Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2007
Issue No. 865
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Following comprehensive restoration, Fatimid Cairo's main road, writes Nevine El-Aref, will regain some of its original fascination

Click to view caption
From top: the dome of Sultan Qalawun complex; Al-Muiz Street

Stretching 1.5km from Bab Al-Fotouh (Conquest Gate) to Bab Zuweila, Al-Muizulidinillah Street, better known as Share' Al-Muiz -- adjacent to Sayidna Al-Hussein -- has remained popular since its heyday as Cairo's principal thoroughfare under the Fatimids. For a long time people who flock to Share' Al-Muiz to buy the shabka (wedding ornaments) from the gold market known as the Sagha, to join in folk or religious festivities or to enjoy an Oriental dinner or Ramadan Sohour, however, have had to contend with construction works which obscured the area's beautiful Islamic architecture and robbed the street of its spirit. The happy news is they finally have Share' Al-Muiz back. Neither subterranean drainage pumps nor cranes are anywhere to be seen; and the façades have resumed their original splendour. The monuments date not only from the time of the Fatimids but the Mamelukes, Ayoubids and Ottomans, many of whose rulers commissioned some of the Islamic world's most beautiful examples of the sabil, the kuttab and the wikala here. Extant are no less than 34 registered buildings displaying remarkable woodwork, mosaics and domes: the Sultan Qalawun complex; the school of Ibn Barquq Beit Al-Qadi, the Sultan Al-Saleh Najmuddin dome, the sabil- kuttab of Khesru Pasha and the Mohamed Ali Pasha Sabil. By the 1990s time, pollution and the locals' lack of awareness had undermined these monuments' condition, down to their foundations, and the 1992 earthquake left visible marks on many of them. In 2000, when the government launched the huge Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project (HCRP) -- aiming to protect and conserve historic Cairo with view to developing extensive areas into an open-air museum -- Share' Al-Muiz had its share of the LE850- million budget.

Since then, in addition to the 34 monuments on the street itself, some 67 off Share' Al-Muiz have been restored. Road surfaces were treated and invested with benches and low-profile pavements in the spirit of the original thoroughfare, while buildings higher than the level of the monuments have been brought down to size and painted an appropriate colour. To prevent the accumulation of subterranean water -- the principal threat to Islamic Cairo -- a state-of-the-art drainage system has been installed. From 7am to 11pm, Share' Al-Muiz will be a pedestrian-only zone; for the rest of the day, transport of goods will be allowed, while emergency vehicles will have access to the street at all times. Last week, while the neighbourhood of Al-Azhar bustled with Ramadan activity -- food, song and fawanis (Ramadan lanterns) -- Share' Al-Muiz was remarkably quiet though no less cheerful for being so. Before the dome of the Farag Ibn Barquq Mosque, restored and illuminated with colourful lights, Culture Minister Farouk Hosni stood side by side with Cairo Governor Abdel-Azim Wazir; on the other side of the road the Mohamed Ali Sabil had been transformed into a Textiles Museum, but it was the lighting system, which will illuminate both the streets and the façades of the buildings -- the work of an Italian company, GRIVEN -- that seemed to capture the minister's attention. GRIVEN Sales and Marketing Director Danilo Bettinazzi explained that it comprises LED projectors with three-watt colour chips designed for refined architectural illumination, emphasising that the system is durable, energy-saving and requires the bare minimum of maintenance. For his part a largely contented Hosni said the lights would be on the warm side but can take on various bright colours for special events. "It's a great lighting system," he declared, "in every way."

From there, Hosni proceeded to the sabil -turned-Textiles Museum. Built in 1822 to commemorate the pasha's son Ibrahim, who had died in Sudan, the space is made up of a large rectangular hall opening onto another, oval one -- the latter known as Al-Tassbil Hall -- which has a lavabo, a marble façade and four windows, and is decorated with the Ottoman crescent and star -- showing the rococo and baroque influences typical of Mohamed Ali's architectural commissions. According to Farouk Abdel-Salam, HCRP supervisory committee member, "the conversion of the sabil into a museum came about by sheer chance." The idea cropped up after restoration was completed, when no one seemed to have an answer to the question of how to use the space: closing it down or turning it into an administrative office would put it in danger; but without some kind of addition, it could hardly compete with the surrounding monuments as a tourist attraction. At the same time Dar Al-Kutub just happened to request the Culture Ministry to vacate the Textiles Hall on top of the Islamic Museum, originally the property of the former, and things suddenly fit together: "and hence Egypt's first textiles museum in Nahhaseen [the Coppersmiths, a section of Share' Al-Muiz]." The collection, representing the late Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic ages, includes 250 pieces of fabric and 15 rugs, clothes-related tools and instruments, illustrations, monk costumes and icons. Particularly stunning is a red bedcover with gold and silver thread, said to be part of the dowry of the pasha's daughter. There is also a Kaaba kiswah (cover) sent by King Fouad I to Saudi Arabia, and a piece of velvet of rare beauty woven with Quranic verses in golden and silver threads. The Textiles Museum has cost the ministry LE5.2 million so far; it should be open to the public by the end of the year.

Hosni also inspected the newly renovated Sultan Al-Mansour Qalawun complex, comprising kuttab, mosque, mausoleum, madrasa and maristan (asylum), built in 1284 and typical of Mameluke architecture with columned windows reminiscent of the Gothic style. Beyond the masonry entrance, a long corridor giving onto the mosque and kuttab to the right and the mausoleum to the left retains its original beam and coffered ceiling, ending with the entrance to the maristan. The mausoleum is known to be among Cairo's most beautiful buildings: its main courtyard is shielded from the corridor by a screen and all is finished in stucco; the soaring dome, carved in arabesques, is finished in luminescent coloured glass. And yet it was in the time of Al-Mansour's son Al-Nasir Mohamed Ibn Qalawun, who ruled intermittently from 1293 to 1340, that Mameluke art reached its zenith; Al-Nasir's complex, built in 1295 and similar on the whole to his father's, boasts Cairo's first cruciform kuttab ; the entryway is taken from the Crusader Church of St John of Acre and may be the finest extant example of its kind.

"Share' Al-Muiz," Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly following his tour, "will have completely regained its allure by the end of the year." Comparing Share' Al-Muiz to the old city of Geneva, he said that making it pedestrian- only is a dream come true, not least because the change will enable it to occupy its rightful place as Cairo's principal tourist hub, combining tangible and intangible aspects of the city's Islamic heritage. The policy has been to retain the area's local artisans but some workmen and shopkeepers will have to be rehabilitated since their work puts the monuments in danger; many such locals crowded round the minister to enquire further, and his statements in this regard were amply reassuring. "Skilled workers and their handicrafts are essential to the distinct character of Share' Al-Muiz, since they provide the vivid atmosphere of the area and the government is keen on settling craftsmen in their original locations, but in a way that complements their architectural splendour. Workers whose small enterprises adversely affect the monuments will be transferred unless they change their activities, in which case the government will help provide training and raw material. We want to give the area back its silk market, its tent market and other enterprises that are part of its heritage."

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