A few weeks ago, Egypt’s transport minister opened the new Cairo train station, also known as Ramses Station or Bab al-Hadid Station, following renovations that lasted for several years and which cost LE170 million. With much media fanfare the minister was quoted as saying he was proud of all the effort that went into the project and that Cairo can now boast of a train station that rivals the best in Europe.
Upon visiting the station myself, however, I was shocked with what I saw there. The so-called renovations are nothing but an eye sore and amount to an architectural crime as well as a violation of Law 144/2006 concerning the conservation of architectural heritage. I certainly concur that the station itself, especially the main lobby, needed a facelift and agree that passenger services, whether at ticket windows, train platforms, commercial outlets, or cafes and restaurants desperately needed a complete overhaul.
However, the renovations have gone far beyond those needed to make the station more passenger-friendly. Cairo Station’s ‘new look’ has rendered the station nearly unrecognizable. The company contracted to do the work encased the entire lobby within a glass case (probably to help the station’s air conditioning system), and replaced the original station floors with slippery marble. Throughout the station they erected pharaonic-style plastic hollow columns that support a fake ceiling adorned with glittery golden designs.
As a result, the original neo-Mamluk style has effectively been replaced with a style that is ostensibly pharaonic but which actually seems closer to that of Las Vegas casinos or Abu Dhabi glass malls.
It is obvious that the transport minister, the managers of the contracting company and others who boasted about the renovations that had been introduced are oblivious of the significance and uniqueness of the building that has been defaced under the pretext of improvement and renovation. Designed by British architect Edwin Patsy in 1893 in a neo-Mamluk style, the building was a clear expression of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Cairene architecture when the neo-Mamluk (what is now popularly called “Islamic” architecture) was the style of choice of the state and the ruling family. After turning away from the Ottoman style which had been favored by Mehmed Ali and his successor, Abbas Pasha, the state then decidedly favored the neo-Mamluk to erect grand monumental buildings throughout Cairo. Thus, the Sabil-Kuttab of Bab al-Hadid, which overlooks the train station, was built in 1870 by the Italian architect Ciro Pantanelli. In 1904 the Khedival Library, Dar al-Kutub al-Khidiwiyya, was inaugurated having been designed in the neo-Mamluk style by Italian architect Alfonso Manescalo. Similarly, between 1898 and 1911 Egyptian architect Mahmoud Fahmy and others designed the building of the Religious Endowments Ministry, again in the neo-Mamluk style.
The original neo-Mamluk style of the station therefore reflected a significant moment in the history of Cairo. Those in charge of the renovation project had no right to introduce such radical innovations that defaced the building’s original style and radically altered its look. Arguing that by doing so they aspired to give Cairo a train station that matches the best in Europe is adding insult to injury. For when this building was first inaugurated in 1893 Cairo not only had a train station that did in fact match those in European cities; it actually surpassed many of them by the elegance, uniqueness and magnificence of its train station.
What has happened at Cairo station reminds me of a letter written by French physician Clot Bey, the founder of Egypt’s nineteenth-century health establishment. In the wake of the cholera and plague epidemics that ravaged Cairo and the whole of Egypt in the 1830s, Clot Bey issued orders that all buildings be whitewashed to stop the spread of dangerous vapors and miasmas. He then received news that in order to prove their eagerness in implementing the new measures, Cairenes painted not only the exteriors of buildings but also the interiors, sometimes going as far as whitewashing the internal walls of historic mosques. They thereby obscured the decorations and calligraphy that used to adorn the interior of the buildings. In response, he issued a sarcastic public circular saying that by doing so people were behaving like those who silver-plated their golden jewelry. This is exactly what has happened to Cairo Station.
Khaled Fahmy is a historian and chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo
An Arabic version of this article appeared first Akhbar al-Adab