February 19, 2013

Dr. Joris Kila Reports on Feb. 1 Fire that Damaged the former American Embassy at the Historic Villa Casdagli in Cairo

Old interior picture of Villa Casdagli Hall
and Chapel. Photo by Jeremy Young.
This is a report from Dr. Joris Kila, Chairman of the International Cultural Resources Working Group (IMCuRWG) and adviser to the Austrian Committee of the Blue Shield and the Association of the National Committees of the Blue Shield (ANCBS).

Dr. Peter Lacovara, a US Egyptologist working in Luxor, sent out an alarm early this month after vandals torched the former American Embassy, the Villa Casdagli, in Cairo on February 1. Alerted by the Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, Corine Wegener, president of U.S. Blue Shield, contacted Dr. Kila who was spending a week in Cairo to report on the damage. The fire set on Friday night was not extinguished until early Saturday morning.  

Fire damaged Villa Casdagli on Feb. 9Photo by Dr. Joris Kila
Villa Casdagli on the Midan Simon Bolivar is very close to the Tahrir Square. It was reported that later several adolescents had set fire to the interior of the villa and were were chased away by casual passer-by’s.

According to Dr. Lacovara's message on 4 February 2013, the Cairo fire department needed the security forces to clear Tahrir Square of demonstrators who were doing everything possible to stop the fire department from putting out the fire at the villa. As of 4.30 in the afternoon on February 4, fire was still smoldering in the upper floors and smoke was coming out through the windows. Plunderers were ripping out anything of value inside the villa. Dr. Lacovara had asked the fire department to revisit the premises, but they refused to do so as there was no roaring fire apparent, and they didn’t want to venture out and possibly cause another violent demonstration. The firefighters believed they would need protection to undertake this job but security forces were disinclined to break the calm that prevailed in the area.

Villa Casdagli's 2nd floor (Photo by Dr. Kila)
One week after the fire on Saturday Feb. 9, Dr. Joris Kila and Tilly Mulder, an advocate for Blue Shield in Egypt, went to the Midan Simon Bolivar. Most of the antique fence and that gate to the Villa Casdagli had been stolen, leaving the building unprotected and still vulnerable to looters. Kila and Mulder, joined by Egyptian architectural researcher Ahmad Al-Bindari, went inside and saw the devastation. The Byzantine hall in which Saint George was so well depicted in both the celestial ceiling and the hall’s extraordinary cloister (chapel) is severely damaged. The monumental staircase is completely destroyed by fire. Marble ornaments and fireplaces are broken with pieces scattered around. Everywhere in the building, useable parts are stripped and stolen. The second floor was found completely burned and ravaged.

Hall and chapel on Feb. 9 (Photo by Dr. Kila)
The team tried to get more information about who created this destruction and looting but this was difficult. The Villa is close to the Tahrir Square and more or less in a sort of riot zone. There is no police so everything is left unguarded. Unconfirmed rumors blame criminal elements who are also kept responsible for looting and damaging the lobby of the nearby Intercontinental Hotel. The website Egy.com states: "the solitary winner here is the villa's latest owner who will no doubt sell this prime real estate to Qatar or replace it with a lucrative high rise’’.

The fact that the Casdagli Villa was an official monument did not make much difference. Last year another Cairo monument, the luxuriously furnished villa of Kevork Ispenian on the Pyramids Road, was looted and destroyed despite being on Egypt’s heritage list.

Back ground of the Villa Casdagli
The Villa Casdagli is a listed historic monument. It is an irreplaceable architectural landmark with distinguished architecture, European-style paintings, mosaics and special inlays. It was built during the first decade of the 20th century by Austrian architect Edward Matasek (1867-1912). According to the Casdagli family,  Emanuel Casdagli [a British educated Levantine family of Georgian-Central Caucasia origins dealing in the lucrative Manchester trade] purchased the building in 1911 after the British High Commander Sir Eldon Gorst moved to a 'more stately home.' One of Villa Casdagli's pre World War II tenants was the American Embassy. The building is situated next to the plot where the current US embassy is located.

The Villa Casdagli later became a school for girls named after Sudanese revolutionary "Ali Abdelatif". In 2006, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), now the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), placed the villa on Egypt's heritage list as an Islamic monument. In 2008, the SCA, in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the American Research Centre in Cairo (ARCE), developed a comprehensive restoration project for the building. The project was funded by the US Department of State's Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation with a $5 million grant. After restoration the monument would become a new Institute of Museology, established by the Ministry of State for Antiquities Affairs to train curators on modern technology as used in world renowned museums. Courses would include museum presentation and exhibition design, restoration, museum studies and heritage management and the institute would offer MA and PhD programs.

On February 10 Dr. Kila and Ms. Mulder attended a meeting of the so-called ‘’Friends of Manial Palace Museum”. This NGO has good relations with the Antiquities Ministry (formerly Supreme Council of Antiquities) -- proof of this is that the meeting was held in the premises of this Ministry in Zamalek. During the meeting, it was understood that the ownership of the Villa Casdagli had been transferred from the Ministry of Education to the Antiquities Ministry which makes real-estate speculation less likely.

According to an article in Al Ahram online published 13 February and on the occasion of a symposium on the "Islamic view on cultural heritage", the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture" (IRCICA) issued the "International Declaration of Cairo", which protects Islamic as well as Pre-Islamic heritage. Among the participants were the Grand Mufti of Egypt, the Sheikh d'Al-Azhar and the Minister of Waqfs. The Grand Mufti announced that he is going to publish a book on short notice that collects all fatwas on the protection of heritage. The use of Fatwa’s to prevent abuse and destruction of Cultural Property which also happened in Iraq. In May 2003, just after the American invasion of Iraq had begun Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was asked by the archaeology inspector of Dhi Qar province in southern Iraq to announce a fatwa. The request was granted and Al-Sistani proclaimed that digging for antiquities is illegal; that both Islamic and pre-Islamic artefacts are part of Iraqi heritage; and that people with antiquities in their possession should return them to the museum in Baghdad or Nasiriya. Copies of the fatwa were distributed widely in the south, and published in the Iraqi press. As a result some of the looting stopped. Islamic leaders can have a major positive impact on protecting cultural heritage.


Email correspondence with Dr. Thomas Schuler Disaster Relief Task Force (DRTF) of ICOM, Cori Wegener USBS, Dr. Peter Lacovara.

Publications: Kila, Joris, “Can white men sing the blues? Cultural Property Protection in times of armed conflict deploying military experts,” in Laurie Rush
(ed.), Archaeology, Cultural Property and the Military, Woodbridge 2010, pp. 41–59

Kila, Joris. Heritage under Siege. Military Implementation of Cultural Property Protection following the 1954 (Heritage and Identity, 1). Leiden-Boston 2012.

Ahram online,Saturday, 16 February 2013 http://www.egy.com/gardencity/97-02-08.php

Looters smash jewel of Cairo’s colonial past | The Sunday Times Sara Hashash, Cairo Published: 10 February 2013

Al-Ahram Weekly On-line | Heritage | Back to school for museum staff, 19 - 25 May 2011, Issue No. 1048

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