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The Description of Alexandria: Keeping Heritage Alive

25 September, 2016
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In 2009, in a small fishing village in Alexandria, architect and researcher Mohamed Gohar was working on a research and renovation project. His investigation translated local people's problems into an architectural solution. The artistic drawings he made in the project were simple and clear enough for people understand, and Gohar realized that his drawings can be used to do something useful for Alexandria. Every weekend, he would sketch and record a new building or site. By 2013, Gohar had a considerable set of his own drawings with one theme: the description of Alexandria.

"One of the main aims of the project is to raise Alexandrian awareness about our city and its heritage, culture and identity. And to enhance society's engagement in preserving their legacy before we lose it forever," Gohar told BECAUSE.

Bringing together Alexandrian architects, artist, researchers and writers, Description of Alexandria is a pioneering cultural and artistic documentation study with the goal to determine and record the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of the city. It also seeks to bring about a long-term awareness in order to get residents to support its preservation. Working across four phases, project's output will eventually be published in both a journal and in books.

The first phase involves survey preparation, collating all available information of the area under study, including parcel maps, published papers, books, blogs, and diaries. The second phase builds on the analysis of the data gathered from phase one and helps identify key buildings to be included in the journal and the number of buildings to be surveyed in the area. Thirdly, and perhaps the most demanding phase, is making the drawings, descriptions, memory documentation, and photography. Finally, the information is made accessible to the public through publications, workshops, lectures, community meetings and electronic platforms.

"The use of various forms of illustration and visual representation allows accessibility, as it is comprehensible to the general public. Also, using narratives to capture the memories associated with the buildings departs from the general trend of documenting the physical aspects of the built heritage," explains Gohar.

Each journal issue is dedicated to the study of a single building, chosen due to factors such as its age, history, specific architectural features, its function, cultural or religious values and of course its folkloric significance. Since 2013 the team has published four journals. For each building, architectural sketches are made, and accompanied by a thorough analysis of its style, structural qualities, and current condition. But also, the journal ensures to capture a key element that much formal architectural research leaves out: capturing the memories of the place.

"Memory, whether collective or individual, is often neglected in previous efforts of documentation which are typically limited to merely the physical aspects of single buildings, or recording events independent of the built environment," stated Gohar. For this, three layers of information sources are differentiated which provide a triangulation to assert the narrative of a building: memories imposed by hegemonic elite, memories socially constructed and shared by primary and secondary groups, and memories based on the personal experience of individuals.

"These articles tell the unwritten story of the building, capturing the oral history which is not recorded. Drawn illustrations describing the building’s story complement the written articles. This makes the information gathered more accessible to various readers and interested disciplines," the architect said.

The project also produces a photography archive, offering a different level of detail and displaying the structural and physical state of the building, its finishing materials and textures, and the surrounding urban fabric and environment, as well as key persons associated with the building.

Meanwhile, the book will include a systematic documentation of the city by describing every building and site recorded on an included map in the book. Its first volume will divide the old city into five areas, each to be represented in a chapter. The book will include a systematic documentation of the areas by describing every building and site recorded on the map. Further volumes will document the modern parts of Alexandria. The team is currently investigating the first area leading to chapter one, which documents the waterfront of the Eastern Harbor of the old city, starting from the fort of Qaitbay and concluding at the new Library of Alexandria. Twenty-one buildings out of about 115 have been documented so far in the first zone.

"Description of Alexandria is not a full professional documentation, at least till now, but in our case I believe it's useful because most of the time we start from scratch and we collect new information about the buildings, we produce new drawings and new visual memory that were never exist before. It is a fact that we remember things better when they're attached to a picture and that could be a good start for another researcher or architect to build something on and do more advanced research," Gohar asserted.

The project also is a boon to the promotion of Alexandria, because of its artistic appeal. Through art, one can get to know the city and its culture, Gohar expounds. He highlights the many objectives of Description of Alexandria, among which are enriching academic debates concerning the definition of heritage, collective memory, and community involvement, proposing new perspectives on the crucial role of the built heritage in shaping collective memory and national identity, stimulating discussion and local activities related to safeguarding Alexandria's endangered urban heritage, and creating a more democratic and more engaging heritage interpretation for the residents of Alexandria of the historical sites and places in which most of them live or work.

Gohar hopes that his initiative will propose a model for creative community involvement in urban heritage projects in other cities across Egypt, and would support and develop a number of skilled professionals in the domains of heritage documentation and interpretation.

Image: Aya Nader

Tags MENA Because NGO CSR description of Alexandria history architecture intangible history volunteering social enterprise conservation