Mamdouh Sakr is an architect and travel writer. He studied Architecture in the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan, and Graduated in 1999. His Master’s thesis was awarded as the best Master’s Thesis for the year of 2007 by The American University in Cairo.
He is currently working on his Ph.D. at the University of Wales in the UK. His research is about how can architects learn from the urban fabric of old cities, and make use of their principles to design new neighborhoods.
Additionally, Mamdouh Sakr is running a program for 12 years about traditional crafts. The goals of the program are to revive traditional crafts and re-introduce them in our contemporary lives.
Sakr published 5 books about his journeys around the world. The books, as he claims, combines all of his passions for travelling, writing, and architecture.
We met Mamdouh in the House of Egyptian Architecture during his lecture about “Islamic Architecture in India”. We quickly fell in love with his idea about architecture-driven traveling. Read along to know more about his journey.
Mohamed Abdelbary (MA): What are your architectural preferences?
I always had a strong passion for vernacular and traditional architecture. My journey started as a fresh graduate in the office of pioneer architect Rami El-Dahan. I was lucky enough to work in various opportunities in fields related to heritage and history, or nearby historic sites and traditional buildings. This passion for traditional architecture was the driving motor to my first solo trip during my college years to Tunisia, which was the foundation of all my future trips.
MA: What made you love traveling?
It seems that this passion is instinctive. A harder question would be: why do you love food? Because it’s a very unhealthy love.
Back in the 70s, everyone was always excited when someone comes back from a trip. There was not much going on in Egypt at that time, so all the kids would be excited to try all the sweets and chocolates that anyone brings back with them. Opposingly, I found myself more interested in hearing the stories about what they saw in the cities, cultures, and people. These stories took me to a fantasy world in my imagination like “Arabian Nights”. I think I’m passionate about it because I started my life as a traveler. I was born in Scotland and came back to Egypt when I was only 3 weeks old. Additionally, when I traveled with my family, I was always excited and energetic, opposing to my dull feelings of boredom when I was just at home.
MA: What was the turning point in you traveling journey?
I used to travel a lot with my family. But My first trip with my friends was to the western desert oases, which was not the most common trip during this time. Back in those days, there were little to no facilities except very basic cafeterias, which gave our trips strong adventurous vibes. This trip was just the beginning of my first big exploration in the search of vernacular architecture.
The turning point came later in 1998 when I read in one book about “Troglodytes” in Tunisia, which is the traditional architecture of caves. When I saw this in the magazine, I was so amazed that I had to go see it by myself. Although I’ve already been to Tunisia with my family before, the solo trip experience is completely different. Since then, architecture became the motor that drives my traveling adventures.
MA: Why do you prefer off the road trails instead of mainstream attractions?
Unfortunately, some places are now becoming over visited. For example, I had a disappointing experience in Barcelona because I felt like I’m walking on a tourist trail around the city. On the other hand, I had a great experience in Paris, although I didn’t visit the main attractions Like the Champs-Élysées and Eiffel Tower.
I don’t mind the crowdedness of the city as long as it’s actually part of the culture like what we have here in Cairo or in many cities of India. But when it becomes very crowded with tourists, the city starts to turn more into a theatrical show which is very impressionistic and doesn’t really show the real side of the city, which to me is the most beautiful part.
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MA: What made you write about your trips?
After I was back from Sri Lanka, I was telling my friends all about the trip. I was very happy and excited about my experience until one of them threw a stereotypical claim about the country, which shattered my feelings.
I decided to write about my trips to try and break these stereotypes that we generally have about other countries in our society, as well as to encourage others to travel and see the real beauty of the world.
In addition, writing gives me the same pleasure as architectural design. I took a course in creative writing. Afterweards, I attempted to write a novel, but I didn’t manage to finish it. Then the idea to write about my trips came as the perfect balance to channel my passion for writing into architecture.
MA: Tell us about your books
The first 2 books were all about the previous trips that I explored throughout the 12 years previous to their publishing. For my next steps, I wanted to dedicate my future trips to write all about them. From then and on, I made 2 more books each dedicated to just one country. Additionally, I wrote “From Cairo to Tel Aviv” both in Arabic and English. I thought it would be more appropriate to expand the outreach of my books to Arabic readers, hoping that it will fix some of our misinformed stereotypes, as well as excite the idea of traveling in our society.
MA: Did you really go to Tel Aviv?
Technically yes, because I went to Jaffa which is part of the original region of Tel Aviv. But in the beginning of the book I made a confession, because I got a lot of attacking claims saying that I am Zionists and Israeli, just to relief the reader a little after the first shock of the book title.
MA: Can you compare domestic to international travelling?
In one way or another, in domestic trips, I feel like everything is still familiar. And in that sense, I relate to everything and start becoming very critical about it. As a person knowledgeable about urban design, I keep analyzing the quality of service, parking places, ticket lines, and overall organization of the city.
On the contrary, if I am in another country, I don’t really care about the quality of service. Instead, I regard all these mistakes as part of the experience.
And in a way, I always keep comparing the quality of certain sightseeing abroad with similar ones to Egypt, which kind of breaks my heart. Because I still think we are way back in organizing our monuments and showcasing them to the world.
There are so many beautiful places that have little to no publicity in Egypt. For example, Sohag has very beautiful monasteries, Abydos temple, and much more.
MA: If you learned one thing from your trips, what would it be?
As humans, we tend to like each other naturally, and we get very interested when we see someone different from us. I’ve had the best times of my life just hanging out with locals in coffee shops, randomly in the street, or even being hosted by them in their homes. Unfortunately, we always hear misinformed stories about other countries.
I really learned from my trips that generalization and stereotypes are the worst trap we could be deceived by. We really need to travel to break them.
MA: Do you have tips for Traveling architects/designers?
I personally don’t think that traveling is a luxury. Unfortunately, it’s not very convenient for everyone. But for architects, and generally for designers, we really have to do it to open our perception. If you are inspired by certain movements or designers, you need to really experience them with all your senses.
“We don’t just travel for the sake of showing off, we really need to try out the flavors of different cultures to enrich our knowledge about the world.”
We totally recommend reading Sakr’s books if you want to know about his amazing adventures around the world. We promise you a unique perspective for each destination he describes in his books. You can find his books in Diwan and Al-Shorouk bookstores. You can follow his Facebook page as well to stay updated about his upcoming trips and publications.