Entering and climbing the newly restored honey-coloured limestone gate of Bab Zuweila, Nevine El-Aref learned about restoration techniques and challenges involved in the programme
"Restoring Bab Zuweila was for me a challenge, fun and a thrilling experience," said Nairy Hampikian, director of Bab Zuweila restoration project. "This southern bab was the principal gate of the Fatimid city. It was partially demolished in the 15th century when Sultan Al-Mu'ayyad built his mosque next to it on the site of a notorious prison in which he had been incarcerated. He erected the two tall minarets on the gate towers, and for more than 900 years, this was the main thoroughfare leading into the city, a centre of commerce, religious devotion, celebration and executions."
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Scaffolding covering the minaret of the Al-Mu'ayyad Sheikh Mosque; conservation work carried out on a leaf of the iron-clad door
Hampikian's enthusiasm is contagious, she talks and moves energetically, and it is easy to see how she managed to coordinate, and imbue with the same eagerness, a team of no fewer than 38 specialist workers involved in the restoration of this magnificent monument. "The sultans used to sit on the platform between the two towers to watch the start of the great procession of the Mahmal, the ceremonial carrying chair that accompanied the annual pilgrimage caravan to Mecca from the reign of Sultan Baybars and until the 1920s," she said. "Where we are now was the very place used by the ceremonial drummers who played every evening to signal the entrance into the city of the emirs, who commanded 40 or more Mameluks. We have preserved this feature," she went on.
Bab Zuweila, at the junction of Al-Mu'izz street and Darb Al-Ahmar, the magnificent edifice designed to withstand invaders but which was never tested in battle, was for years hidden behind scaffolding and piles of sand, with workers milling around carrying out their assigned tasks. This gate, like all other Islamic monuments located in a heavily populated area, was suffering seriously from environmental pollution -- air pollution, subsoil water, a high level of humidity, the leakage of drainage water and sewage from decayed pipes installed one hundred years ago. Atmospheric pollutants threatened the integrity of the stonework, and the leaves of the gateway -- which weigh four tons each -- were on the verge of collapse due to the decomposition of the wood; the inscriptions on the wood were no longer visible.
"One of the most serious causes of the damage was the shops built around the structure, and when restoration started in 1998 this structure, one of Cairo's oldest which survived for nearly a thousand years, was really in a mess," said Hampikian. "The leaves of the wooden doorway were barely connected to the upper lintel and they were about to collapse. The street level had risen by 1.5 metres, and underneath those heavy door leaves the material had decomposed. The ancient mechanism for moving the doors was no longer operational, so the doors were left standing open, which left them even more vulnerable to decay. The restoration and conservation of the wooden doors was thus a necessary safety precaution," Hampikian affirmed. "Because we were faced with a lot of unknown factors, we had to modify and adapt the conservation strategy as we went along."
Hampikian explained that all the elements of the doors were documented, and a method for their removal and re- installation devised. "We had to sacrifice the decomposed parts of the wooden door leaves," she said. "We had to make sure we could hoist the doors safely, so we had to ensure that all sides of the door were structurally sound." Before the doors were fixed, research -- carried out by the Egyptian Antiquities Project of the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) with funding from the United States Agency for International Development in collaboration with the Supreme Council of Antiquities(SCA) -- unearthed an old pivot-shoe ball bearing system for moving the door. The system was remodelled in stainless steel and installed according to the original design.
Throughout the ages, residents around Bab Zuweila have believed that the spirit of Sheikh Al-Mitwalli inhabits the eastern leaf of the doorway. Al-Mitwalli is a saint to whom some of Cairo's inhabitants turned in times of pain, uncertainty, or to request indulgences. "Considering this," continued Hampikian, "when we removed the cladding of the eastern door leaf, we were not surprised to discover coins, talismans, threads and ribbons attached to the nails."
As for the boat hanging above the door, she added, "this could mark the everlasting flow of the saint's blessing, or it could be his means of transportation from Mecca -- his permanent location -- to Cairo, or," she added with a smile, "it could simply be a place to put seeds for birds."
The various styles of stonework on the gate were subject to close scrutiny. "We had to distinguish between the original stonework and the layers added during later periods," Hampikian said. "To read a wall is to visually detect abrupt changes in a structure, such as the unexpected use of different materials, different sizes or types of stone, different mortars or various surface finishing. Bab Zuweila has survived since 1092 until now by humbly accepting layers added to it, or letting go of layers subtracted from its original entity." She explained that the stonework of the area between Bab Zuweila and the mosque of Al-Mu'ayyad is varied, exhibiting distinct layers. This was the perfect place to look for additions from different periods. "Layers added during later phases of construction are usually distinguishable from earlier periods, while layers that have been removed also leave their mark," she added.
The area around the gate was also the object of urban conservation projects. Modern underground infrastructures such as electrical cables, phone lines, water and sewerage pipes were installed; the street has been paved with basalt stones, while the four shops in the passageway have been conserved and renovated in keeping with the aesthetics of the restored monument.
A lot of structures were unearthed around the bab during the beautification phase, one such object being a watering trough for animals. Hampikian explained that, "it dates back to the end of the 12th century when Bab Zuweila became one of Cairo's commercial nodes, and no longer a gateway into a palatial complex. This change in function necessitated a stationing point for the horses, mules and donkeys that were used to transport goods and people into and out of the city. This drinking trough provided water and food for animals and was in use until 1415 when Sheikh Al-Mu'ayyad covered it to install an entrance to his mosque."
"These are the excavations on the horizontal level," said Hampikian, who explained that on the vertical level -- the walls -- other discoveries were made. While restoring one wall, a painted relief with the emblem of a sultan called Al- Mansour was found drawn on a gypsum base. "Until now the date of this relief cannot be determined but it could be between the Fatimid era and Mu'ayyad's reign," said Hampikian.
The conservation project not only restored the gateway, but some of the interior space was turned into exhibition areas. The main hall of Bab Zuweila now serves as a showcase for the objects unearthed around the eastern door leaf, while the second hall is used to display pipes of various shapes and sizes, shisha water pipes and painted coffee ware. "Research on these artefacts revealed that an 18th-century coffee shop was located around the gate, as well as a workshop for restoring pottery; it is so fascinating," Hampikian enthused. "The coffee ware on display is varied in style, some are made in the Chinese fashion, others reflect Iranian influence, and there are also Egyptian-styled pieces." The objects are displayed in cabinets alongside other artefacts discovered during the restoration programme, including the gate's old pivot-shoe ball bearing system as well as the original lock.