Five restored Mameluke and Ottoman buildings in Cairo's Al-Hussein district reopened to the public last Sunday. Nevine El-Aref
attended the inaugural ceremony
Last Sunday, journalists, photographers, archaeologists and government officials waited between the Hussein and the Malek Al-Jukandar mosques in Um Al-Gholam Street for the arrival of Culture Minister Farouk Hosni. The occasion was the grand opening of the Malek Al-Jukandar Mosque and madrassa along with four other Mameluke monuments: three sabils (water fountains), a kuttab (Quranic school) and their adjacent mosques. All have been restored under the Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project (HCRP).
The mosque and madrassa of Al-Malek Al-Jukandar, the sabil-kuttab of Amin Effendi Hezaa, the Um Al-Gholam Mosque and the Bazdar and Maghlawi sabils have finally reappeared in all their finery after years of neglect and deterioration.
The buildings reflect the brilliance of the Mameluke and Ottoman periods, when Islamic architecture flourished across mediaeval Cairo. However all five monuments were suffering from the same classic problems: leakage of subterranean water, misuse by the area's residents, structural deterioration and serious environmental damage from air pollution, humidity and decaying foundations, and not least the effects of the 1992 earthquake which caused cracking to all five monuments and the collapse of some archaeological elements. The original floors of all the buildings had completely vanished, as well as parts of their mashrabiya (wooden lattice work) façades.
"Restoring these monuments is a milestone in the efforts to preserve and protect Cairo's Islamic heritage," Hosni told the assembled guests and reporters. He said the opening marked the end of a four-year restoration project that cost the ministry LE6 million.
Hosni said almost 120 Islamic monuments had reopened after restoration within the framework of the rehabilitation project, while another 210 were in the process of restitution. The overall vision is to develop the whole area as an open-air museum. So far 38 sabils, kuttabs, mosques, madrassas, wekalas, and khanqas have been restored and are ready to open their doors to worshippers and visitors. Hosni promised an opening each Sunday to mark the renovation of five Islamic monuments in historic Cairo. "We will attempt to recapture the area's original fame and splendour after 100 years of negligence," he said.
The first monument to be opened this week was the Malek Al-Jukandar Mosque and madrassa, a small edifice built during the Bahari-Mameluke époque in 719H by Emir Seifeddin Al-Malek Al-Jukandar, the vice-sultan in Egypt. According to Ayman Abdel-Moneim, supervisor of the HCRP, the design of the mosque suggests that its founder was totally influenced by the architectural trend shown in the buildings of Sultan Al-Nasser Mohamed Ibn Qalawun. "Some of the decorative and architectural elements of this mosque resemble those in the buildings of his master Sultan Qalawun," Abdel-Moneim said. One of these is the calligraphy decorating the mosque's internal walls. Some of these elements, including the original coloured marble floor, were discovered while restoration was being carried out.
The most imposing of the five monuments is the Um Al-Gholam Mosque, which is again open for worship after being closed for 10 years. This mosque shows the unique architectural aspect favoured by the Circassian Mamelukes, with its central open courtyard surrounded by four iwans (vaulted halls). It was founded in 1460 by Emir Bardabak Al-Ashrafi Inal, who died in 1464.
The mosque was given the name of Um Al-Gholam after the name of the street on which it is located. Legend says Um Al-Gholam was the woman who brought the head of Hussein from Iraq to Cairo, where ever since it has lain in the Hussein Mosque. Another more dramatic legend says that Um Al-Gholam was a deeply religious woman who killed her son and gave his head to Hussein's assassins in its place, and took Hussein's head to Cairo.
Also in Um Al-Gholam Street stands the sabil- kuttab of Amin Effendi Hezaa, constructed in the Mameluke style in spite of its dating from the Ottoman period. The first of the three floors houses the cistern, the second the sabil itself and the third the kuttab. The ceiling of the sabil is of wood ornamented with geometric designs that still show the original vivid colours. The main problem with implementing the restoration was finding the exact location of the cistern. The water depth in the sabil was almost two metres, and the main source of water was unidentified. Thanks to hydrological studies and divers who stumbled upon the cistern, the state of the walls was evaluated and engineers were able to decide on the best technique to save the monument. "Restoring the edifice was a real challenge," Abdel-Moneim said.
The sabils of Al-Bazdar and Maghlawi are among the most beautiful in Cairo, yet their historical background is atypical. Some of their historical elements went missing 70 years ago when they were moved from their original location to their current places in Um Al-Gholam Street. The cisterns are missing, and the kuttab of Maghlawi no longer exists.
The Maghlawi sabil consists of a large rectangular hall with two windows looking on to the Darb Al-Qazzazine. Its ceiling has simple decorations in a geometric design. In 1933 the sabil was transferred from its position between the Al-Azhar and Hussein mosques in Khan Al-Khalili Street under a scheme to enlarge the Hussein Mosque. The Bazdar sabil-kuttab, in Bab Al-Akhdar Street, was moved in 1935 for the same purpose. This building was constructed during the Ottoman era by Mohamed Effendi Ahmed Al-Bazdar, the "judge of the judges" according to the Mameluke model. It consists of three floors, one of them devoted to the kuttab.
After the opening Cairo Governor Abdel-Azeem Wazir promised to declare small alleyways as pedestrian precincts in order to minimise the damage to these magnificent monuments.
Hosni, Wazir and Supreme Council of Antiquities Secretary-General Zahi Hawass opened two more mosques and a sabil- kuttab -madrassa last Sunday in the Al-Azhar area as part of the HCRP. These three monuments are known as "the monuments saved from water", since they lie directly in the path of the subterranean water. They are the mosques of Sharafeddin and Yehya Zeineddin and the madrassa -sabil- kuttab of Al-Qadi Abdul-Basset.
Abdel-Moneim said the leaking of water inside the monuments was the main problem with the work. Pumping out the water is not a long-term solution, and the project's ultimate aim is to channel the subterranean water away once and for all.