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Manicured Heritage: The Case of the American University in Cairo


American University Cairo, Egypt

The American University in Cairo (AUC) first opened its doors to students in Fall 1919 after Charles Watson, its president at the time, purchased the palace of Khairy pasha. Before housing AUC, the “palace” had housed Cairo University or what used to be called King Fuad[1]University before it moved to its current premises in Giza.

Over the years, the university expanded its territory by purchasing buildings that are close to the palace, or what came to be known as Main Campus. For example, the university bought the Greek school across the street and named it the Greek Campus. It also purchased the house of Ali Fahmy on Sheikh Rehan Street to house the Rare Books library. However, as the population of the university continued to expand, a decision was made to move the university out of its location in the heart of Cairo to a new campus outside Cairo proper. In 1997, the university purchased 200 acres of land in what we now call New Cairo or Tagamoa.

Those of us who were not part of the decision-making process nor were involved in the intricacies of constructing the “New Campus” maintained a state of ambivalence towards the whole project. In 2008, when the move was finally happening, many of us were in a state of disbelief. Even though there had been talk among the AUC community about the move to a new campus, some of us thought it was one of those conversations that end in sweet nothingness. A move could not be fathomed. To be in Cairo, as the university’s name denotes, implied to be in what we all recognized and perceived as Cairo. In Fall 2008, many of us wandered into New Cairo for the first time in our lives.

And while we were all busy settling into our new offices, learning where our classrooms are and dealing with electricity and internet cuts, the downtown neighborhood that the university had occupied for almost 90 years was suddenly evacuated from the vibrancy that had once characterized it. The move to the New Campus changed the psychogeography of downtown Cairo as well as alienated many older university graduates from the narratives they had constructed around their experience in the university Campus. The area around the university that had been perpetually booming with youthful energy and newness became eerily silent. Food outlets, coffee shops, photocopying kiosks, and technology services were empty of those they had catered to. In light of those changes, some either had to close down or change their line of business altogether.

AUC’s downtown campus at this point was the subject of speculations among the different university constituencies. The original plan had been to keep “Main Campus” or the palace and sell other university property. It was projected that the sale of those premises would pay for the debt the university had incurred constructing its new campus. However, those plans were shattered in 2011 with the eruption of the Egyptian revolution and the turning of the downtown area into a battle ground. For no less than three years the streets around the downtown university campus witnessed ferocious fights between revolutionaries and police forces. The wall of Main Campus throughout those years became a living mural documenting the events, artwork and victims of the violence.

In as early as Spring 2011, AUC began what now seems to be a shelved project: “AUC on the Square;” a project that aimed to commemorate the events of the revolution through documenting the contributions of members of AUC community, recording narratives and collecting memorabilia. While the project was underway, there was perpetual hype around different strategies of safeguarding the graffiti on the walls of Main Campus on Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

Gone are the murals and gone are the walls. In summer 2015, the university demolished the Science building, a modernist work of architecture that had been constructed in 1961 to meet the growing demands of the School of Sciences. When the building was inaugurated in 1966, the university hosted its first science event: The Cairo Solid State Conference.

When I started teaching at the university’s Tahrir campus in 2004, I was constantly assigned classrooms in the Science building. I remember walking towards it and admiring the angles of the concrete slabs that protected it from the scorching heat of summer. To me, the building stood as an era piece reflecting the innovation and sentiment of the time of its construction. The AUC Today article that announced the tearing down of the building and the use of its site as “more garden space” describes the construction as

… [I]nnovative … for its use of architecture and materials to accommodate the natural climate of Egypt. The direction and intensity of sunlight was taken into consideration to utilize natural lighting and create an appropriate heating and cooling effect. The large concrete slabs that protruded from below the windows deflected sunlight so the rooms would not be in the direct glare of the sun. Furthermore, it was oriented in a way that would naturally warm the building during the winter months. (AUC Today, September 2015)

In AUC’s centennial inauguration event hosted in Ewart Hall in February 2019, Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian billionaire and a major shareholder in Orascom conglomerate and Ismaelia Company for Real Estate Investment, announced the collaboration of his enterprise with AUC to create a cultural center on the premises of Main campus. The cultural center would act as a space for art shows, music concerts and entrepreneurial events. During his speech, Sawiris jokingly alluded to how during negotiating the terms of setting up the cultural center with the university, he had insisted on the demolition of the Science building. The university complied. To him, and those keen on the project of reviving the glory of downtown Cairo and marketing it as a cultural hub, the building amounts to an ugly concrete structure rather than an architectural construction with merits of its own.

The involvement of Sawiris and Orascom investors in the AUC campus is part of a more encompassing plan for downtown Cairo. Interest in reviving downtown Cairo, or what connoisseurs call Khedival Cairo in reference to Khedive Ismail, was revived in the late 1980s. Khedive Ismail[2] was interested in “modernizing” Egypt by making it European (rather than Ottoman). To impress dignitaries attending the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869; he ordered the construction of a new city center along the lines employed in the design of downtown Paris. Royalty built palaces around the newly created avenues. However, as the new city center became populated, those palaces were torn down and replaced by the architecture that currently survives.

One of the original palaces that remained intact, however, is the palace that housed AUC until the move in 2008. Khedive Ismail had ordered the palace built for Khairy Pasha, his then Minister of Education, in 1870. After Khairy’s death, the palace was sold to a Greek businessman who used it as a cigarette factory. In 1908, it was rented out by King Fuad Ist to house Cairo University. In 1919, Charles Watson bought it for $93,000.

In “The American University in Cairo, 1919-1987”, Lawrence Murphy narrates the story of Watson’s acquisition of the palace and the events that led to the construction of the different areas and buildings that were later added to meet the needs of the growing university. He recounts how AUC president Robert McClain secured a grant from the American government that partly went towards constructing the Science building. Another donation went into building Hill House, which functioned originally as the university dorms. The famous tennis and volley ball courts were later created and a shaded passageway between Hill House and the university cafeteria allowed students to play and watch games between classes and during assembly hour.

Thus, what marked AUC’s Main Campus is how it had accumulated different architectural styles throughout its history. The original building, i.e., the palace, portrayed an Islamic style whereas the Science building was modernist. This multiplicity of architectural styles attests to a dynamic, vibrant and complex heritage; a heritage that transcends the term “La Belle Epoque” that has been recently introduced into the jargon of those who promote reviving downtown Cairo.

In conducting research for this article, I started reading about how the term La Belle Epoque came into use when referring to downtown Cairo. The term is commonly used in reference to France in the years between 1871 and 1914[3]. It was Trevor Mostyn, a Middle East Journalist, who first used the term in the title of his book “Cairo’s Belle Epoque: 1869-1952”, first published in 1989. The book was republished in 2006 under the name “Egypt’s Belle Epoque: Cairo and the Age of Hedonists.” Mostyn does not specifically address the rationale of his use of the term Belle Epoque in the title when it had not been used previously by architects and/or urban planners to refer to downtown Cairo. If anything, until the late 1980s, downtown Cairo was associated with a colonial heritage that people might have felt ambivalent towards because of the calamities that had besieged the nation since 1952; however, the prevailing narrative among Egyptians until the 1980s, was that the architecture of downtown Cairo is a living manifestation of a colonial heritage.

Because Khairy Pasha’s palace, which historically belongs to this colonialist history, had been appropriated by the university, it had acquired a new significance within our concept of heritage. It was no longer a palace, it was the university. Visitors who attended the AUC centennial celebrations in its downtown campus were greeted with newly landscaped gardens. Gone is the science building. Gone are the tennis and volley ball courts that students used to spend endless hours playing and loitering about in the shade. The trees that have lined the walk between Hill House and the cafeteria were cut and instead one finds a lonely aged olive tree, clearly plucked out of the earth only to be replanted in this foreign terrain. Below it a granite plaque reads “Designed with Love”. Many of the green lawns are gone and instead square plots are filled with new-age style, black pebbles to contrast with naturally colored wood planks. The design is reminiscent of international hotel chains one sees in countries such as India and Indonesia. Whoever decided to landscape the grounds of AUC’s main campus was clearly not aware of the history of the space and did not pay homage to those who are emotionally connected to the university. The palace stands mostly alone (except for Hill House).

The tearing down of the Science building and the landscaping of the university grounds begs us to ask questions concerning the capability of neoliberal economies to preserve heritage. Al Ismaelia company, which is responsible for those alterations as Sawiris vehemently expressed in his centennial inauguration speech, is not interested in preserving heritage per se, it is interested in specifically cementing the myth of La Belle Epoque because it is this myth that serves its economic interests in the neighborhood. Had it been interested in preservation beyond a specific agenda that serves its economic profits, it would have devised a creative plan that would incorporate the science building and AUC grounds within the larger scheme for the campus; for the Science building, the courts and trees are also part of the university heritage.

In 2010, Yasmine Dorghamy, reported on the establishment of the Al Ismaelia Company for Real Estate Investments. The company had started acquiring one building after another in the downtown area with the plan to refurbish them in a way that makes them attractive to new residents. The company’s website states that the project aims at renovating downtown Cairo for all Egyptians so they can live, shop and socialize in the heart of the city among the graceful architecture of La Belle Epoque [4]. Dorghamy seems optimistic about the future of downtown Cairo because of the involvement of Al Ismaelia company in its preservation. I am weary. The naïve celebration of a “Belle Epoque” of downtown Cairo rather than placing the “epoque” within its colonial legacy and treating it as an episode within a richer and more complex heritage is a misrepresentation of history that can lead to misplaced affiliations and misguided identities. Nostalgia for a colonialist past and the manipulation of this nostalgia in order to serve the interests of the economic stakeholders betrays a multifaceted and complex heritage. Erasing the landmarks of the university and not acknowledging the complex narrative of the palace does not serve heritage.

And because we are aware that heritage, just like history, is a highly politicized issue that is more often than not manipulated to serve the agenda of those in power, its preservation needs to be delegated to those who can approach it with a great deal of sensitivity, to those who are aware of its complexity and can narrate its nuanced story. When heritage is left to governments and economists, we will be left with a manicured heritage compliant with an agreed upon one-sided narrative. Examples abound. The saving of Alexandria’s heritage implicitly implies safeguarding its cosmopolitan neighborhoods which have overshadowed older and possibly more complex Muslim/Ottoman quarters. Attempting to salvage the mosaics of Aya Sofia in Istanbul, one runs against a government that affiliates itself with Islamic tradition rather than an older Christian heritage. The mosaics mostly continue to be plastered over by Muslims who appropriated the church in 1453. Uncovering wall murals in Bukhara and Samarkand implies an attempt to erase historic references to the Soviet Union.

In order to appropriately save heritage, all stakeholders need to sit around the table; the people who own the building, those who use it, those whose histories are intertwined with it, the economists and the preservationists. Everyone. Everyone’s story needs to be taken into account. Only then can heritage succeed in unveiling its complexity and gently expressing its multifaceted, and often thorny, narrative.

[1] It was named King Fuad I University after King Fuad I of Egypt and Sudan (1868-1936). [2] Khedive Ismail ruled Egypt from 1863-1879. During his rule, and following in the footsteps of his grandfather Muhammed Ali, he invested greatly in the modernization of Egypt. He invested in industry, education and construction of roads and railways hoping to bring Cairo to par with European cities. He is famous for the statement “My country is no longer in Africa; we are now part of Europe. It is therefore natural for us to abandon our former ways and to adopt a new system adapted to our social condition." [3] Those years marked the period between the end of the Franco-Prussian War and the beginning of the Great War (or what we now refer to as World War I). It was a period marked by architectural upheaval but also an epoch of literary and artistic ingenuity and scientific and technological innovations. [4] This is my translation of the company’s website statement in Arabic.


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