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Egypt's lost antiquities

After the uprising of 2010, much was stolen or neglected.

Mausoleums in Cairo , with their precise Islamic calligraphy, stand in contrast to neglect elsewhere. NASSER NASSER / AP
Mausoleums in Cairo , with their precise Islamic calligraphy, stand in contrast to neglect elsewhere. NASSER NASSER / APRead more

CAIRO - Cairo, the Arab world's most populated city, is often referred to as an open-air museum of Islamic antiquities and the city of 1,000 minarets.

But its rich history and contributions to Islamic art have languished.

The city has seen some of its most beautiful antiquities looted or neglected over the last two years following the 2011 uprising that ousted the country's longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. Copper door knockers and lavish fixtures on ancient mosques are among the casualties.

The turmoil that followed the uprising has scared away tourists, drying up vital revenue needed to pay for the upkeep of monuments. Police, who once had wide-reaching powers, are largely unable and at times unwilling to clamp down on criminals or aggressive vendors who overwhelm centuries-old mosques, caravansaries and madrassas with street stalls.

The city and its surrounding suburbs are home to around 20 million people, many of whom are poor and live in slums. Its oldest and often poorest neighborhoods are also home to some of the world's most refined Islamic architecture.

The beauty of the ancient mausoleums carved with precise Islamic calligraphy stands in stark contrast to the exposed redbrick buildings and mounds of trash piled along the streets. An ancient aqueduct that transported running water for the city is now a sort of demographic line separating the city's impoverished slums from main roads.

El-Moez Street is the main avenue of Cairo's Old City, built in the 10th century by the Fatimids as the capital of a dynasty ruling across North Africa to the Levant. The Fatimids lined it with towering palaces and mosques, as did their successors as Egypt's rulers over the centuries - from the Mamluks to the Ottomans.

Efforts under Mubarak to restore the street and turn it into an open-air museum after years of degradation came to a screeching halt after he was toppled. The street, which once had elegant lighting effects and well-paved sidewalks for pedestrians to take in its history, has returned to being a loud and bustling area for vendors and motorists. Frequent electricity outages in the summer leave the street dark at night.

There are no signs for visitors, for example, explaining that the top floor of a certain building in El-Moez street was a learning center for Islam and art, or how courtyards hidden behind ancient structures may have been used. Such buildings stand alongside parked cars and vendors selling lemons, copper fixtures, cheap trinkets, and water pipes.

Also stalled is a project to renovate the aqueduct, which leads from the Nile to the Citadel, the fortress that towers over Cairo first built by Saladin in the 12th century and is topped with a monumental mosque built by the 19th-century ruler Mohammed Ali.