Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 March - 3 April 2002
Issue No.579
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Tourist trail round the Med

The Egyptian branch of the Museum With No Frontiers, launched early last week, gives tourists an opportunity to explore Egypt's splendid Mameluke heritage. Nevine El-Aref traces the new track

Five years after launching the Museum With No Frontiers project (MWNF), which aims at developing cultural relations between countries north and south of the Mediterranean by enhancing the landmarks of a shared history, Egypt's contribution finally saw the light of day last Thursday.

Entitled "Mameluke Art: The Splendour and Magic of the Sultans," the exhibition trail takes in the finest and most beguiling examples of the art of this period. The trail through various cities offers a new experience to tourists: art and architecture as a living example of history.

"The Mameluke social and cultural dynamic spanned three centuries of festivity, scholarship and invention, in which magnificent stonework animated by thousands of cupolas and stalactite niches were created," said Abdallah El-Attar head of the Islamic and Coptic antiquities department at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). "These are not imprisoned artefacts in enclosed spaces, but structures that reveal more comprehensive facets of the country's architectural, cultural and artistic heritage," he added.

Egypt's Mameluke past was an apt choice for the country's exhibition trail because, as El- Attar explained: "It is the fruit of the project's grand cycle. The Mameluke period is known for its many architectural innovations. It captures the richness introduced to Egypt by migrating Turkish, Circassian, Byzantine and Mongol artists, builders, scientists and clergymen. Using a variety of artistic techniques, they created the most splendid buildings in the history of Islamic art."

El-Attar told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Mameluke sultans were obsessed by the need to establish their political sway, "They used architecture as a weapon to demonstrate their strength," he said. "They erected countless religious and civic structures in Egypt, including palaces, mosques, wikalas (shops), madrasas (religious schools), mausoleums and sabils (water fountains). And these monuments are the highlights of Egypt's eight itineraries in the Museum With No Frontiers. Five are in Cairo, while three are in Alexandria, Rosetta and Fuwah (see neighbouring column).

Detailed descriptions of the sites and monuments, along with historical background and artistic introduction, are provided in a catalogue produced by the SCA which is now on sale.

The MWNF project had its roots in the Barcelona Conference of November 1995, when a comprehensive framework for Euro- Mediterranean cooperation was worked out. The declaration established a partnership between the European members and Mediterranean countries including Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Italy, Egypt, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine.

As part of this initiative, 16 projects dealing with cultural heritage in the region were launched, one of which was "Islamic Art in the Mediterranean."

Eva Schubert, chairwoman of the MWNF project, told Al-Ahram Weekly that focusing on Islamic art in the Mediterranean was an "excellent choice to raise an awareness for this lesser-known cultural heritage. The programme offers an opportunity to show that Islamic art is not a theme to be found only in the southern Mediterranean countries, but that it is also part and parcel of the European heritage." Schubert believes that satisfactorily to implement political, economic and scientific cooperation and establish cultural links between the two sides of the Mediterranean. "We have to understand the role played by the southern Mediterranean countries in the Islamic past. In general, our key aim is to relate each geographical area to a wider Euro-Mediterranean context," she said.

The Islamic Art Exhibition in the Mediterranean, realised through the support of the European Union in conjunction with the MEDA- Euromed Heritage programme, explores Islamic art and culture in the Mediterranean region from the 7th to the 19th centuries. The Mediterranean basin will be presented as an authentic "museum without frontiers."

The Nilometre, left. The minarets of Al-Azhar mosque, right

The guiding concept of the project is to present heritage in situ, within cultural and historical contexts. In other words, the whole region becomes the exhibition hall, and the selected museums, sites and monuments are protagonists of a long-term cultural event. Each exhibition trail is divided into a number of different itineraries, each lasting for one or two days, and each focused on a specific global theme.

The inauguration of cycles of culture in different countries is running almost according to schedule. In 1999 Turkey presented Early Ottoman Art; and Portugal inaugurated the Islamic monuments in the "Lands of the Enchanted Moorish Maiden." In 2000, three further projects were launched; the first being on Andalusian Morocco; the second demonstrating Thirteen Centuries of Art and Architecture in Tunisia; and the third Mudjar Art in Spain around Andalusia, Aragon, Castilla La Mancha, Castilla, Leon, Extremadura and Madrid. In 2001, Jordan opened its exhibition trail through the Umayyad monuments. And this year Egypt has launched its project of Mameluke Art.

Next September, the Palestine Authority will put on show Islamic Art in the West Bank, and in October Italy will introduce its share in the project through Arab-Norman Art in Mediaeval Sicily. Algeria's turn will come in 2003 with an exhibition of water and architecture of the desert.

"Syria has shown interest in taking part in the project," Schubert said. "It will organise a portion of history on the Abassid Era. As for Israel, this portion of the trail, which would have meant covering the sites in Jerusalem, Acre and its environs, has been excluded from the project.

Gaballa Ali Gaballa, archaeological consultant in the Ministry of Culture, told the Weekly that cancelling the Israel part was unavoidable owing to objection to its inclusion by Egypt and other participants. "There will be neither cultural nor archaeological cooperation with Israel until they abide by recent decisions issued by the UN Security Council, and continue the peace process with the Palestinian Authority," Gaballa said.

Schubert went on to explain there was originally technical and scientific cooperation between Israel and Palestine, and two exhibition trails were planned, with Jerusalem common to both. "But the person in charge of the Israel project was transferred to another job and nobody followed up. This came simultaneously with a deterioration in Palestinian-Israeli relations, and an acceleration of the Intifada, and thus the Israel project was stopped and excluded from the MWNF exhibition trail," Schubert said.

Sweden and Finland are sharing in the MWNF project, holding conferences and organising presentations.

"The completion of the MWNF is not the end of the project," Schubert said. "A second and a third phase will be implemented. One of these will be to innovate and organise a new Mediterranean tour through cooperation between local and international travel agencies. The other aims to use regular European and Mediterranean museums with their distinguished Islamic collections as gateways to the 10 inaugurated exhibition trails." This will be achieved through installing a special network in 17 European and Mediterranean museums where information technology will play a major role in relating every exhibited Islamic item to sites in the MWNF itineraries.

Schubert told the Weekly that in an attempt to pay more attention to one of the most beautiful, delicate and at the same time threatened parts of the Egyptian heritage, the MWNF would launch a theme on "The Mosaics" in September. "Other themes such as 'Rural and Coptic Arts' are also envisioned," she said.

From the Citadel to the Delta

First itinerary: The Seat of Sultanate

This itinerary begins with a quick visit to the Islamic Museum in Bab Al-Khalq Square by means of an introduction to the period. It explains the style of Islamic art and its development throughout the ages. Visitors will then head straight to the Seat of Sultanate, touring various Mameluke architectural structures at the Salaheddin Citadel and its surroundings.

Al-Ramla and Al-Haddad towers in the military section at the eastern edge of the citadel are the first stop. After seeing the three-storey circular towers, visitors can enjoy a splendid view of the Muqattam Hills from the top of either tower. The panorama takes in Al-Guyushi Mosque, Salah Salim Avenue, the ruins of the citadel towers and the surrounding wall.

For a comprehensive overview of the military forces through the various Islamic ages, visitors will pay a visit to Burg Al- Seba' (the Tower of Lions) built by Sultan Baybars. At Al- Bunduqdari in the residential area of the Citadel a new section will be opened showing luxurious Mameluke palaces such as Al-Gawhara and the ruins of Al-Ablaq palace built by Al- Naser Mohamed Ibn Qalawun.

The Citadel has several museums housed in restored historic palaces, among them the Military Museum, the Royal Carriages Museum and the Police Museum. The palaces of Mameluke princes, mosques, and madrasas (religious schools) around the Citadel are also on the visit, including the madrasa of Qanibay Amir Akhur, the mosque and madrasa of Sultan Hassan, the madrasa of Gawhar Al-Lala, and both entrances of the Manjak El-Silahdar and Yashbak Min Mahdi palaces.

Second itinerary:

The Sultan's Procession

This retraces the steps of the original procession of the Sultan, starting from the Mameluke cemetery and heading towards Bab Al-Nasr through Al-Muizz Street and Bab Al- Wazir, and then to the Citadel. This itinerary will be divided in two journeys.

The first is devoted to the madrasa and mosque of Sultan Qaitbay, the Sufi Khanqa of Sultan Al-Ashraf Barsbay, and the complexes of Qurqumas Amir Kabir and Sulta Inal. The Wikala of Sultan Qaitbay, the palace of Bashtak, the Qa'a Mohibeddin and Maq'ad (seats) of Mamay Al-Sayfi are also on the trail. The second bypasses the mosques of Sultan Al-Mu'ayyad Shaykh, Al-Tunbugha Al-Maridani and Al-Aqsunqur, as well as the madrasas of Qujmas Al-Ishaqu and Umm Al-Sultan Shaaban, and the palace of Alin Aq Al-Husami

Third itinerary: The Science and Learning

This excursion reveals some of the intellectual achievements of the Mamelukes, beginning with a visit to Al-Azhar mosque, the oldest continuously active university in the world, and the madrasa of Sultan Al-Ghuri. It includes the Sufi khanqa and the madrasas of Sultans Barquq and Baybars Al-Gashankir.

Fourth itinerary: Celebrating the Rising of the Nile

This focuses on the Nile. It starts with a visit to the Nilometre on Roda Island, followed by the aqueduct in the Ain El-Sira area, and Sabil-Kuttab Qaitbay on Saliba Street. The itinerary takes in the mosque, khanqa and Qubba (dome) of Shaykhu, followed by the madrasas of Taghir Bardi and Sarghatmish. This itinerary concludes with a tour around Ibn Tulun mosque, and the madrasa and mausoleums of Salar and Singar Al- Gawli.

The fifth itinerary: Markets

The tour is directed to commerce, and visits are made to a collection of wikalas including Al-Ghuri, Khan Al-Khalili, Al-Sagha and Al-Attarine markets, which are the main highlights.

The sixth itinerary: Alexandria: Gateway to the west

Here the exhibition trail is in Alexandria, where the Mameluke Sultan Al-Ashraf Qaitbay built his citadel in 1447 BC. It includes the remaining walls and towers of the Old City

The seventh itinerary: Rosetta: Trading Centre of the Delta

Rosetta with its profusion of Islamic monuments is the focus of this itinerary. Rosetta is the second of Egypt's ancient ports to be graced by a citadel built by Qaitbay, as well as the mosque of Al-Mahalli.

The eighth itinerary: Fuwa: Rice Province on the Delta

The peninsula city of Fuwa, which sits on the widest section of the Rosetta branch of the Nile, is the focus of this last itinerary.

During Mohamed Ali's era, Fuwa was the place of the tarboush (fez) factories. There are well-preserved mosques, tikkiyas (charitable hostels), wekalas and mausoleums. The recently restored mosques of Hassan Nasrallah, Abul-Makarim, Al-Namiri and Al-Qina'i are the highlights of the tour.

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