Egypt's Population Boom Threatens Cultural Treasures

Surging demand for housing and services puts historical sites at risk.

Within hours, much of the celebrated modernist mansion was in ruins; one of the great relics of the Mediterranean city's cosmopolitan heyday had been toppled to make way for an apartment tower.

The villa's owner, Mohammed Hosni Hamed, was unmoved by howls of outrage from conservationists.

"If it were illegal, we wouldn't have done it [in plain sight] during the daytime," he told the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper. Egypt's cultural heritage has emerged as a key casualty of its fast-growing population's demand for housing.

The Pyramids at Giza were once isolated in the open desert, but they're now surrounded on three sides by Cairo's encroaching sprawl and an illegal cemetery.

Nearby mango plantations have been ripped up to make way for new buildings, according to local landowners, while the lesser known Layer Pyramid, which is also known as the Ahram Medawar, has disappeared into the urban morass.

Little appears safe from the consequences of an unremitting demand for land.

Two years ago, a group of French archaeologists went away for an extended summer break, and returned to find that eager developers had built upon their excavations of Cairo's earliest Islamic settlement in the ancient Fustat quarter.

Alexandria designer Mohammed Aboelkhier, a co-founder of the Save Alex cultural campaign, has seen his city's population swell from about one million in the aftermath of World War II to roughly 4.6 million today. He concedes that "without new housing, you don't satisfy the people's needs. "But some of this is just crazy," he says.

The Pyramids at Giza and the Great Sphinx (at right) were once isolated in the open desert, but they're now surrounded on three sides by Cairo's encroaching sprawl. [Photograph By Rena Effendi, National Geographic]

The Perils of Growth

There are many forces behind Egypt's apparent inability to safeguard its heritage, but population pressures, as well as the political and economic woes associated with poorly managed growth, have played a big role.

Egypt is now home to some 86 million people, an increase of more than 13 million since the 2006 census.

That's a huge spike for a country whose numbers totaled a little under 20 million in 1948. But the boom continues: Egypt's Institute of National Planning projects Egypt will hit 150 million people by 2050 if current trends endure.

Government officials recognize the perils of such untrammeled growth. "Egypt faces a widening gap between resource demand and domestic supply," said Nabil Fahmy, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in a lecture in early March.

But the last few years of revolution, election, chaos, and coup have emptied the treasury, left the country 8 percent behind its long-term economic projections and compromised the state's capacity to care for its treasures.

Illegal buildings sprang up across the country after the popular revolt against then President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, when police and regulators largely disappeared.

Frequent changes in government personnel since then—the most recent of which saw the resignation of the interim prime minister and the replacement of many top ministers in late February—have further imperiled Egypt's prize monuments by paralyzing key departments, including those responsible for reining in the country's birth rates.

Government Paralysis

"In the past, there was a lot of care for family planning and it was easy to meet people and level out obstacles," says Sofia Hanna of DKT International, which provides subsidized contraception. "But it's more difficult at the moment, because everyone's afraid to make decisions."

Hanna's organization is currently grappling with the Ministry of Health to overcome a long delay in registering new contraceptive products.
Now, with popular frustrations intensifying and state services stretched far beyond capacity, effective family planning practices may be needed more than ever.
Egypt added 1.7 million people in 2010 and 1.8 million in 2011; its increase of 1.9 million people in 2012 was equal to the rise in population in France, Spain, and Italy combined.

Measures taken to combat the disorder that accompanied the military's overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last July are expected to help push those numbers higher still.
"Every day, I see more babies. My friends at other hospitals and clinics say the same thing," says Salima, a doctor at a Cairo hospital who declined to give her surname. She added that her overstretched ward was reeling from additional work.

"The [dusk-to-dawn] curfew should have a definite effect on fertility rates this year, just as it did after the revolution in 2011," says Iris Boutros, a senior program specialist at the Cairo office of the International Development Research Center.
"People were stranded in their apartments for months. What else were they supposed to do?"

Sheep, goats, and chickens are kept on the rooftops of these unfinished homes in Cairo. [Photograph By Rena Effendi, National Geographic]

Stolen Sculptures

The Ministry of State for Antiquities is even more bogged down than most in this mire of post-revolutionary politics.

Its payroll has climbed from 30,000 to 40,000 employees since 2011, when Mubarak's minister allegedly promoted 7,000 part-time workers to full-time status in what appeared to be an attempt to appease angry workers during the throes of the revolution. (A ministry spokesperson could not be reached for comment; an assistant in the press office insisted the ministry was "understaffed.")

Yet despite the large numbers of personnel on the books, security at key sites is lacking.
One day in January at the Giza Pyramids, two locals were wandering the far reaches of the necropolis wielding bags packed with what looked suspiciously like tools.
One of them, a youngish man who gave his name as Mohammed, smiled coyly when asked if he was digging for treasures.

"I'm not, but you couldn't blame people if they were," he answered, before ducking behind a small ridge and out of sight of the army detachment perched on the edge of the plateau.

Giza's famed monuments are swamped with security, compared to Egypt's less accessible sites. The few guards to patrol Abydos, one of the great pharaonic settlements, are paid for by New York University, while the more distant reaches of Luxor's tomb- and temple-laden valleys appear to have been largely abandoned to treasure hunters.

Recently, on April 10, two small lion-head sculptures were stolen from the Luxor Temple enclosure. Visitors there have complained of lax security in the past.

"It's bizarre that something that size was left hanging around," says Nigel Hetherington, a Cairo-based archaeologist. "Something that portable is supposed to be secured."

Living Among the Dead

Greater Cairo ranges across several governorates, so its population is hard to pin down, but around 20 million people is a good estimate.

Many residents live among centuries-old tombs in a vast cemetery called the City of the Dead. With historical sites everywhere in the old city, any attempt to improve services can have unforeseen consequences.

An effort to connect the cramped and crowded neighborhood of Darb al-Ahmar to the city water supply, for instance, went badly wrong when officials hooked up main thoroughfares but refused to run pipes into the narrow alleyways where 80 percent of locals live.

Spurned residents paid the police small bribes to look the other way as they laid their own pipe and haphazardly hooked their apartment buildings to the mains.

The inexpert work, coupled with high levels of leakage elsewhere, raised groundwater levels and seriously damaged the foundations of dozens of Ottoman-era buildings. Resident Sara Madbouly is unapologetic: "We needed water, and if the government couldn't provide for us, we knew we had to do it."

Informal construction in Cairo is often shoddy and unsafe. [Photograph By Rena Effendi, National Geographic]

Vital Tourist Dollars

Some Egyptians make the case that the country has more crucial concerns than its historical legacy. "People's living conditions matter much more," says Sara Madbouly in Darb al-Ahmar.

Yet it's Egypt's history that has attracted tourists, who have long helped bolster the economy—accounting for more than 11 percent of Egypt's gross domestic product (GDP) and about 12 to 14 percent of total employment.

Some cultural sites use ticket sales to fund the maintenance of their facilities, while most tourism employees depend on tips to supplement their meager salaries (civil servants moonlighting as taxi drivers are common in Cairo).
"I had to get out," says tour guide Hossam Ali Hassan. "I had no work after the revolution."

Hassan was lucky to have sufficient savings to open a restaurant catering to residents of the affluent Dokki district when the tourist economy slumped.

But most private-sector businesses, often strangled by red tape and corruption, are not well placed to boost hiring. And the government already employs 6.4 million people—out of a total workforce of 27 million—according to Egyptian government statistics.

Sadly, looting appears to offer an easy and increasingly tempting way to earn a living.

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit