Back to the original
Historic Cairo continues to shake the dust off monuments that once were the symbol of a great Islamic empire. Nevine El-Aref
reviews the latest revamped pieces of history
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Mohamed Moharam Mosque; a plan of Al-Sultan Negmeddin dome; a restorer removing the dust off a Quranic relief; Culture Minister Farouk Hosni with Cairo Governor Abdel-Azeem Wazir and head of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Relations Abdel-Raouf El-Ridi in front of Mohamed Ali sabil photos: Mohamed Wassim
Cairo is an unequalled treasure house of Islamic architecture displaying distinguished Mameluke, Ottoman and Fatimid edifices. However, due to urban expansion during the past 50 years, many of the city's monuments virtually disappeared while others were largely neglected, thus turning them into something other than what they used to look like. They suffered from leaking subterranean water, misuse of the surrounding areas by inhabitants, the deterioration of walls as well as a serious environmental threat from air pollution, a high level of humidity and decaying foundations. Added to the problem was the 1992 earthquake which cracked the city's monuments, and forced more art work to fall or peel off.
The expected but still upsetting result: the original floors of some monuments completely vanished as well as parts of their mashrabiya (woodwork) façade.
Help arrived in 2000 when the government launched a huge restoration campaign called Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project (HCRP) which aimed at protecting, conserving and preserving monuments which had fallen into oblivion. Since the project came into being more than 120 Islamic monuments have been restored, reopening their door to worshippers and visitors.
On Sunday, despite a blistering heat wave, Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, Cairo Governor Abdel-Azeem Wazir and other high-ranking governmental officials joined hands to cut the red ribbon of four more Mameluke and Ottoman buildings. At Darb Al-Masmat alley in Gammaliya district in Mediaeval Cairo, Mahmoud Moharam Mosque, Mohebeddin Abul-Tayeb hall, the dome of Al-Sultan Al-Saleh Negmeddin and sabil- kuttab (water tap and Quranic school) of Khesru Pasha recovered their splendour after years of negligence and deterioration.
"Restoring these monuments is a milestone in the efforts to preserve and protect Cairo's Islamic heritage," Hosni said, adding that such an inauguration marks the end of a four-year restoration programme which cost the Culture Ministry LE8 million. Now, Hosni continued, over 120 Islamic monuments have been rehabilitated within the framework of the HCRP with the hope to eventually turn the entire city into an open-air museum. An additional 210 monuments are also having a makeover. Last month, 13 out of 38 restored sabil, kuttab, mosque, madrassa, wekala, and khanqa were officially inaugurated while the rest will enjoy a similar conclusion in due time.
"Every Sunday, historic Cairo will celebrate the revival of a number of its monuments in an attempt to return this area to its original splendour after 100 years of negligence," Hosni promised. To implement such a plan, he assigned the newly established National Agency for Urban Harmony to make the city's streets, residential façades, bazaars, shops and billboards fit more in harmony with the city's historic atmosphere.
Ayman Abdel-Moneim, HCRP supervisor, considers the conservation work of such monuments one of the most difficult tasks ever carried out in the field. Before putting the restoration plan into action, restorers had to first strengthen the foundations of these edifices and protect them from future damage. This was achieved using the "micro-pile system", the installation of sharp pointed columns beneath the archaeological edifices to reinforce their foundations.
The first monument to be given the green light was the Mahmoud Moharam Mosque, described by historians as an Islamic piece of art, at the Gammaliya historical zone. Despite its simple and modest architecture it bears magnificent decorative elements seen particularly clearly in the ceiling, the mihrab (sanctuary) and minbar (pulpit). "One of the most serious causes of damage has been the improper use of the mosque by worshippers as well as the encroachment of traders over the centuries," Hosni said, adding that bazaar owners renting shops and stall spaces in the narrow street running parallel to and under Mahmoud Moharam Mosque had been largely responsible for its deterioration. Thus the change in the inner form of the mosque's foundations, enlarging them by demolishing the mosque's supporting walls which in turn led to the instability of its building and minaret. The walls of the monument cracked, masonry was damaged and the general condition was critical. The ceiling's decorations were heavily stained with smoke while most of the flooring was broken. The mosque had been closed to prayer and visitors.
Abdel-Moneim said all the restoration had been carried out according to the latest and most scientific methods. "Every effort was made to ensure that all original architectural features were retained," he said. Mahmoud Moharam Mosque was originally built during the 16th Century by Shahbandar Al-Tuggar (chief traders) holder of the same name. The mosque has a unique architectural design showing a hanging mosque standing on a series of shops. The most imposing of the four monuments was the Mohebeddin Abul-Tayeb hall which reflects the architectural opulence of the Mameluke era. The hall was originally the reception of Moharam's palace built during the 14th Century but during the 1940s the palace was severely damaged when work began on Beit Al-Qadi road. The hall was the only section left intact in this stunning palace. It is a vast square visitor hall with a large mashrabiya façade (wood Lattice work). A marble water tap decorates its middle and overhead is a fine wooden ceiling ornamented with colourful geometrical and foliage drawings. To the left is a small passage leading to a vaulted ceiling bathroom.
"Time has had an effect on the hall," Abdel-Moneim said, recounting that when the HCRP workers entered the hall it was in a pitiful state, leading some to conclude prematurely that any restoration effort would be a waste of time. But now the hall stands as proudly as it did in the past. Parts of the damaged marble floor of both the water tap and the ground have been dismantled, restored and replaced in their original position. Missing Quranic texts embellishing the hall's walls have been completed while those which were hidden beneath the dust have been cleaned. The walls were reinforced, missing and decayed stones were replaced and masonry cleaned and desalinated.
In Al-Nahassin stands Al-Sultan Al-Saleh Negmeddin dome as a rare example of a significant period in Egyptian Islamic history, that when the Mamelukes took control of Egypt's throne from the Ayubides. The dome was built by Shagaret Al-Dor to act as the burial place for her husband Al-Sultan Negmeddin, the last Ayubide ruler. It consist of a large hall where a wooden sarcophagus bearing Negmeddin's corpse stands in the middle and two other halls dedicated for a kuttab and a small mosque. The dome also has a number of white cement windows decorated with stained glass and a large mashrabiya façade, all of which were at the mercy of high humidity that led to the collapse of some of its parts. To the north lies the sabil-kuttab of Khesru Pasha, one of the most beautiful Ottoman sabils which entranced 17th Century historians and travellers with its extremely fine touches. It is a two- storey building where the sabil is on the first floor and the kuttab on the second. The sabil has Al-tasbil room, which is a niche to cool the water before it runs to the sabil's well. The kuttab was dedicated for teaching poor children Quran free of charge.
After the inaugural, Hosni toured the gallery of Mohamed Ali Sabil to check on the progress being made to transform it into a museum of the history of weaving, from the Pharaonic to the modern era.