Construction – Egypt

Destroying heritage in the name of development – the monastery of Abu al-Darag

Alaa Saad

The monastic complex of Abu al-Darag is situated on the Red Sea, some 70 kilometres south of the city of Suez. Historically, the area and its surroundings have been known to house a number of monastic settlements, including the nearby Monastery of Saint Antonios and the Monastery of Saint Paul the Anchorite, which has long acted as custodian of Abu al-Darag, sending monks to hold prayers in the cave church and find solitude in the historic hermitage cells. 

Archaeological analysis has shown that it was occupied by Christian hermits from the late sixth century, with the area subsequently serving as a resting point for pilgrims from Egypt to Jerusalem until the nineteenth century, due to the availability of a well only a few hundred metres away from the monastic cells. A description of the site in a book issued by the Coptic Studies Institute captures some of the power and beauty of the setting: ‘regarding the church of the monastery, it is deeply sculpted in the rocks of the mountain and contains three crosses on the ceiling and writings on the eastern wall and the wall facing the sea’. 

Egyptian law has long had strict protections surrounding its cultural heritage. In particular, Law 117/1983 (amended in 2010, 2018 and 2020) grants the Supreme Council of Antiquities ‘the right to terminate any contractual relationship of any occupancy, whether residential, commercial, industrial or any other occupancy at archaeological sites and areas’. Furthermore, the legislation allows for local bodies to enforce these protections with the support of the police force, with significant penalties for those who violate these conditions: depending on the nature of the infraction, penalties range from imprisonment and/or a fine of 50,000 to 200,000 Egyptian pounds, up to a prison term of between three and seven years and a penalty of 100,000 to 1 million Egyptian pounds. 

On paper, then, the country’s rich heritage should be safe from destruction or vandalism. However, the scope of these laws is limited by the state’s selective recognition of certain minority communities. With regard to religious minorities, only some religious faiths are officially recognized in the Egyptian Constitution – the Abrahamic religions, namely Christianity, Islam and Judaism – while the heritage of  other religious communities, such as Baháʼí (a faith effectively outlawed in 1962), may be excluded from these protections. There have also been previous attempts, albeit unsuccessful, to remove Jewish heritage from protection. In December 2014, the Alexandria Administrative Court aimed to delist the country’s Jewish heritage, arguing that ‘Jewish civilization in general and the Jewish religion had no impact on the ancient Egyptian civilization nor the arts’. These examples illustrate how the apparently castiron protections surrounding Egypt’s heritage are in practice undermined by discrimination and vested interests, particularly when it concerns one of the country’s marginalized minorities. 

Today, real estate companies advertise villas and chalets in ‘Il Monte Galala el Sokhna’ village resort, with prices starting at 3.3 million Egyptian pounds.

This is also the case with Abu al-Darag, despite the Ministry of Culture issuing a specific decree in 2005 to recognize the site under its purview and acknowledging its responsibility to maintain, protect and restore the heritage value of the complex. This designation has not stopped business and development interests from encroaching on the site. According to the monks of the St Paul the Anchorite monastery, the governorate of Suez sold land belonging to Abu al-Darag to investors. A new mega-project in the area was subsequently announced in 2015, ‘Developing the Galala Plateau’, to be implemented by the Armed Forces Engineering Authority. Under the auspices of the president, the project aimed to build an ‘international city’ including a university and a touristic resort overlooking the Gulf of Suez with two luxury hotels, an industrial zone, medical facilities, an Olympic village, a sea water desalination plant and residential areas for low-income people in addition to the Ain Sukhna-Zafarana road. The state announced that it would employ more than 80 companies and around 80,000 workers to undertake the project. Furthermore, once complete, the project was expected to create 10,000 job opportunities, with investments topping US$100 million. 

As a result of the renewed business interest in the area, a meeting was held in June 2015, which included the local Suez Antiquities Authority, members of the Armed Forces Engineering Authority and the Tourism Development Authority. They formed a committee which, after inspecting the site, scaled back the protected from 276 feddans to just 4 feddans (1 feddan is 1.03 acres or 4,200 square metres). The works continued and the new road that would cut through the Galala Plateau went ahead. The implications for the heritage site, however, were far from positive. In particular, the construction of two multi-lane highways left vast swathes of Abu al-Darag irreparably damaged. 

This vandalism in the name of development prompted the monks of the St Paul the Anchorite Monastery, together with young activists, to start a national campaign to raise awareness about the threat facing the monastery. As a result of this campaign, different antiquities authorities were informed, including the Permanent Committee of Muslim and Coptic Antiquities at the Supreme Council of Antiquities which, in opposition to the view of the local Suez Antiquities Authority, affirmed the unique historic value of the site. Furthermore, in August 2018, the Permanent Committee agreed to have a decree issued by the Minister of Antiquities setting 51 feddans as the historic site covered by decree 817/2005, reclaiming some of the land that had been lost a few years before. 

This move may have contributed to the fear of some investors that the lands might be taken from them by the Permanent Committee of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Even before the 2018 decree, physical attacks on the heritage site escalated. In December 2016, the monks of Saint Paul the Anchorite Monastery found that the cave church had been set on fire. Another attack took place in June 2017, when the cave church was buried under rubble after crews with heavy equipment entered the complex. While no one was held accountable, it seems likely that the attacks were instigated by developers who worried that the land that they had purchased previously might be removed from them. Destroying the historic site may therefore have been seen as the best means to ‘protect’ their investment. Another attack took place at the end of September 2018, when workmen driving loaders attacked the different spots constituting heritage monuments on top of the hill, including the cave church and all the hermitage cells, destroying them and turning them into rubble. This effectively brought an end to the existence of the original heritage site. There were no penalties imposed or any punitive measures taken against any party. Despite focusing on Abu al-Darag, a ministerial decree issued in February 2019 and published in the Official Gazette failed to make any mention of the destroyed historic monastery and provided protection to just a few remains on the lower levels of the mountain. 

This example illustrates how readily cultural heritage and history can be bartered away to accommodate ‘development’, no matter what the cost, especially when the government and business are operating hand in hand. Today, real estate companies advertise villas and chalets in ‘Il Monte Galala el Sokhna’ village resort, with properties starting at 3.3 million Egyptian pounds, targeting the most affluent buyers. The village has been built over 600 feddans, including two luxury hotels. The university as well as a hospital have also been built, alongside hundreds of buildings up for sale, with various recreational outlets, clubs and a sports field. Furthermore, an industrial complex includes 30 mines and factories for producing granite, marble and manufactured marble. These factories are intended drive the transformation of the area into a showpiece real estate development. However, the area where the cave church once sat has yet to be rebuilt, years after its destruction, meaning the beauty and mystery of the monastery could be lost forever.

Photo: An Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christian priest during a Palm Sunday mass at the Samaan el-Kharaz Monastery, in the Mokattam Mountain area of Cairo, Egypt, April 17, 2022. Credit: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany