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Preserving Egypt's urban fabric

Article-Preserving Egypt's urban fabric

Omniya Abdel Barr
It’s her love for architecture and history that has made Omniya Abdel Barr a true activist in the fight to preserve the urban fabric of Egypt’s historic cities. She sits down with CityscapeWIRE to discuss her career so far, how she stays motivated and reveals why historic cities in Egypt are so important.

Omniya Abdel Barr, an architect and specialist in cultural heritage and urban conservation at the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation in Cairo and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is one of the biggest advocates when it comes to the preservation of historical cities and buildings in Egypt, understanding the need to protect a city’s urban fabric through its century-old landmarks, buildings and homes.


For Omniya, a career in architecture was an easy choice. It was while watching her uncle, an architect, design a house in Switzerland that first inspired her to seek out a career in the field.

“I remember him designing this house while listening to music and I thought, I love drawing and I love music and even though he told me it wasn’t an easy profession, I wanted to do it.”

“I’ve always loved proportion and patterns and played with lines in my drawing and I was always fascinated with medieval architecture in Cairo because there is just a harmony and balance that exists, like in life. This is why architecture is a way of life. We architects visualise and are trained to think about spaces and volumes and patterns and it makes it easy to understand what happened to our cities,” she said.

When she decided to pursue a PHD in history and urban conservation it further fuelled her passion to preserve the architectural history of cities and it led her to become one of Egypt’s foremost activists in the fight to protect the architectural integrity of the country’s historical cities. “I needed to understand the history of my city if I wanted to defend and protect it and work on its conservation. It’s very important to understand how and why it was built this way.

Historic cities have an energy and it is here that there is a centre of belonging, this is why I also love old places and buildings. The fact that time has passed means something, why visit the centre of Rome or Paris? Because these are places that carry history,” she said.


Her work has spanned multiple projects across the MENA region, with Omniya also dedicating much of her time to restoring medieval courtyard houses in Cairo, a passion project for her with the architect reflecting on why the concept of courtyard houses is so important in today’s design conversation.

“The courtyard was once central to everything in the home. We live in hot cities here in the region and the courtyard represents something that is cooler, something that can create shade. Not only is it functional but it also represents our history,” she said.

For Omniya, what represents a real challenge is the demolition of old buildings to make way for the new. It’s what she calls ‘lost energy’, the loss of a country’s history and its people’s stories. 

“More investment needs to go into readapting, refurbishing and then reusing them. In an old country like Egypt, we can renovate and preserve the history of buildings, we have a strong architectural heritage and story attached to it and by preventing demolitions we can also stop construction waste and be a little mindful of climate change and the environment.”

“Developers don’t realise it but they have a jewel in their hands with historic sites, instead of tearing down and creating new they can make money in a different way,” she admits.

To date, Omniya is proud to have saved three historic courtyard houses in Cairo and it remains a source of encouragement for her to continue to lobby against the demolitions of historic sites.

“We do need to see more success stories though and more investment into historic cities in favour of conservation and preservation.”


A purist when it comes to history and architecture, Ominya admits it has been an uphill battle to take on the mantle of protecting architectural heritage in Egypt. She admits she has lost battles when it comes to the fight to preserve the history of Egypt’s historic cities against modernity.

“I’ve worked on the urban conservation of historic neighbourhoods in Cairo for the last few years and there is still so much to be done to preserve the city. I try and raise awareness about how important it is to retain the city’s urban fabric but what I am seeing is that we have stepped away from our traditional architectural style from 150-years ago and instead rely on a new and modern look for the city, which is why we’re seeing very different designs in cities across Egypt,” said the multi-disciplinarian architect.

“While it has created a disconnect, we must realise that our architectural vocabulary is important and Islamic architecture can still be relevant. It’s important for developers and architects to know that we can still be contemporary but also true to our roots and traditions,” she said.

Although, she’s the first one to admit that they are seeing more restoration in Egypt than when she first started in the industry but there is still a lot more to be done. “When I first started in the industry, 40% of the urban fabric was destroyed in historic neighbourhoods in the country, this is quite high considering that it has created a loss of memory and disorientation but we are trying to do what we can to prevent further loss of heritage.”


With a career spanning 15 years, Omniya admits that one of the greatest blessings in her life are the teams she has worked with over the years that has helped and encouraged her. “You’re not alone. I’ve come to realise that success is achieved with the people around us, it really takes an orchestra to help you get to where you need to be,” she said.

For Omniya, she’s seen this realised in a few of her career highlights. In 2014 Omniya and colleagues passionate about preserving Egypt’s history lobbied for the word heritage to be included as part of article 50 of the Egyptian Constitution, which has helped to protect historical sites. And in 2015, following the looting of monuments in Egypt, Omniya decided to prepare a complete record of over 40 Mamluk minbars (a medieval stepped pulpit of architectural, artistic and historical importance) as a way to document the historical architectural artefacts that remained. The database eventually became the first of its kind created in Egypt and has been extended to cover other architectural elements.

“From this negative situation with the lootings we created a positive project that created such a great impact. It made me realise that small ideas can lead to big achievements.”

“Our aim is to share the knowledge we have acquired through the project with wider circles of professionals as the best way to raise awareness and we hope that this can play a role in the protection of Egypt’s heritage,” she said.

As for the new generation of architects, she advises them to find mentors, always ask questions and to do things in the most efficient way, reusing materials and reducing waste. “I have amazing women in my life who have mentored me and helped me in my professional career. Now, it’s my time to give back and I love to mentor young professionals. I find it enriches my own experiences by learning from them and learning their anxieties because their world is so different to mine. I try and impart to them that while it won’t be easy know that that everything is researchable and every day is a step towards learning something new.”



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