Athar to monuments: The intervention of the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe
Today, preservationists call for a multi-disciplinary profession in which architects, planners, scientists, economists, historians, politicians should collaborate to preserve historic objects. More than a century ago, Khedive Mohammed Tawfiq of Egypt considered such a professional alliance when he decreed, in December 1881, the formation of the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe (hereafter the Comité ). He appointed architects, engineers, archaeologists, politicians, economists, and even geographers and astronomers. Today, a prevailing trend calls for an “international cultural heritage” that attributes the world's historic remains to all people despite race, nationality, religion, age and gender. The Comité had indeed adopted a similar path for it counted many foreigners to work alongside local members in the preservation of what they agreed to call the “Monuments of Arab Art” of Egypt. The Comité, in those aspects, was the first of its kind. Its leading, ideal, and outstanding message declared it as being the savior of that entity of Egyptian heritage. Prominent practitioners in the field are currently campaigning for the revival of the Comité whose activities were stopped after the 1952 revolution when most of its foreign members were expelled, and when its bureaucracy was placed under the Ministry of Culture.
The Comité indeed had to comply with the international prevailing preservation trends that contradicted, to a certain extent, the local traditional preservation ideology and practices, neglecting that the latter actually had kept alive the same targeted buildings for centuries before these were handed over to it. With the Comité, preservation standards and priorities differed, and in this difference lies the analytical comparison I have adopted.
The Comité's seventy years of interventions are an important stamp on the Arab monuments of Egypt. It defined not only the current status of their physical and cultural survival, but also, through its innovative and powerful studies and practices, a new path in the evolution of the contemporary local architecture. The Comité's interventions were, and still are, apparent on Cairo's fabric as a layer among many other historic layers that constitute the city's various cycles of stability, stagnation, reform, reconstruction, and others; a layer that is sometimes concealed, stripped away or highlighted. Through its “multi-disciplinary” body and through its “international” compliance, the Comité's most influential contribution was its role in adding today's meaning of the word “monuments” to the Arabic term “ athar”.* (Abstract shortened by UMI.)
*“Athar” is an Arabic word that literally means “remains” or “traces”. In the Arabic translation of its very title, “le Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe,” the Comité used the term “athar”, to be “lajnat hifz al-athar al-'arabiyya.”