28 Jan. - 3 Feb. 1999
Issue No. 414
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Focus Economy Opinion Culture Features Living Travel Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Sleeping beautyPassing through the old quarter of Ibn Tulun, it is not easy to picture its past splendour, but the area, only remarkable now for its mosque and the adjoining Gayer Anderson Museum, has known better days. Fayza Hassan and photographer Randa Shaath explore
Writing about informal settlements in Cairo at the end of the 19th century, Jean-Luc Arnaud notes that, "by the middle of 1880, ishash (shacks) had even been built within the boundaries of the Ibn Tulun Mosque." During its long and checkered history, the area surrounding the famous mosque went from grandeur to almost total neglect, but its attraction never waned completely, as different generations periodically gravitated towards it.
"Both houses are all that remains of the bustling Ottoman quarter and narrow alleys that developed around the mosque during the 15th and 16th centuries, when the southern quarters of the city began to spread following the building boom which affected the principal arteries leading to the Citadel, Ibn Tulun Mosque and Old Cairo. The fact that the houses were preserved at all is a miracle in itself, apparently only due to their favourable position."
Architect Bernard Maury
Like his predecessors, who ruled Egypt under the Abbassid Caliphs, Ahmed Ibn Tulun (r. 868-884) wanted his living quarters to match his formidable ambitions. He therefore turned his back on Fustat and endeavoured to establish his own city, choosing the high grounds to the north-east of Al-Askar, which had previously accommodated a Christian and a Jewish cemetery. The foundations of the city, laid in 870, were bound to the east by the hills that later held the Citadel, to the north by Birkat Al-Fil, to the south by the sanctuary of Zein El-Abidin and to the west by Qal'at Al-Kabsh. Gabal Yashkour stood right in its middle. Having drawn his boundaries, Ibn Tulun named the new city Al-Qata'i' (the quarters), possibly in reference to the urban organisation of Samarra -- where he received his military and theological training -- which was divided into sections or qata'i'.These he tried to recreate, parceling the land into plots on which he settled the military, servants, slaves and the various ethnic groups.
Soon markets and crafts were established to satisfy the needs of the inhabitants of the new city as it developed and prospered. A new Dar Al-Imara, housing the government, replaced the one built by the Abbassids in Al-Askar and was connected to Ibn Tulun's new mosque by a door opening near its minbar (lectern). The royal palace abutted the Muqattam and was situated not far from where the Citadel stands now, affording its royal guests a unique view of the Nile and of the gate of the city of Fustat. The palace overlooked a maydan (square or hippodrome) -- believed by historians to be Rumayla Square of later times -- where the ruler would review his troupes from the vantage point of a stately platform. A wide road, Al-Shari' Al-A'zam (the Great Street), led from the palace and the maydan to the mosque, which has been identified as following the general direction of Saliba Street. A hospital (bimaristan) and an aqueduct designed to bring water from Birkat Al-Habash (modern-day Bassatin) to the large complex completed Al-Qata'i'.
Years of magnificence
Ibn Tulun's son, Khumayrawayh, a less uncompromising spendthrift than his father, gave in to his taste for luxury upon his accession to power. He enlarged the palace and added lavishly to its decoration. The maydan was soon transformed into a flourishing park, sheltering an "artificial garden" of silver and golden trees following the Mesopotamian fashion. A large pond is said to have been filled with mercury and the sun, the moon and the stars were reflected on its surface with a brilliance never witnessed before. On the still surface of this extraordinary lake, an enormous inflated cushion floated on which the ruler could recline, surrounded by the fairest damsels of the land. Singers and dancers roamed the palace while wood-carved statues commissioned by Khumayrawayh adorned the sumptuous reception rooms and the corridors. The luxury and magnificence of the palace's court-room (Bayt Al-Dahab or House of Gold) is said to have defied the poets' wildest improvisations. Ibn Tulun's four successors kept adding embellishments to their pleasure dome until, during the brief reign of Ibn Tulun's son Sha'ban, Egypt reverted to Abbassid control.
Years of desolation
In 905 the Abbassids terminated the Tulunid dynasty, avenging the indignity inflicted by the abortive attempt at independence by wreaking systematic havoc in Al-Qata'i', and paying particular attention to the destruction of all the palaces. Only the mosque, which had once been the centre of the city's life, was left standing. From that time on, it was the only vestige testifying to the splendour of that period. In 969, Ibn Hawqal, travelling to Fustat, noted that Ahmed Ibn Tulun had built a city outside Fustat to quarter his troupes. "The area used to be called Al-Qata'i'... This site is [now] in complete ruin," he wrote.
Several attempts were made to revive the area in the years that followed, and rulers periodically built palaces on the site of Al-Qata'i'; but, except for brief periods when affluent bourgeois quarters flourished around the mosque, these attempts eventually seem to have met with failure, and the old foundations were never redeveloped in any significant or sustainable way. During most of the Ottoman period, the mosque received little attention, although in 1684, Bilal Agha renewed some of the woodwork; by the end of the 18th century, however, the mosque was being used as a wool factory and, in the mid-19th century, had become an hospice for the disabled. In 1918, alarmed by its state of disrepair, King Fouad allotted 40,000 pounds for its restoration.
Partly renovated on several occasions since, the Ibn Tulun Mosque now rises like a beacon, its characteristic minaret clearly visible from various vantage points in the city. Flanking its eastern corner, two houses constructed in Ottoman style have attracted attention for over half a century.
The Gayer Anderson Museum
Although the name Bayt Al-Kiridliya (built 1631) refers in fact to a complex of two distinct houses of similar style and beauty which were later joined together at the third floor level by a sort of bridge, the second one, Manzil Amna Bint Salem (built 1540), is seldom mentioned as a separate entity. Both houses are all that remains, according to restoration expert Bernard Maury, of the bustling Ottoman quarter and narrow alleys that developed around the mosque during the 15th and 16th centuries, when the southern quarters of the city began to spread following the building boom which affected the principal arteries leading to the Citadel, Ibn Tulun Mosque and Old Cairo. The fact that the houses were preserved at all, he adds, is a miracle in itself, apparently only due to their favourable position. This allowed them to benefit from the comprehensive restoration of the Tulunid Mosque undertaken around 1929 by the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe (the Committee for the Conservation of the Monuments of Arab Art). The Comité was faced with the daunting task of restoring a completely ruined place of worship as well as the two houses adjoining it, which, according to their report, were in an even worse state of disrepair. Examination of the Comité's work at a later stage showed that only the important parts of the buildings, namely the main entrance doors and elevated halls around the interior courtyard, had been restored appropriately. Secondary parts such as the servants' rooms had probably been deemed beyond salvation and had therefore been given up.
Both built of sandstone, with exterior decorations relying heavily on Mameluke motifs, the two adjacent houses eventually came to be perceived as one unit when they were linked by a common third storey of red brick, added during the 18th century. Their general appearance was typical of the elegant bourgeois dwellings of the period, except for two rather exceptional features, namely the presence of two opposite entrance doors uncharacteristic of Ottoman style, and an extension to the Kiridliya house in the shape of a tower flanking one of its angles, and which formed a sabil-kuttab adorned with a bronze grille.
Around 1834, the houses became the home of the Al-Kiridli family, originally from Crete. The last owner, Sheikh Soliman Al-Kiridli, sold the property to the government around 1934. A few years later, Major Robert Gayer Anderson, a doctor and member of the Egyptian Civil Service who was looking for an old building to restore, asked for and was given guardianship of the two houses. He began to work on them at once, often attended by Sheikh Soliman himself. Gayer Anderson indulged in treasure hunting, scouring markets and furniture sales, searching for Ottoman fixtures and fittings in old villas and palaces up for demolition. By the time he returned to England in 1942 because of poor health, he had completely refurbished the complex. He bequeathed his contribution to the government and the houses have been known since as the Gayer Anderson Museum. They represent a fine example of domestic Ottoman architecture and impart an accurate notion of what an affluent bourgeois dwelling must have looked like during this period.
The second house, originally known as Sitt Amna Salem's, was used in later times as the haramlik (private dwelling quarters). It includes a baffled corridor leading to the central courtyard, adorned with a graceful fountain. An arched recess holds the Bir Al-Watawit (the Well of the Bats), which has been the subject of many fantastic stories in the neighbourhood. In fact, the whole house has been an exceptionally wealthy source of tales for local story-tellers.
In both houses, the most important reception rooms are unusually situated on the first floor, while the ground floor, where one would normally expect to see the principal salamlik, is occupied by a smaller reception room adjoining a corridor, probably used for special visitors. This practice has also been observed in houses ante-dating Bayt Al-Kiridliya, such as that of Zeinab Khatun. Exquisitely painted and gilded ceilings in both the qa'as and the enclosed maq'ad compete in beauty with the intricately carved built-in cupboards -- Gayer Anderson's additions, for the most part -- often characteristically Syrian in craftsmanship, and the large windows inset with delicately convoluted mashrabiya. The carefully chosen furniture and precious objects, among which are several priceless pieces collected by Gayer Anderson, are in complete harmony with the architectural setting.
In the past few decades, although a tour of the museum is recommended to tourists who visit the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, the house seems to have suffered a certain degree of neglect. The architects attached to the Supreme Council of Antiquities who are in charge of the maintenance of the grounds and the interiors are doing an admirable job, but with minimal backing. Recently asked about the poor condition of some of the mashrabiya that generously adorns the terrace roof, one of them explained that "this type of wood, which is constantly exposed to the elements, needs regular applications of linseed oil for its protection. Though we never tire of asking, we are not supplied with the required quantities. Parts of the mashrabiya have self-combusted on very hot summer days. We have done our best to save as much of it as we could." It seems that the budget allocated for the maintenance of the complex includes neither a sufficient supply of linseed oil nor some of the essential tools and products required to hand-clean the painted ceilings according to a process which is being taught by restorer Bernard Maury. "On several occasions, I had to buy the necessary paintbrushes with my own money," commented one of the Council's young restorers, whose meager salary can hardly support such contributions to the national heritage, modest as they may be.
While the dedication of those who have been entrusted with the care of the museum is nothing short of admirable, without more financial assistance to allow for intensive care, it is doubtful that Bayt Al-Kiridliya is equipped at present to defeat the relentlessly destructive gnawing of time.
B Maury et al: Palais et Maisons du Caire II, Epoque Ottomane (XVI-XVIII siecles), Editions CNRS, 1983
Jean-Luc Arnaud: Le Caire, Mise en Place d'une Ville Moderne, 1867-1907, Sindbad Actes Sud, 1998
André Raymond: Le Caire, Arthème Fayard, 1993
Veronica Seton-Williams and Peter Stocks: Blue Guide, Egypt, A & C Black Limited, 1993
Edited by Pascale Ghazaleh