Sounds from a Threatened Suburb: Developing a People's History of Heliopolis as a Route to a Sustainable Urban Future

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Sch of Historical Studies


Heliopolis was arguably the first truly modern suburb in Africa, yet is not a threatened heritage asset. Its old cosmopolitan communities are gradually breaking up, its buildings decay and fall and even its historic electric tramway is about to disappear. Its contribution to the making of modern Egypt is little understood outside a few university specialists and old residents. As traditional populations move away from the suburb, the oral histories and stories of Heliopolis are lost forever. This project, therefore, seeks to capture the rich, storied history of Heliopolis through the memories of the many families and communities who have called it their home. The project seems to raise awareness of what is threatened and what we have already lost. It seeks to develop a collaboration between academics, residents and community activists to preserve the tangible and intangible heritage of the area in a sustainable form. It also seeks to raise awareness of the wider threats to Egypt's modern heritage, a heritage that is often hidden and neglected in a country with such a long and rich history. This, it is hoped, will be a model for other community heritage project across Egypt and one which will help ordinary people appreciate the buildings and storied landscape that surrounds them.

The project will address the life of the great buildings of Heliopolis - the Empain palace, the Basilica and the Heliopolis Palace Hotel - but it will also examine the buildings and places that gave Heliopolis its everyday human stories. This history will be a history of tram stations, cafes, crumbling hotels, fish markets, dive bars and cinemas. It will the story of the doorman, shoe-shine boys, the flower sellers, the donkey cabbies, the rubbish collectors, the car-repair men, the juice sellers, the shop keepers, the waiters, the rent collectors all those who gave life to the buildings of the suburb. It will reveal a positive and cosmopolitan vision of Egypt, one in which those of different nationalities and religions of a suburb live together in peace and mutual respect. It will reveal a history that future citizens can be proud of and one which they might cherish.

Planned Impact

The main objective of this project is to raise awareness of Heliopolis' threatened heritage assets amongst opinion formers and to encourage the Heliopolis community to be actively engaged in the preservation of their history and environment. The project has been developed in conjunction with members of the Heliopolis Heritage Association and prominent members of the local civic community. The project will use a high-profile Pop Up Museum and a series of related community activities to engage the interest of local people. The project's main research programme will involve producing an oral history archive of local memories and a photographic and documentary wall, with contributions from local businesses and community members. The project will target local civic leaders, local businessmen, traders and residents using both local community media and electronic social media.

It is also hoped that the project will be a model for other community history initiatives in other parts of Egypt with threatened urban and suburban heritage. The project will help the local community appreciate their rich shared histories that are embedded in the built landscape of the country. The project team have links with community history activists in Helwan, Garden City, Maadi and other parts of Cairo and will include these activists in workshops and events. The project will be promoted in the national Arabic and English language media to engage the increasing number of Egyptian citizens interests in community heritage and local history.

This project also has wider relevance. Rapid urbanisation threatens the urban and suburban heritage of many communities worldwide. Rising urban land prices often sees historic buildings demolished and replaced by high-rise apartment blocks. Old communities are often broken up due to processes of 'gentrification' or through dramatic patterns of migration and urban relocation. This project will demonstrate how a local community can raise awareness of its built heritage assets, while also preserving its community memories and histories. The project team will publish their findings in both the popular and academic international media to disseminate good practice and aid knowledge transfer.


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Moore (2017) 'The Alexandria You Are Losing'? Urban Heritage and Activism in Egypt since the 2011 Revolution in Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies

Description The project has identified a substantial amount of community heritage activism across Egypt. A substantial amount of local history information has been identified, some of which will be published in English or Arabic and some of which will be included in a new community history website. .This project is ongoing.
Exploitation Route This will be a model for community history projects in Egypt.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism

Description Project not yet complete - this is an ongoing community collaboration.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism
Impact Types Cultural,Societal