A museum piece
An ambitious restoration project aimed at returning the mosque of Al-Zahir Baybars to its original glory was launched this week. Nevine El-Aref
reports on the new project by the Ministry of Culture and the Kazakhstan government
At Al-Dahir square in north Cairo stands the lofty mosque of Al-Zahir Baybars, enclosed in a square stone wall decorated at its top with a row of crenellation and four towers to fortify its exterior corners.
Although it is the only surviving edifice of the mediaeval city in the Hussaniya district, once one of Cairo's most prestigious areas and deeply rooted in Islamic history, the Zahir Baybars mosque is suffering from severe negligence and deterioration.
Since it was constructed in 1267 under the supervision of Baybars's top advisers Atabeg Fariseddin Aqtai and Bahaaeddin Ali Ibn Hinna for Friday prayer with a Hanafi Khatib, the mosque flourished and became the first congregational mosque to be built in Cairo after the elimination of the Shafi' monopoly on jurisprudence, which restricted Friday prayer to a single congregational mosque.
The Baybars mosque has three monumental projecting entrances; the main one in the western wall and leading to a passage starting with a domed ceiling at the beginning and ending with a shallow dome. Inside the mosque is a quasi-square court surrounded with aisles on its four sides. The most distinguished features of the mosque is the chamber that precedes the mihrab, which indicates the direction of Mecca, because it has a quasi square structure occupying nine tiles and topped by a red brick dome. The southern aisle consists of six colonnades, those on the east and west consisting of three colonnades each while the northern aisle contains only two colonnades. All the latter's arches are supported by marble columns.
The door originally resembled that of the Madrasa Al-Zahiriya, while the dome would have been as large as that of Al-Shafei Mosque. The rest of the plan is very similar in design and size to that of the Fatimid Al-Hakim Mosque, built 250 years earlier, but some modern scholars argue that it looks more like a fortress and consider it a symbol of "Sunni Islam militant and triumphant".
For Baybars, constructing a mosque was part of establishing his authority as a legitimate Muslim ruler. Raw materials for its construction were collected and imported from all corners of the empire. Marble columns and wood were taken from the Citadel of Jaffa, which the sultan had taken from the Crusaders. The marble was used in the encrustation of the mihrab and the wood in the construction of the maqsura (chapel).
Farag Fada, head of the Islamic and Coptic Antiquities Department at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), says the Baybars Mosque went through many metamorphoses before reaching the terrible stage it stands at now. He continues that, according to several historians, prayers were held at the Baybars Mosque continually up until the early 16th century, almost at the end of the Mameluke period. The Ottoman conquests turned Egypt from a seat of sultanic power to a mere province, and under such circumstances the mosque was too big for the provincial government to maintain and fell into disrepair. It became an army store house where supplies such as tents and saddles were kept during the Ottoman period.
Fada said that during the Napoleon Expedition the mosque was used as a fortress and garrison for its soldiers. In 1812, according to the wishes of the famous Sheikh El-Sharqawi, some of the mosque's marble columns and stones were used to build the Riwaq Al-Sharaqwi at the Al-Azhar Mosque. It is even rumoured that some of the columns were used to build the Qasr Al-Nil palace. During the reign of Mohamed Ali Pasha it was used as an army camp and bakery, and then later a soap factory. Meanwhile, the British occupation forces used the mosque as both a bakery and a slaughterhouse -- hence the still-popular name for it: Al-Madhbah Al-Ingilizi (the English slaughterhouse). This continued until 1915.
Time took its toll on the mosque and what survives of it is in dire condition. Yet the remains do suggest how grand the whole structure once was. The mosque covers an area of 10,000 square metres enclosed by a 10m-high wall. Parts of the destroyed courtyard have been turned into a garden, which at times is open to the public.
Several attempts to restore this magnificent monument have failed, but in 1995 a restoration project took place which focussed on cleaning the mosque, removing some small shops that encroached on the external enclosure, and raising the height of the wall to prevent any future incursions into the perimeter.
The original wall was also restored, with damaged blocks being replaced by similar ones. To prevent the leakage of outside water into the mosque, all the entrances were raised above street level. While restoring the northern riwaq or prayer hall restorers noted that many cracks were evident.
At the time the SCA blamed the 10 Ramadan Company (TRC), which was in charge of this phase of the work, alleging that the cracks had resulted from an error in the work and demanding that the TRC pay the extra restoration expenses. The TRC, for its part, replied that the cracks were a normal effect of the mosque's critical condition.
The project screeched to a halt, and the SCA took the TRC to court. Four years later, the dispute has been resolved and the TRC has started work again. However since that time nothing had been heard about the mosque or its restoration until early this week, when the SCA signed a cooperation agreement between Egypt and Kazakhstan government to restore the Zahir Baybars Mosque with a budget of LE53 million.
"The new restoration project, which will be carried out on three phases by the Arab Contractors, will in fact revive the glory of such a great mosque," SCA Secretary-General Zahi Hawass said, adding that the first phase would aim at consolidating the foundation of the mosque, putting an end to the leakage of subterranean water into the foundations by installing a new drainage system as well as replacing the damage electricity net with a new and efficient one.
The second phase will start immediately after the completion of the first and will include the restoration of the minaret, the dome and the columns.
Abdallah El-Attar, a consultant for the SCA on Islamic and Coptic monuments, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the second phase of the project would be more holistic in scope. The floor of the open courtyard will be paved with tiles similar to those used in the original design, while the four halls around the open court will be covered in a manner consistent with the mosque's architectural style to protect the edifice from accumulated rain water. A new lighting system will be also installed. The third and final phase will include the fine restoration of the decorative items inside and outside the mosque building.
Al-Sultan Al-Zahir Baybars was one of the greatest of the Mameluke sultans. His reign is remembered for its battles against Mongols and Crusaders. Baybars possessed a unique passion which enabled him to rise from the inferior position of a common slave to become the ruler of Egypt from 1260 to 1277. As a military leader, he accomplished enormous military achievements for his adopted country and established good relations with many nations, sending ambassadors to such states as the Byzantine Empire and Sicily signing commercial treaties with Christian kings in Spain.
Baybars's great ideal was Salaheddin, and like him he conducted a zealous holy war against the remaining Christian strongholds in the Middle East. In order to accomplish this he rebuilt all the citadels and fortresses in Syria that had been destroyed by the Mongol invasion. He also built an advanced military infrastructure with new arsenals, warships and cargo vessels.
Baybars effectively united Syria and Egypt as one state. Through this, he was more capable of suppressing the double threat of Mongols from the east and of the Crusaders already established along the Middle Eastern coast. Baybars also secured less threatening fronts in the west and south. Military expeditions were sent into Libya and Nubia, in many cases with Baybars himself as the supreme commander.
On the home front, Baybars was active in building the infrastructure of the Egyptian state. Canals were built, harbours were improved, and he even established a postal service between Cairo and Damascus with delivery in only four days. He also built mosques, and appointed chief justices of all the four schools of Sharia.