This Egyptian researcher is documenting his country’s architectural history

When news of an upcoming publication titled Cairo Since 1900 came out, many took notice. Regional news outlets like The National and Ahram Online wrote reviews, and UK-based art magazine Apollo discussed it in a podcast. Now available on international e-commerce sites, like Amazon, the publication, which serves as an architectural guide, marks one of the few attempts at documenting Cairo’s dense modern architectural heritage.

Cairo Since 1900 is not its author Mohamed Elshahed’s first endeavour to protect Egypt’s vulnerable architectural history via the written word, though. An Egyptian academic with universities like NJIT, MIT and NYU dotting his educational background, he founded Cairobserver in 2011. Despite starting out as a personal blog where Elshahed shared observations about the city and historical stories he came across during research, Cairobserver quickly transformed into a multi-voice platform for academics, students and laypeople. Focusing on issues relating to architecture, urbanism, place-making and heritage, the online magazine (and its seven print publications produced between 2011 and 2016) offered what was then a rarity: a space for public debate and conversation about the architecture and urbanism of Cairo, as well as other cities in Egypt.

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“There is more urban and architectural issues to talk about in Egypt and the region than ever,” says Elshahed. “And while other outlets are reluctant to engage with political realities, this has never been an issue with Cairobserver, which is precisely why it stands out. Our cities are entirely politicised spaces, and to speak about cities and architecture in the Middle East in an apolitical fashion is some form of betrayal to the issues that so critically shape our lives.”

Although Elshahed put Cairobserver on hold in 2016, demand and interest in it has continued to grow in the past few years. Its Facebook page and (recently created) Instagram account are efforts to keep it alive – especially since it serves as an archive of sorts now. Elshahed says he hopes to reactivate it this year, which will largely coincide with his many other ventures, like his upcoming exhibition Cairo Modern, which forms part of his Spring 2020 Practitioner-in-Residence programme at NYU. Elshahed is also working on a new book on Alexandria, tentatively titled Portrait of a Sinking City.

“I am from there, and I find it to be fascinating in the way history and urbanity manifest given political and climate changes,” he says. “It will be one of the worst hit cities by climate change this century, yet authorities carry on with speculative projects, towers and demolitions. It is also where the founder of Futurism was born, so there is an irony in the city being on a path of total self-destruction.”

While Elshahed, who’s currently between Cairo and San Francisco with plans to settle in LA, has a full plate, ideas for upcoming projects continue to swirl in his mind, like several more books and creating a museum, or multi-disciplinary space in Cairo that makes accessible private collections, publications and exhibitions that focus on modern and contemporary architecture. His dream project though? Helping the family of Egyptian architect Sayed Karim preserve his house and give it a cultural use.

“I see buildings as documents, and the city as an archive,” Elshahed says. “The buildings tell us about not only aesthetic choices by architects and their patrons, but also the economic, political, cultural and municipal conditions that produced them.”

“Culture wars are at play in the Middle East, and they have been for much of the 20th century, intensifying with time,” he adds. “Our buildings and cities are the sites of these wars. Seeing architecture in this way should help us move away from the fixation of western art history that created neat categories by which buildings should be cherry-picked for history or preservation, often following stylistic merits.”

This was originally published in Architectural Digest Middle East in February 2020.

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