptied of their economic resources as irrelevant and insignificant.  It was one of the formal steps of the conservation process designated by the committee (Sana’,  p.99-103).  


Urban conservation efforts in Egypt changed course considerably since then as the committee’s work gave way to an independent Ministry of Culture that contains specialized departments for taking care of the different types of archeological heritage of Egypt and the creation of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).  Unlike the committee’s responsibility towards Islamic monuments alone, the current departments of SCA specialize in Pharaonic, Greek-Roman, Coptic, 19th Century, and Islamic heritage.  Concepts for maintaining such a wide scope of heritage are varied depending on the type of heritage elements, its location, its context, and the objective of its conservation.  Islamic and Coptic urban heritage received a high priority for conservation since Cairo’s Earthquake of 1992 as the whole urban context of heritage areas was thought as valuable and worth keeping and not just the declared monuments.  However, the Ministry of Culture and its SCA’s efforts were mainly focused on the artifacts and heritage properties with little or no concern about the community, its social interactions, and economic vitality. Lately, other concerned public, private and international entities showed concern in the overall urban context, the community, and sustainability of their conservation efforts.  Whole areas of the older city districts were recently targeted for physical conservation and community upgrade as an expression of a foreseen change of attitude at the Ministry of Culture as the official guardian of Egyptian heritage.


In their search of a niche in a rapidly globalizing world, cities seek the creation of an amenity-oriented community capable of hosting global business while keeping their local urban character (Ouf, p.48).  Within that understanding, urban heritage of older city districts is not a “sentimental oasis” away from normal life activities but rather their cities’ tool for acquiring a comparative edge.  As a result, urban conservation of older city is increasingly not considered conflicting with the possibility of allocating new land uses and modern activities (Ouf, p.60). 


4- The study case: al-Khalifa district

The study case of the currntly on-going research effort funded by Cairo University is focused on one of Cairo’s oldest districts that is characterized by deteriorated urban tissue, neglected Islamic monuments, and low technology S&MEs.  Al-Khalifa district is located outside “Islamic Cairo” that was listed on the World Heritage List at 1979, so that it did not receive any of the conservation interest directed to the walled city.  It lies at the footsteps of Cairo’s great Citadel to the East, Islamic Cairo (declared WHL site) at its North, Sayedah Zainab district to its West and Cairo’s Aqueduct to its South. 


the district is currently suffering the consequences of "neglect" in the cyclical changes that are synonymous to all historic areas in modern cities according to Lynch's terms (Lynch, 88, p.30).  The district lies on the most southern tip of old Cairo's main casaba of al-Mo'ez street and houses five of the city's main mosques: Sayedah Nafiesah, Sayedah Zainab, Sayedah Aishah, Sayedah Ruqaya, and Sayedah Sakiena.  The urban context evolved over the years to engulf late Ayubid, Memluki, Ottoman, and Nineteenth Century and Twentieth Century architecture.  An overall urban mixture that represents the authentic historic look of Egyptian urbanization since its people embraced Islam.[7]


Figure -1-  Map of the Study area


The researched area is shown on the accompanying map, it contains 60 declared monuments covering all periods of the city’s history which extend over one thousand and thirty three (1033) years.  It also includes numerous other significant architectural buildings in need of protection as components of the community’s collective memory but are not declared monuments.  Cultural diversity of the area in itself makes it a potential tourist attraction for those who seek architectural and urban heritage.  The traditional living community of al-Khalifa district including its S&MEs became in its totality a tourist attraction.  A concept that was adopted by the Ministry of Tourism at 2001 as it commissioned a team of consultants to study the details of one of the area’s main streets to turn it into a six-hour tourist destination (Ouf, 2002).  The project was never fully developed to involve much community development efforts and was focused on the physical aspects of the al-Khalifa street’s urban regeneration.  In addition, it was not implemented because of the lack of proper funding as it did not involve any communal economic activities and was not capable of attracting investors to sponsor the project’s physical regeneration. 


4- a    S&MEs in al-Khalifa district

The district’s urban context reflects the older city districts’ richness in crafts especially those dealing with leather, brass, wood, and marble where skilled craftsmen receive their on-the-job training through a traditional system of apprenticeship.  Distribution of such crafts over the study area shows a clear tendency for economic clustering as marble crafts line the street facing the citadel, brass and metal crafts are on the southern part of al-Khalifa street, and wood crafts on the internal winding streets of the area.  Numbers of the area workshops are not completely accounted for since the current project funding allows only for the documentation of the area’s physical features and analysis of the existing building development legislation.  Area’s workshops are dealt with cautiously by both the local and central authorities as S&MEs are generally directed to relocate to fringe city locations in newly developed industrial areas as they are seen as sources of pollution, undesirable traffic, and discomfort within their original residential neighborhoods.  The concept of stand-alone S&MEs incubators of the 1970’s and 1980’s is still convincing to most city officials, as they do not believe that integrated locations provide S&MEs with better operating conditions as long as they do not pose a health hazard.  However, S&MEs still manage to keep their traditional locations inside older city districts because of the jobs provided to the local residents, their positive impact on local property values, and their provision of desirable community services.  Al-Khalifa district might be a good ground for urban regeneration without loosing its social vitality and economic vigor based on active S&MEs in different light industries.  



Figure –2-  Preliminary distribution

of crafts in al-Khalifa district



4- b    Building laws and regulations.

The area’s building laws and regulations were thoroughly documented and studied in order to understand the dynamics of local urban developments and their impacts on its remaining urban heritage.  Early investigation showed that there is unorchestrated body of special building regulations tailored to keep the area’s urban heritage in addition to street regulations that were aimed to improve vehicular traffic around the area.   Street regulations go back to the 1950’s and 1960’s when the area was targeted for “modernization” by opening up new arteries within the urban mass, even if it cuts through monuments.  The concept as might be seen on the map was to create 20 to 40 meter wide vehicular arteries, not by bulldozing down existing buildings but rather by waiting till they are targeted for re-development or demolished to make way for the setbacks.  The proposed street plan was partially implemented on al-Khalifa street as some of the buildings were developed to be six stories high in-return for setting back to the designated new street layout (Cairo Governrate, 2003).  After more than forty years, “new” street layout is still enforced by law while the hope for its full achievements is clearly slim as it cuts through important buildings and does not consider the complete alteration of Cairo’s traffic over the years.







New street layout

Figure –3-

New street layout in the area (Green spots resemble monuments)



The area's 1980 building legislation requires the documents and drawings of any new building to be reviewed by the Supreme Council of Antiquities inspectors.  New buildings should not be higher than any urban heritage building in their close proximity nor do they utilize improper finishing material nor does the new elevations impact negatively on the surrounding urban tissue.   Such building regulations even control the location and size of street advertisements so that they might be “designed according to the area’s heritage forms” as the regulation states (Cairo Governrate, 2003).  The use of stone facing on any of the street buildings was also controlled by the same building code so that “it does not confuse the viewers’ of the heritage buildings”.   A clear shift of attitude towards the older city district as its urban setting is better respected and even protected against vehicular traffic that was the main focus of earlier urban control measures.  Those measures were not also fully applied on the area’s new developments as might be shown on the accompanying street elevations as none of regulations and proposed street layout considered the economies of new building developments in the area.  They were advised depending on “sentimental” considerations of urban heritage beauty and values while the earlier set of street set-backs were advised with complete negligence of the area’s sentimental value.


Figure –4- al-Khalifa street elevations



5- Integrated urban conservation in al-Khalifa district

Recent research efforts on the process of globalization concluded that older city districts contain some of the nine soft locations that are likely to change because of the process of globalization.  Central city residential locations, centrally located manufacturing areas, central city tourist sites, and historic structures are some of such soft locations (Marcus & Kepmen, p.257).  The mere understanding that globalization might impact some layers of the city more than it does to others expresses an important impact of the process of globalization in itself.  The city should be seen as a multi-layered structure where each layer shows the differences of usage, level of development, type of urbanization, …etc. in different city parts (Marcus & Kepmen, p.266).   Thence, it is necessary to accept that each of the global processes impact a specific part of the city more than it does to others creating a landscape of a multi-nuclei structure as the most plausible image for the future globalizing city. 


The presented research effort is taking the stand that integrated urban conservation efforts that is not limited to physical heritage conservation but rather involves the regeneration of community economic and social activities is better suited to older urban districts of Cairo.   The research is almost midway in its progress and is expected to document size location and ownership of the districts vacant lots and developable land as an asset for the proposed development scheme.  It is expected to end with specific set of building regulations and development codes for the area that respect its heritage context, tolerate its existing S&MEs, and encourage the accommodation of high-tech S&MEs within its urban fabric.



1.               Abdel-Maksod, Sana’, Ways for Restoring and Conserving Islamic Monuments during the period 1881-1953, unpublished Master Thesis, Cairo: Ain Shams University, 1999.

2.               Cairo Governrate, Legislation and regulation for building developemnt in al-Khalifa district, 2003

3.               Hall, Peter, and others, Cities of the 21st Century: New Technologies and Spatial Systems, N.Y. Longman Cheshire, 1991

4.               Ouf, Ahmed, Community development projects in older city districts: user participation mechanisms in Egypt”, International Development and Planning Review (IDPR) (formerly Third World Planning Review), August 2002.

5.               ---, ---, Authenticity and the Sense of Place in Urban Design, Journal of Urban Design, Volume 6, #1, pp. 83-95, UK- Abingdon: Carfax Publishing, Feb. 2001

6.               ---, ---,  Urban Design in Heritage areas: a case from Cairo, Proceedings to the First International Urban Design Meeting “Urban Design: Process of Globalization and Local Specifities”, Mimar Sinan University, Istanbul, Turkey, 2001, pp. 125-140.

7.       ---, ---, Urban Conservation Concepts for the New Millennium in the United Arab Emirates, Abu-Dhabi: Zayed Center for Heritage and Culture, 2000.

8.               ---, ---, Priorities in selecting restoration sites: an urban-conscious approach", pp.91-98, in Jere L. Bacharach (edit.) The Restoration and Conservation of Islamic Monuments in Egypt, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1995.

9.               Peter Marcus and Ronald van Kempen edits., Globalizing Cities, UK:Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2000.

10.              Mitchell, William, e-topia, MIT press, 2000.

11.              Rogers R. and Philip G., Cities for a small planet, Westview Press, 1997.

12.              Sassen, Saskia edit.,  Global Networks Linked Cities, UK: Routledge, 2002.

13.              Research paper for Sharjah Sixth Urban Planning Symposium, April 2003

14.              Schumacher E. F., Small is Beautiful; economics as if people mattered, Harper Colphon books,1973

15.              Todaro, Michael P., Economic Development in the Third World, N.Y.: Longman Inc., 1985

16.              Abu-Lughod, Janet, Cairo 1001 Years of the City Victorious, Priceton University Press, 1971.

17.              Khalifa and Mohieddin, Cairo,  in Dogan and Kasarda, The Metropolis Era V.2, Mega Cities, Sage  Publications, 1988, pp.235-267


[1] Ouf 2001, p. 126

[2] Abu-Lughd, 1971, pp. 188-192 

[3] Abu-Lughod, 1971, pp.133-135

[4] Khalifa, 1988,  p.256

[5] An international conference on the restoration and rehabilitation of Cairo's Islamic monument was organized by the American research center in Cairo (ARCE) and the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO) and sponsored by the Getty Conservation Institute, and the American University in Cairo (AUC), June 12-15, 1993 marks intensified national and international interest in conserving the local urban character of Cairo during the 1990s.


[7]  Ouf 2002, p.**