Themes & Working Groups II: Adapting History

Hebatuallah Zein Hendawy, Maja Mijatovic, Mariam Waheed, Mohamed El Azzazy, Pia Lorenz, Thomas Kohlwein

After we had been concerned with collective spaces and the question how people from different backgrounds and nationalities interact in collective public spaces in Hamburg, we were now asking one main question in Cairo: ‘What memories and stories do they share about this certain place?’
We originally wanted to pursue a similar idea in Cairo, although it is a completely different place. We thought of choosing a single place – “The Bimaristan Muaayid Sheikh” – and trying to account for the different memories people share about this place across different eras that form the overall collective memory about it. So we had two concepts in mind with our two projects ‘Collective Spaces’ and ‘Collective Memory’. It was all about collectivities and shared perceptions that take place across time and space.

Muaayid Sheikh (Hospital)

The Bimaristan was built by Sultan Muaayid Sheikh between 1418 and 1420; it was the second public hospital built in Cairo after that of Qualawun (1248). It is noted for its monumental scale, unprecedented in a civic building, which is clearly inspired by the nearby free-standing grandiose Madrasa (School) of Sultan Hassan and also for its portal, which is set in a pishtaq, a feature which give the façade a Persian character.
After Muaayid’s death, the Bimaristan was neglected and abandoned on the pretext that there was no provision for its maintenance from the endowment trust. The patients had to leave as the property turned into a house for the ambassadors from the eastern kings. Later it became a brothel and yet later a garbage place. In the year 1894, the Arab monuments preservation committee visited the place and prepared a report stating its monument status that deserved care. While the front of the building was restored, the property itself remained neglected.
Ali Pasha Mubarak mentions the Bimaristan in his encyclopedia (El Khetat), which contradicts the previously related claims that the Bimaristan was ignored and bereft of its function. It appears that the reason for this lie is to be found in people’s hatred of El Muaayid who poisoned his son (El Saremy Ibrahim) because he didn’t want him to inherit the throne after his death, but then regretted it so much that he himself died of sadness for his son.
Muaayid Sheikh El Mahmoudy came to Egypt when he was 12 years old. He was offered for money to the princess who however didn’t buy him because the merchant wanted a high price. As he had beautiful features and was calm in nature, he was bought by Khawaja Mahmoud Shah El Bazdary, the merchant of the Mamluks, and because it was a deal between merchants, the price El Khawaja paid wasn’t very high, so that El Khawaja gave him as a gift to prince Barquo q before he became a sultan. His name El Mahmoudy remained as Mamluks were named according to their masters.

The figure-ground plan shows the high density of buildings around the Bimaristan. The area offers a great potential for public use for the neighbourhood, partly due to its high density

Sultan Al-Muayyad Hospital

Commissioned by the Mamluk Sultan Al Muayyad Sheikh Al Mahmoudi (1412-21), the Bimaristan, or Sultan al Muayyad Hospital, was founded in 1418 as Cairo’s main infirmary. Al Muayyad was a usurper of the Mamluk Sultan Faraj (1399-1412) who while imprisoned by his predecessor, had vowed to replace what had been a gruesome prison by a place for Islamic prayer, study and charitable work. The Bimaristan Complex included a mosque, three minarets, two mausoleums and a madrasa (Islamic college). Sultan al Muayyad was extravagant to the point of expropriating elements of earlier Islamic charitable foundations when lavish materials were not available otherwise. Among his ‘borrowings’ were large marble plaques from old houses in Alexandria and towers from Bab Zuvayle, which were used as minaret bases. The two-story structure was divided into male and female sectors with a timber-roofed middle hall and four iwans (vaulted open chambers) with pointed arches. A scripture describes it as comprising 25 chambers and four secluded rooms for special patients, a pharmacy, library and small mosque. Near the entrance was a sabil (drinking fountain), a school for orphans and a third smaller mosque. The hospital fell into disuse after the Sultan’s death.
Today, the hospital’s upper floor is missing, a result of neglect, but the main façade stands as a ruined monument to the wonderful proportions and ornamentation of the Mamluk period. Structural stabilisation, documentation and stone conservation are needed to preserve the building.

  • The Bimaristan was used for praying. There were two places where people prayed: a bigger spot within the building and a smaller one next to the historical structure

  • Before the Bimaristan was restored and still enabled people to enter it, it was used by children as a football ground. There were two place where children played: a larger one located inside the built structure, and a smaller one in front of the building with easier access to it. This is where now the construction site’s entrance is located.

  • Currently, some people live on top of the northern part of the monument. In the past years, people have moved to the ruin and started to build on top of the historical structure. Although they have lived there for generations and identify strongly with the area, they will have to leave due to restoration work.


Future Scenarios

In order to get a better idea of the future use(s) of the monument and to show potential consequences for the neighbourhood, we created two scenarios on the basis of different approaches. The scenarios were thought out to illustrate two possible, if radical ways of dealing with current heritage issues.
The first scenario shows the current dealing with heritage as increasingly institutionalised respectively addressing tourists more than neighbours and locals. The second scenario turns around this perspective and assumes the residents’ own perspective. This latter intervention is not as stark, but may have a strong impact. It all depends on the respective actors.

Scenario #1 Touristic Conservation Approach

The Ministry of Antiquities currently plans to create a touristic route through the historic neighbourhood of Al Darb Al Ahmar. This will involve the restoration of the local monument as well as regeneration of the streets. The residents are initially convinced that restoration of the heritage site and building includes the upgrading of their residential buildings along the streets. Yet there is no information on official plans that confirm this.
There are already two suggestions as to how the Bimaristan could be reused. One suggests that the Bimaristan could be transformed into an event hall for cultural events for tourists. Many residents could not afford the entry fees should this option get the go ahead, and the Bimaristan would become an exclusive place for tourists and well-off Cairenes. The other suggestion is to maintain the heritage site and add a platform for panoramic views of the Citadel and El Sultan Hassan And El Refaie Mosque. This would involve the demolition of existing residential buildings within the neighbourhood and subsequent displacement of the residents who currently live there.
This scenario and its possible developments raises several questions: what will happen to the local economies? Will the area transform into one that only caters to tourists? What happens to people who may not be welcome in the area anymore? What will happen to the residents who are displaced?

Scenario #2 Telling the history of the Bimaristan

Another approach would start by informing the local residents about the building’s history. Most of them may not know much about it and thus not value the building or its heritage. This approach would include, for instance, a cooperation with local artists and the participation of as many local residents as possible. They could draw the history as it is told (most residents are illiterate). The drawings, possibly a comic, could be put on the walls next to the Bimaristan, so that people would get a chance to learn about its role in the past. There would also be blank wallpaper onto which people could draw or write their ideas and suggestions for potential uses of the heritage building and site. A next step is to analyse the gathered information: what kinds of ideas have the residents voiced and expressed? What can be done on the basis of their ideas? This approach must accept an open end in order to enable ideas to emerge and develop.


The exposure of the historical and current situations as well as urban transformations are important aspects of a city’s development discourse. Especially in cities in which history is ubiquitously present, as in Cairo, however, residents’ needs and activities within their neighbourhoods need to be equally taken into account.
What we recognised through our case study is that almost no attention is given to current dynamics between and among residents and their practices and activities beyond the built environment. While there is the will to include and involve residents, processes of transformation and (re)development are often undertaken without real knowledge of what is important at a particular moment in a particular area. People try, for example, to inform others about their current projects by offering workshops or support, but information is communicated in complicated ways. Due to the fact that most of the inhabitants of Al Darb Al Ahmar are illiterate, written information is not likely to inform them. Another difficulty are the costs that participatory and inclusive events incur – costs that the people from the neighbourhood cannot afford. As a consequence, the inclusive and participatory events are successful and attended – but by people who visit the neighbourhood rather than by those who live there.
We have also found that the institutional side involved in the transformation processes doesn’t care whether they are destroying family and neighbourhood structures that have existed for decades by displacing them. The families, however, don’t seem to protest against their treatment – they simply deal with it. Planners’ priority clearly lies with the expected outcomes of providing heritage on a tourist market. This results in a view over the city being regarded as more important than the preservation of dwelling space in a dense area.
While a simple comic would be a small intervention, it could still create a new awareness of and among the people in the neighbourhood. If shown at eye-level literally written on the wall, this approach of communicating problems, desires and needs takes local people serious without necessarily leading to a solution.
Our biggest concern is what will happen with those residents who have been living on the monument for decades. At the time of our research the engineers told us that they will have to remove the buildings so as to set the heritage monument free for renovation. What will happen to this small neighbourhood on top of the monument? At least ten households live there. The official procedure is to inform the respective residents that their buildings are going to be demolished. Yet contrary to this praxis, their dwelling space could be included in the restoration process. This would upgrade their living situation in the neighbourhood and still allow for the heritage’s potential to come to the fore: as a living structure.
At this point we agree that a closer examination of the local situation and its inhabitants is necessary in order to make a more precise suggestion. In any case, eye-level communication with the local residents will open up opportunities of transforming the neighbourhood without radical destruction of existing structures.