Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
18 - 24 November 1999
Issue No. 456
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Sayeda Zeinab

Here she lies buried

Is the project to expand the Sayeda Zeinab mosque and revamp its environs a bit of method in the wave of restoration madness? Gihan Shahine tracks down elements of past splendour in an area where urban expansion has encroached upon turn-of-the-century gentility
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Despite the hustle and bustle surrounding the Sayeda Zeinab mosque, its interior conjures up a sense of awe, inspired by its fine architecture and the imposing presence of the tomb of the sayeda herself.

Over a thousand years ago, the site on which the mosque is built, currently the scene of major renovation efforts, witnessed Sayeda Zeinab's advent to Egypt. Also known as Umm Hashim, Sayeda Zeinab, the granddaughter of Prophet Mohamed, was described by late writer Aisha Abdel-Rahman as the "heroine of Karbala'," rallying troops at the battle, providing them with water and food, treating the injured and taking care of children. (The battle of Karbala' was triggered by a dispute between the Umayyad dynasty and the family of Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, Zeinab's father, over the succession to the Caliphate. Zeinab's brother, Al-Hussein, was killed in the battle, which resulted in the schism between Shi'ite and Sunni Islam.)

Sayeda Zeinab sought refuge in Egypt after the Umayyad leader Yazid Ibn Mu'awiya exiled her from Madina for rallying the public against the Umayyad regime and demanding revenge for Al-Hussein's assassination. In 681, Egyptian Wali (governor) Musalimah Ibn Mukhaled El-Ansari welcomed Sayeda Zeinab and received her in one of his palaces -- in the district that now bears her name. She spent almost a year there; when she died, she was buried nearby, on the site where the mosque stands now.

Sayeda Zeinab's tomb was rebuilt several times. In 1548, Ottoman governor Ali Pasha built a mosque encompassing the tomb on the rubble of El-Ansari's house. The emir Abdel-Rahman Katkhuda renovated the mosque in 1768, building a tomb in the north-west corner for Sidi Mohamed El-Atris, brother of Sidi Ibrahim El-Dessouqi, the founder of the Sufi brotherhood of that name. In 1798, Osman Bek El-Muradi razed the mosque -- in which he had detected structural defects -- but the French army invaded Egypt before he could have it rebuilt. It was rebuilt by Mohamed Ali, however, and twice overhauled, first by Abbas Pasha and then by Khedive Mohamed Tewfik in 1884. In 1898, part of the gulf El-Ansari's palace had overlooked was filled out and a midan bearing Sayeda Zeinab's name was laid out.

The mosque, which originally occupied an area of 1,700 square metres, was expanded first by King Farouk, in 1942, and then by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, to a total area of 4,500 square metres.

Today, the mosque is undergoing another major face-lift. A project is underway to expand the area it occupies, almost doubling it. The project, which will cost a total of LE25 million, is being funded by the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments), which oversees the mosque's upkeep and functioning. The project is being handled by the Arab Contractors under the supervision of the Ministry of Housing.

The first phase of the project, which focused on upgrading the mosque's infrastructure, was completed in the scheduled three months. The second phase, which began early this year, aims at restoring the older parts of the mosque and building an extension in the same style, which will encompass a library housing rare books, and a prayer hall for women. The second stage is nearing completion and officials have announced that the mosque will be ready by the beginning of Ramadan.

Bring in the new? Restoration or renovation: the debate continues, shifting to the work at Sayeda Zeinab mosque. If the district as a whole benefits from upgrading efforts, however, the question of whether or not the mosque itself should be considered a monument and registered as such may be a moot point
photos: Khaled El-Fiqi

"The mosque was desperately in need of restoration," maintains Abdel-Latif Ghobara, the engineer in charge of the project -- showing a number of photos in support of his argument. Parts of the walls were cracked, most of the frescoes and inscriptions were faded, and a number of ornaments were crumbling. Many parts of the mosque fell victim to misguided restoration efforts early in the century; the brick walls were whitewashed, their original beauty marred. "For years, the mosque remained in the background, despite its importance to worshippers," Ghobara laments.

But this seems to be changing fast. Frescoes and inscriptions have been picked out in vivid hues, the floor is decked out in marble, the pillars have also been covered in Italian marble, the cracks have disappeared, the brick walls have been restored to their original state, and the façade and mashrabiya work have been mended and refurbished. "The mosque has been resurrected," Ghobara boasts.

The site is a beehive of activity: construction workers are busy painting and decorating, others are putting the final touches on the older parts, engineers are constantly giving directions. To an ordinary observer, the new extension is dazzling. Even the puddles, scaffolding and piles of cement do little to dispel its aura of grandeur. The extension features mashrabiya, frescoes, inscriptions and architecture similar to the older portion. "We have copied the original mosque, but added some changes in colours and building materials that do not disturb the harmony of the original," Ghobara says with satisfaction.

Many people are equally satisfied. Having finished his prayers in the older mosque, one man puts it this way: "Sayeda Zeinab has a very special place in the hearts of Muslims the world over. Many worshippers come to visit her tomb, hoping to receive her blessings." Every year, droves of people inundate the mosque and its surroundings for a week to celebrate the moulid of Sayeda Zeinab. "Enlarging the mosque's area was essential: on Fridays, for example, we had to cover the streets with prayer mats to create room for dozens of worshippers," adds another worshipper.

The renovation of the mosque is just one project in a wave of restoration. First was Al-Azhar, then Al-Hussein, and work is well underway to restore the mosques of Al-Ghouri, Abdel-Ghani Al-Fakhri and Al-Banat. The Arab Contractors' firm is in charge of all these projects, which makes many restoration experts sceptical as to the quality of work and the future of Cairo's Islamic heritage. The restoration of Al-Azhar mosque, for instance, was severely criticised, and it remains uncertain whether the same fuss will be made about Sayeda Zeinab.

Ghobara, however, shrugs off these claims: "I don't think there will be any fuss this time, since the mosque is not registered as an antiquity."

But why isn't it? "Because the mosque is simply not a monument, except for very small, already registered, parts," explains Abdallah El-Attar, head of the Islamic and Coptic Monuments Sector of the Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA). Many historians agree that the original architecture of the mosque was almost entirely obliterated by construction, expansion and reconstruction work. Many architects, however, argue that the mosque features fine examples of woodwork, wall paintings and inscriptions. The main façade, minaret and cupola are typical of the Mameluke style.

For many experts, therefore, the mosque deserves to be registered as a monument and accorded better care. Many agree that lack of funding is the main reason the SCA does not register Sayeda Zeinab, as well as the many other Islamic monuments under the aegis of the Ministry of Awqaf, which owns 90 per cent of Egypt crumbling Islamic heritage.

"Out of thousands of Islamic monuments, only 500 are registered," laments Salah Zaki Said, the retired head of Al-Azhar University's architecture department. "There are entire districts in need of registration, not to mention restoration. But the SCA is always financially overloaded, and this causes the loss of much of our heritage."

Said believes the Sayeda Zeinab mosque should be listed. "It deserves to be considered a monument, even if it was restored and extended several times," he argues. "Besides its beautiful architecture, the mosque has the merit of housing Sayeda Zeinab's tomb. The fact that restoration work was improperly carried out before does not mean we should keep on doing things wrong."

Said, and many restoration experts, feel that the work being carried out on Sayeda Zeinab is not restoration in the true sense of the word. "We should call it renovation," Said maintains. He explains that restoration is an intricate work of art that needs to be carefully carried out. The Arab Contractors, many agree, is a construction giant, not a restoration expert. "The company has used concrete, besides covering some parts of the mosque with brick and others with oil paint. The mosque should have been handled as a monument. Restoration specialists should have carried out the work. This is just unfair," he exclaims.

Professional restorers, however, are hard to find. The Faculty of Archaeology teaches restoration, but what is actually needed is specialised engineers. The Faculty of Engineering, however, does not offer that specialisation to graduate or undergraduate students.

At any rate, Ghobara retorts, the Arab Contractors have a whole department of restoration experts. "We have very qualified staff who apply the latest methods in restoration," he maintains. "Yet we know we cannot satisfy everyone, since even restorers belonging to different schools differ among themselves. We never spare money or effort to bring in foreign experts when needed: the mosque's pillars were sent to Italy to be clad in marble."

But how can the mosque be restored and expanded in less than nine months? "We have 400 people toiling around the clock and over weekends to meet the deadline. Otherwise we would have spent double the time accomplishing the work. After all, the government is taking great interest in the mosque," Ghobara asserts.

Restoration, in fact, will not stop at the mosque. During a recent visit, Cairo Governor Abdel-Rehim Shehata ordered the relocation of vendors who had set up stalls along one of the mosque's walls, and the development of the area surrounding the mosque.

Work has not started yet, but the news thrilled many historians as well as Sayeda Zeinab's inhabitants, especially since previous attempts at community development have been largely doomed to failure.

"The district does deserve a facelift," says journalist and historian Kamel Zoheiri, who went to school there and wrote about the area extensively. "It has a very long and interesting history that everyone should know about."

Zoheiri believes the real significance of Sayeda Zeinab lies in its status as the nucleus of 19th-century urban planner Ali Mubarak's judicial and educational reforms, the latter attracting avid learners, great poets and literary writers.

Sayeda Zeinab was the place where Egypt's first Ministry of Education, national library and teachers' college were built, around 1870. In the same area, a newspaper named Rawdat Al-Madaris was launched, and a law school built in Al-Sanafiri Street. Dar Al-Ulum (the teachers' college) and the newspaper headquarters were later razed and Al-Khidiwiya Al-Thanawiya school, where Zoheiri was enrolled, was built on the rubble. The Faculty of Legislative Studies was built where the law school once stood.

Ali Mubarak himself lived in Sayeda Zeinab, first on Al-Suyufiya Street, then near Al-Khidiwiya Al-Thanawiya school. "Some parts of Ali Mubarak's house were still standing when I was at school, towards mid-century. I remember staring out the classroom window at it," Zoheiri says with a smile. "Sayeda Zeinab has always inspired me with a sense of patriotism, devotion and an urge to write. It was there that the 1919 Revolution blossomed, and where many of Al-Azhar's greatest minds resided, like political reformer Mohamed Abduh."

The area has inspired many great writers and poets. Yehia Haqqi wrote Qandil Umm Hashim here; here, too, Fathi Radwan wrote his autobiography, Al-Khalig Al-Masri; and at 35 Salama Street, Tewfik Al-Hakim found inspiration for his masterpiece Awdat Al-Ruh. Youssef El-Siba'i wrote Gineinet Namish and El-Saqqa Mat. Poet Beiram El-Tunsi lived in Sayeda Zeinab; Mustafa Kamel went to school here.

"Very few people know about the places where these people lived. Many of the buildings have disappeared," says Zoheiri, who is currently spearheading a campaign to document edifices of historical significance nationwide. Salah Zaki Said initiated a similar attempt, sending a number of his students at the Faculty of Archaeology to study the area and list its most important edifices. Unable to register all the students' findings, however, the SCA has listed and is currently restoring a few of them, most importantly Beit Al-Sennari, where members of the French Expedition resided. "Still, there are at least 37 Islamic monuments that need restoration urgently," Zoheiri argues. "People will not appreciate the value of a place or an edifice if they know nothing of its historical, cultural and spiritual significance."

Today, Sayeda Zeinab is deteriorating due to overpopulation, traffic congestion, poor facilities and services and an inadequate sewage system. In the aftermath of the 1992 earthquake, an experiment in community development was initiated on Abul-Dahab Street, behind the mosque. The comprehensive project, however, ground to a halt: funds were lacking. It remains unknown whether the Cairo governor's plans for the area will meet with the same fate.

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