Historical Notes: A rumpled old city in sight of reprieve

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CAIRO SURGES with life like no other city. Here cars and pedestrians vie for space as if this were the Pamplona bull run. Shouting vendors share the air waves with sirens and radios and car horns and mosque loudspeakers. Advertising and washing and electric cables clutter the facades of buildings. Ceaseless human passage cracks and scuffs, polishes and pounds every surface.

The look of wear and tear is natural, considering that 12 million people cram into Egypt's capital, and that large numbers have lived on this spot for over 5,000 years. But, in fact, much of the decay is recent.

This is especially true of the Old City, the medieval core of Cairo that is four times the size of the City of London. Here, between the massive 11th-century northern walls built with stones quarried from ancient Egyptian sites, and the arcaded courtyard of the ninth- century Mosque of Ibn Tulun two miles to the south, some 480 medieval monuments still stand, making Cairo a veritable open-air museum of Islamic architecture. The last half-century, however, has taken a terrible toll.

The Old City's British-built sewers date from 1912. The water delivery system leaks half its charge before reaching any tap. Corrosive liquids seep into the ground, to be greedily sponged up by the porous limestone of medieval mansions and mosques and tombs. The stone flakes, splendid multicoloured marble panels chip and fade, walls buckle. Now and then some old house collapses completely.

So many buildings have become uninhabitable that the Old City has lost a quarter of its population in the past 15 years. With its meagre budget, and hundreds of pharaonic sites to look after as well, Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities has been overwhelmed. A hundred monuments in the Old City are in urgent need of repair, but restoring a single building can cost millions of pounds. Even then, restoration is not a surefire cure. So many of the buildings that have been restored stand empty and unloved. Without the bustle of human activity they lose their public character, and are doomed to suffer neglect and decay again.

At long last, Egyptians seem to have sensed that their capital is in danger of losing its heart. This year has seen the launch of several grand projects that promise a reprieve. Sewage lines are being laboriously threaded down narrow streets to connect leaky pipes to Cairo's new main drainage system. Giant excavators that dug Cairo's metro have been enlisted to bore a two-mile-long tunnel that will relieve Al Azhar Street, the Old City's overburdened central traffic artery. Ridding the surface of cars will allow the clearing of a vast open square between the 10th-century Mosque of Al Azhar and the Khan al Khalili bazaars.

A more subtle effect can be expected from new laws that are slowly working their way through Egypt's Byzantine legislative apparatus. Few tourists realise that a chief reason for Cairo's rumpled appearance is that 40- year-old rent controls make it uneconomic for landlords to maintain their property. With rents in old buildings fixed at no more than a few pounds a month, it makes no sense to pay thousands of pounds for even cosmetic repairs. If a house is allowed to collapse, on the other hand, the vacant property can be sold at a colossal profit.

That destructive equation may soon change. Even the modest increase in rents that is planned would encourage better maintenance. At the same time, the projected privatisation of Cairo's water system bodes well for more efficient use - and less leaky taps. It will take a lot more time and money for Cairo's Old City to take its rightful place beside Florence or Venice. But then, one would never wish it to be frozen still as a sterile tourist attraction. The aura of grand decay is half the city's charm.

Max Rodenbeck is the author of 'Cairo: the city victorious' (Picador, pounds 20)