Egyptian MP Doha Assy sounds warning over threat to heritage sites

Illegal construction and the dumping of rubbish and chemical waste have damaged historical structures, she says

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A number of heritage sites in Egypt have been left damaged because of negligence by the authorities, legislator Doha Assy has told The National.

Ms Assy called for more oversight of construction and industrial activity around such sites, and submitted a formal complaint to the Egyptian parliament's antiquities committee.

“Essentially, what I am trying to do is just alert authorities that these sites are at a risk of being lost because often the antiquities sector is given a lower priority when compared to other sections on the government’s agenda,” she said.

Bulldozers demolish a Mokatam hill to expand the road, as part of a mega project campaign for roads and bridges, in Cairo, Egypt, 14 June  202  EPA / KHALED ELFIQI

A number of buildings in Egypt’s agricultural Daqahliyah province have sustained significant damage over the years due to large-scale unregulated construction around them.

These include Nour Mosque, which was built in 1868, Helal Bek Mosque, built in 1853, and Saint Damiana Convent, built in 1845 and renovated in 1978.

Other sites such as Ashmout fortress, the last-remaining military outpost of famous Egyptian commander Ahmed Orabi, have been damaged by years of chemical waste dumping by nearby factories. The outpost was built in the late 1800s.

Perhaps the most affected is Ahmed Nafea Mosque, which was built in 1270 and has been in a state of severe disrepair for years.

Today, the mosque, which houses three decorated marble panels from the earlier Fatimid era (909—1171), is deserted and has partially collapsed.

Ms Assy said the problem was that Egypt has an overwhelming number of archaeological sites and it was difficult for authorities to monitor each one, especially in rural areas such as Daqahliyah.

“There are rules in place that protect heritage sites in Egypt, whether they are ancient or more recent,” she said.

“They are not always implemented, however, which results in severe infractions.”

She said unregulated construction and waste at such sites had exacerbated the problem.

“It is not appropriate to surround a prominent mosque with high-rise buildings and block its panorama,” she said.

The Egyptian parliament’s media, culture and antiquities committee convened on Monday night and held a plenary session to discuss a number of bills, including Ms Assy’s request for more oversight at heritage sites.

Despite not being optimistic about the outcome as she headed in the session and expecting the committee to deny negligence on the part of authorities, Ms Assy told The National afterwards that it had been a “positive” meeting.

“The committee prepared a limited list of sites which it would endeavour to preserve during the new year. They handed over their plan to reduce negligence at various heritage sites for us to review and advise on whether we think it is appropriate,” she said.

Whether the plan is carried out or not remains to be seen, she said.

Ms Assy also submitted a bill on Monday calling for additional measures to protect workers in the antiquities field who are lowly paid and have few healthcare and social services available to them, something that has exacerbated the problem of negligence at archaeological sites.

“Last night, the committee officially appealed to the Supreme Council of Antiquities to form a healthcare fund out of its budget for its workers,” Ms Assy said.

“This was definitely one of the session's most important outcomes.”

A state-run road expansion project in a historic district of Cairo drew anger after requiring the removal of more than 2,000 graves from the City of the Dead, a necropolis that has been a Unesco heritage site since 1979.

Updated: December 20, 2022, 8:15 AM