|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
19 - 25 October 2000
Issue No. 504
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Digging for ParadiseIn which Pascale Ghazaleh wards off bats, does battle with vertigo and claustrophobia, and climbs halfway to the top of the world
Driving down the Autostrade towards the Citadel, there it is: take your eyes off the road for a second, try to block out the dazzling silvered domes and tap on the brakes as you reach one of the spaces in the barrier put up to prevent you from seeing -- what? The quarries, or the military zone, or whatever. If you're lucky, you will glimpse it -- there, off to the right and a little way below Al-Guyushi, which gleams in its coat of new cream paint. It seems like an optical illusion at first: how could it have got up there? And probably there's no time to make its ruined contours out clearly, no place to pull over and get out and really take a look. Still, it is there, nestled improbably in the side of the mountain. It could almost be a part of the rock itself -- and no doubt it was hewn from the limestone. But eventually, after repeated attempts, you will be sure. There is a mosque about halfway up Al-Muqattam, crumbling slowly under the wind's gentle yet relentless assault. Specifically, it is a khanqah, mosque and mausoleum, although little remains beyond the contours of the original structure. How can you resist it? You have to go up.
THE REAL SHAHIN: A perusal of the Blue Guide yielded the following information: "A lane leads along the E side of the mosque [housing the tomb of Umar Ibn Al-Farid] for 100m to the Mosque and Tomb of Shahin al-Khalawati. Built in 1538 but now in ruins, it is dramatically perched on a spur of the hills. An Azeri Turk, Shahin was admitted to the Khasakiyyah mamluks of Sultan Qayt-bay, but he retired to study sufism in Tabriz (Iran). When he returned he was patronised by the great amirs... The tomb was stripped of its tiles and marble decoration in 1917."
As for that other stalwart assistant of would-be explorers, Islamic Monuments in Cairo: A Practical Guide, it was terse and to the point: "To the south, upon the limestone slopes, with minaret and arcades dramatically silhouetted against the sky, stand the remains of a monument built by three members of the Khalawati order of mystics from Iran. It is however inaccessible." Well, we would just have to see about that.
First, however, a little detective work was necessary. Who was Shahin Al-Khalwati, and exactly when did he -- or someone else -- build this edifice in such an improbable, almost awkward spot? This much, at least, seems clear: Sheikh Al-Salih Al-Abid Shahin Al-Khalwati was a pious man (Al-Nabulsi cites as proof the fact that he performed the major ablutions before each of the five daily prayers). Born in Tabriz, he became a soldier in the army of Qaytbay (r. 1467-1495 CE), but military life did not agree with his contemplative nature, and he eventually requested that the sultan grant him his freedom so that he could devote himself to prayer. Having been affranchised, he went back to Tabriz and joined Sidi Omar Rawshani, who initiated him into the Khalwatiyya order. He then returned to Egypt, where he became a companion of Mohamed El-Demerdashi. After his spiritual master's death, Shahin took up residence on the Muqattam. There he built a place of worship as well as a grave for himself; it is said that he stayed in the hills for 30 years, never descending to Cairo.
Shahin was renowned for his virtue, and received visits from amirs and vizirs (an honour unheard of in Egypt at the time, according to the chroniclers). The historical record does not preserve evidence of the physical fitness such illustrious personages enjoyed, but their willingness to scale the rocky heights seems sufficient proof of their devotion to his teachings. Then again, perhaps the more robust members of their entourage hoisted them up -- a benefit modern visitors cannot always count on. The sheikh's mere presence seems to have been the main justification for their exertions, furthermore, since he is said to have been quite a taciturn man. According to Al-Nabulsi, he died in 1547 CE -- 30 years after the Ottoman invasion of Egypt. His son and grandson in turn were buried by his side.
The Khalwatiyya, according to historian Ira Lapidus, emphasise "the importance of combining hadith and law with Sufi asceticism and meditation in opposition to shrine worship and festivals;" the order, in fact, derives its name from the verb signifying "to be alone" or "to withdraw for spiritual communion" -- in other words, to be alone with God. Just how alone is debatable, however. Although Sheikh Shahin's very piety may have been the main reason why he could not achieve the isolation he sought so desperately, the Muqattam seems to have offered a hospitable environment to his devotions -- more hospitable, certainly, than the rough-and-tumble camaraderie of the Mamelukes' ranks. The mountain may well have been more conducive to contemplation at the time; at any rate, it is said to be especially blessed. Muslim tradition holds that, on the night God spoke to Moses, He addressed all the mountains thus: "I have spoken to one of My prophets atop one of you," whereupon they all stretched themselves to their fullest height in pride -- except Gabal Tur in Sinai, which shrank as a sign of humility. Then God inspired each of the mountains to bestow a gift upon it. Only the Muqattam gave up everything it had -- every river, every tree and every plant. This is why, writes Ibn Al-Zayyat, "it became as bald as you see it today." In recompense for such generosity, God planted within it the roots of Paradise.
THE MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN: On a previous visit, we had stopped at the Mosque of Lu'lu', which was entirely renovated recently. It is the same subtle cream as Al-Guyushi now, and stands imposingly at the top of a flight of stairs, where we met the guard, 'Amm Ramadan, and his son, Adel. "You want to visit Shahin?" he asked us. "No problem. I have a ladder. But come back on Sunday; my older boy's off work then. He'll take you up." A ladder? He indicated an aluminium specimen parked at the foot of the stairs. "Come back on Sunday, at the end of the day. It'll be cooler then, my son'll take you up. But come before nightfall, mind. Before the bats come out." As if that wasn't sufficient enticement, he then told us about "the men with beards, carrying guns and wearing short galabiyas," who had suddenly come pouring down the side of the mountain a few years ago. "They got lost, you see," he explained laconically. "It's not like us, we know this mountain like our own home."
Home, then, to good old Baedeker, who had this to offer: "On the steep slope of the Moqattam, to the S. of the Giyushi Mosque, lies the so-called Castle of the Mamelukes or Mosque of Shahin el-Khalwati, built in 1533. The ruinous interior may be entered from below. A steep path, practicable for expert climbers only, ascends hence to the plateau through the Coptic caves..." These caves -- "the Rock Caves of Coptic monks, with Coptic and Arabic inscriptions" -- could be reached, in some cases, by a steep path. They would have to await another visit, however; the Mosque of Shahin Al-Khalwati had captured my imagination now. Up I would go.
When we returned on Sunday, there was no sign of 'Amm Ramadan. This part of the Southern Cemetery seemed sleepy, although chickens pecking through the dust and a dog curled up by a tomb wall hinted at life somewhere. A woman was sitting by the side of the lane, her head cradled in her hands, but she did not look up as the car, crunching gravel, drew to a halt. It was eerily quiet; below, the Autostrade snaked past, and in the distance the water of Ain Al-Sira glistened. Suddenly a handful of people materialised: "Sitt Loulou?" one man ventured. "Are you looking for Sitt Loulou? She's that way." We trudged up the steep alleyway and reached the mosque, which gleamed like fresh butter in the afternoon sun. 'Amm Ramadan's wife emerged from a small building near it, and shook her head, smiling. "Ramadan's gone," she told us. "He's in Mohandessin." And their son? "At work." But wasn't Sunday his day off? "Yes, but he's at work." Adel was dancing around her by then. "I'll take them up, Ma," he pleaded. "Well, mind you don't let those other boys steal the ladder, then," she warned him.
We hurried off after Adel, lugging the light but surprisingly unwieldy ladder. Just what function it would serve was still a mystery. By the time we reached the appointed spot, Hussein and Said, whose relative maturity -- as indicated by hints of facial hair -- served to reassure us somewhat, had joined us. Still, we couldn't help balking as they propped the ladder against one of the tombs and patted it, smiling. Up we went nonetheless; up onto that tomb, where a patch of roof had fallen in, revealing a twisted skeleton of criss-crossed metal support beams. They moved the ladder swiftly, and Said scrambled up, taking bags and camera with him. We looked up, bemused, at the narrow ledge where he had alighted, then followed, trying not to think of the gaping hole close by. "It's easy, look," Hussein said helpfully, ascending without the help of the ladder. I looked at his feet: he was wearing rubber flip-flops that seemed to adhere magically to the hillside. He slipped his toes into invisible crannies and pulled himself up, then held out a hand. It was no longer time to worry about looking clumsy. Up we went, higher and higher, hearts thumping as gravel slipped and skidded beneath our feet and went merrily tumbling down tens of feet. The rock, as I clung to it, refusing to look back the way I had come, seemed to be humming with life. Surely there were snakes and scorpions here? Surely this was a bad idea? Well, it was too late. Adel poked his head out from a ledge just above my head. "No, don't put your feet there," he admonished me. "It's up this way." Relatively soon we had reached the mosque: crumbling walls, a minaret outlined against the rock and, higher up, the blue of the sky. The boys led the way in, pushing and pulling our ungainly selves, and then scampering on. We ducked into a crawl space in the ruined wall and, half crouching, made our way up a slope to the music of bats awoken from their afternoon slumber; then we hoisted ourselves up through a well-like opening before emerging, dazzled, into sunlight. Rubble was piled everywhere, strewn with unidentifiable bits of plastic and metal. Over an archway, the sole surviving inscription had been picked out in white chalk. "We did that," said Adel proudly -- then, hesitating: "D'you want me to rub it out?" The carved words read: "He only shall tend God's sanctuaries who believeth in God and the Last Day."
There was other writing, too: the walls were scarred with graffiti in English and Arabic, some in red spray paint: "Mohamed and Ahmed Fawzi," "Hassan," "Ahmed Ramadan." Below, the tombs spread out in a patchwork of ochre and rust and burnt umber. The Citadel seemed small. The boys showed us the remains of a well, and offered to show us how the ruined cells that had once housed Sufi devotees communicated. A white, winged creature flitted past, squeaking its outrage.
A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE: In 1890, the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe wrote in somewhat deprecating terms of the Khalwati mosque. "Having visited this edifice," the eminent members estimated that "the Administration of Awqaf can carry out the work it deems suitable; the Comité can only be responsible for conservation, given that [the building] has no artistic character." They recommended "the conservation of the inscription engraved upon the lintel of the entrance, which tells us that this mosque was built by the person whose name it bears, in 940 AH (1533AD)." The Comité's report also stipulated the conservation of "the polychrome marble mosaic of the Kibla and those of the southwestern hall," while the "wooden grilles found inside" were to be "taken to the Museum" if they were not going to be reused.
The inscription over the main entrance to the prayer area The mihrab; the dome over the mausoleum
Today, of course, there was no sign of marble, polychrome or otherwise; as for the wood, it had evidently gone the way of all organic matter. One century had wrought more damage than the four that preceded it. It was time to go further up. Said pointed across the rock face, to the caves. "There's coloured writing in some of those," he said. "Up here, there's a room with a well in it." We clambered on, higher and higher, through tiny passageways carved through the rock. It seemed impossible to go higher: we were almost at the top of the Muqattam. When we stopped for breath, Hussein showed us a stiflingly narrow passageway that linked the caves together. The whole of the mountain, it seemed, was hollow: a warren of interconnecting cells, where monks had once meditated or been buried. Near the passageway, a mihrab and a series of arches were carved into the hillside. What was their purpose? Had they once been part of a structure linked to the mosque below? It was impossible to guess.
Claustrophobia and vertigo combined to prevent us from exploring or ascending further, despite Said's assurances that there was "a road in the mountain" just past the next ledge up. Would the descent be easier? Do bats enjoy daylight? The disadvantage, of course, was that we could see where we were going, and what lay below that. The only option was the unattractive, but effective, crab walk: squat, lean back on your hands, and inch your way delicately down.
Two ladders later, we were once more on terra firma, our three guides relieved at having delivered us safely to earth. We continued past Adel's house, headed for Ikhwat Youssef (Joseph's brothers) -- little more than a dome and a few vaulted rooms, mostly in ruins. One wall, however, was elaborately carved with Qur'anic verses in Kufic script. The intricate letters seemed to mock their surroundings, defying time and the circumstances that had led to their very survival. Said led us to an adjoining room and pointed at a pile of miscellaneous items crammed into a hole in the ground. "That was a well," he said. "But we blocked it up because we used to play ball here and the balls kept getting lost."
BIRDS ON THE WING: It seemed worse than absurd to feel sorry for the loss of yet another monument -- a complex dating from the 12th century, in this case. The tomb-dwellers, as they are pejoratively called, must live among the dead and they, at least, have made their peace with that fact. They raise their children here, and their children play ball -- when they don't have to go to work, of course. They do know the Muqattam like their home, just as 'Amm Ramadan said, because it is the only playground they have. And precisely what kind of logic posits the survival of the living against the survival of the past, as two mutually exclusive answers to the same absurd riddle?
As we emerged from the ruins of Ikhwat Youssef, we looked up towards the caves and saw a troupe of Baedeker's "expert climbers" -- aged approximately six to 15 -- filing past on the sheer wall of rock, only a loose pebble between them and the ground so far below. "We could take you up there," offered Said, "but I don't know if you'd make it. You have to be light -- like those kids."
Karl Baedeker, Egypt and the Sudan. Handbook for Travellers, Karl Baedeker, 1929.
Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe, exercice 1890, fascicule 7.
Ira M Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Soad Maher Mohamed, Masagid Misr wa Awliya'uha Al-Salihun, Al-Maglis Al-'Ala lil-Shu'un Al-Islamiya, 1983, vol. 5.
Ali Mubarak, Al-Khitat Al-Tawfiqiya, GEBO, vol. 5.
Richard B Parker et al., Islamic Monuments in Cairo: A Practical Guide, AUC Press, 1985.
Veronica Seton-Williams and Peter Stocks, Blue Guide Egypt, A&C Black, 1993.