Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 June - 2 July 2008
Issue No. 903
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Rising from the ashes

Souq Al-Fustat combines every possible ingredient for success. What the market needs, though, is to be marketed itself, writes Shereen Moussad

Click to view caption
Whether to buy traditional handicrafts or visit the Old Cairo Development Project, Al-Fustat has become an attraction to tourists and locals alike

But here in al-Qahira which was Fustat, city of tents,
which was Babylon and Heliopolis and Memphis
before it all, here in my city of gates and great walls,
of minarets rising above the dust-choked streets....
-- The Spiders Surah, J C Tribble

ON THE WINGS OF A DOVE: The story begins, as so many stories do, deep in the crevices of history. Blowing away the dust of centuries and separating fact from hearsay is no easy task, and it is perfectly possible, as legend insists, that the story really did start in 641 AD, with a dove laying its egg in the seclusion of the tent of Amr Ibn Al Aas, the Muslim army commander who had come in conquest of Egypt and laid siege outside the Fortress of Babylon. The army set up its tents, in what was intended to be a temporary location. Then the dove laid its egg and Ibn Al-Aas, taking this as a good omen upon his victorious return from a military march on Alexandria, ordered the tents to remain and his new capital to take the name Misr Al-Fustat (an Arabic word meaning tent).

Being the commander of the Muslim army, it was not only omens that informed his choice. The location of the new capital had great strategic advantages. The Fortress of Babylon was an ancient boundary town on the eastern bank of the Nile, separating Lower and Middle Egypt, collecting tolls from river craft up and down the Nile. With the opening of a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea the town came to control trade and later became a military stronghold. Although Alexandria had remained the political and intellectual capital of Egypt since it was founded by Alexander the Great with the advent of the Muslim conquests, it became strategically less feasible -- the city lay at the far western side of the Nile Delta and the Caliph Omar did not want such a large body of water separating his newly acquired conquest from Arabia. Hence Fustat seemed an ideal choice, albeit not an innovative one since the location of this new Muslim capital had been an area of choice since the time of the Pharaohs who moved the capital up and down the Nile region depending on which dynasty was in power, but who always recognised the strategic importance of the site.

And so Al-Fustat came into being, the Fortress of Babylon soon surrendered, followed shortly by Alexandria. Ibn Al-Aas became the first Arab ruler of Egypt and it was in Al-Fustat that the first mosque in Africa was built bearing his name. He intended his new capital to be the base of Muslim expansion into North Africa, a link between east and west.

Al-Fustat remained the capital of Egypt from 641 AD till 1168 AD, and though it flourished and prospered as an administrative centre -- the population is estimated to have reached 200,000 by the 12th century -- its standing was shaken twice, the first time in 750 AD when a conflict outside Egypt between the Abbasids and Umayyads led to the capital moving to the city of Al-Askar, and then again when the capital moved to Al-Qattai. Not until 905 AD that authority was once more established in Al-Fustat.

Each time the move was to the north, to higher ground unaffected by the floods of the Nile, away from the pools of stagnant water left over after the flood and which were a breeding ground for water-born disease.

The city was famous for its infrastructure and fine buildings, for its markets selling merchandise from as far away as Spain and China, as well as being a centre for producing artefacts, mainly ceramics. It was one of the richest cities of the world. Then in 1168 AD the vizier Shawar, fearing an attack by Crusaders, ordered the city evacuated and burned. It is said that fires blazed for more than 50 days as the whole of Al-Fustat was laid to waste. In 1169 AD Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi became the vizier of Egypt and moved his capital to nearby Al-Qahira, founded by the Fatimid Gawhar in 969 AD as a royal enclosure for the Caliph Al-Moezz, who moved his court there from Al-Mansouriya in Tunisia.

Al-Qahira had existed for 200 years before becoming the capital of Egypt. Subsequently the city spread to encompass locations that themselves had been capitals at various times, but Al-Fustat never revived. What was once the centre of economic and administrative power was lost under heaps of garbage. The artisans were all dead and gone, replaced largely by makers of crude clay pottery. Over the years traditional patterns of production based on small workshops run by master craftsmen were replaced by small manufacturing industries employing unskilled labour at the expense of skilled craftsmen.

LIGHTING THE CANDLES: I happened to step into the church of Saint Abu Serga just as the evening prayer was echoing from the minarets of the surrounding mosques. The church is part of the Mugamma Al-Adian Project, situated around the area of the Roman Babylon Fortress, at one time a Christian stronghold and a refuge for Orthodox Christians escaping Roman persecution in Alexandria. It is also known as Qasr Al-Shamaa (Palace of Candles) because candles were lit on the towers at the start of each month. Six churches, a convent, a synagogue and the Coptic Museum now exist within the complex, the most famous of the churches being Al-Muallaqa or the Hanging Church, suspended above the gatehouse of the old fortress. Its suspended location is no longer evident from the frontal view due to the rising level of land which now covers the original fortress walls. Nearby is the Synagogue of Ben Ezra, reputed to be built on the site where the baby Moses was found. The land on which the synagogue was built was purchased in 882 AD by Abraham Ben Ezra from Jerusalem.

Towering above the area is the minaret of the mosque of Ibn Al-Aas. Though built on the location of the original mosque the mud bricks and thatched roof are long gone. In the fortress enclosure is the Church of Saint Sergius, said to be the oldest church in Egypt and containing the crypt where it is believed that the Holy Family rested at the end of their journey to Egypt. No wonder that Old Cairo, or Misr Al-Qadima, is included in the World Heritage List, and the area of Al-Fustat itself was an integral part of the 1985 UNESCO plan for rehabilitation and conservation.

THE FACELIFT OF MAR GUIRGUIS: The Mugamma Al-Adian Project, also known as the Old Cairo Development Project, was conceived with the aim of revitalising an area of great historic importance. It is a fine example of collaborative work between the Ministry of Tourism and the Cairo governorate and an impressive piece of work by the Arab Contractors who were awarded the tender for the implementation of the project. It includes Souq Al-Fustat, a bus terminal, a fire station, as well as the reconstruction of five kilometres of fences and upgrading the façades of 350 houses and shops along Mar Guirguis Street. The architect, Mona Zakaria, was able to not only participate with a design that won the Aga Khan prize for architecture but also lobby for international support of the project.

The land on which the souq itself is built had been turned into a pig farm after the pottery makers were moved from the area, and then fell into disuse, becoming an impassable swamp.

The high vaulted alleyways lined with shops are inspired by mediaeval architecture. With a central courtyard and arcaded windows the souq has natural air and light and is well adapted to the climate of Egypt. In an area that had long suffered from underdevelopment many local inhabitants were initially wary of the traditional design, believing only something ostentatiously modern would help rehabilitate the area. But once the project was completed such reservations were quickly overcome.

The souq -- which had its soft opening in 2001, and a formal opening in 2002 -- comprises 47 retail units and a restaurant and coffee shop. Before the soft opening artists and craftsmen were allowed to take the shops without paying rent, a move intended to promote the market. These people worked night and day, preparing for the opening, without the benefit of electricity, using candles to light the alleyways. After the formal opening the shops were rented for as little as LE200, a figure that by 2008 had reached, in some cases, LE2,000. By the beginning of 2008 all 47 shops had been rented.

Leases are awarded via an auction, with prospective clients expected to show both the artistic integrity of the goods to be sold as well as their financial viability. The committee assessing the artistic quality of the products works to a clear brief: the artist or craftsman must make the product himself; the product should be of the highest quality; and each shop will sell only one product which must be directly related to Egyptian heritage or incorporate a new take on traditional handicrafts. There is, too, a development component, in that traditional crafts are near extinction. Cheap, mass produced replacements are on sale all over Cairo which has led to talented craftsmen going underground and, with them, the skills of their trade. One aim of the souq is to resurrect these threatened skills, and craftsmen are required to teach local children in specialised workshops -- indeed, this is sometimes done in place of paying rent on their shops, and many children have found employment at the souq. The most successful of these initiatives, Madrasat Al-Zabaleen, targeted the children of garbage collectors. The workshops included drawing, pottery and music. One success story was the four-year- old girl who won the first prize in a national drawing competition. She received her prize at the Cairo Opera House, a long way from the alleyways of Al-Fustat.

Shop owners and workers at the souq were happy to share their experiences. It was a lazy Friday afternoon, and the hustle and bustle that should have accompanied a sunny winter afternoon was conspicuously absent.

Although proud of their individual products, and aware of the potential of the location, they seemed at a loss as to how to make their enterprises thrive.

The first shop that caught my attention -- basically because there was some sign of life inside -- exhibited the works of an artist who although Syrian by birth was Egyptian in every other way. Although the artist once owned a shop in downtown Cairo he had closed it in favour of the souq, where he works alone producing individual brass, copper and silver light fixtures as well as paintings.

The story he told would soon become familiar. Customers were few, mostly Westerners, with a few Arab regulars who placed orders with the artist. According to many of the souq's shopowners Egyptian visitors find the items expensive and seem unwilling to pay for handcrafted objets d'art.

The second shop that caught my fancy sold neo-Islamic style brass and copper lamps. It is owned by two brothers who inherited the trade from their father and grandfather. The workshop producing the lamps and related items is situated in the area of Al-Azhar. Indeed, the business seemed to be prospering, mainly because they have various outlets for their products and take part in exhibitions, but it remains an uphill struggle to convince potential customers to pay more for one off, handcrafted items, made with loving care out of the best materials and steeped in tradition rather than cheaper, mass-produced replacements.

The neighbouring shop sells Coptic icons, while not far away, owned by a seasoned tour operator in Luxor, is an outlet specialising in items bought at auctions when old houses are cleared. There were rare books about Egypt, maps and photographs. On the back of one photograph was an evocative dedication. Dated 1923, it read "to my honourable sister Hajja Samia Hanem, a souvenir of love and devotion". The shop was overflowing with character. Only one thing was missing... the customers.

The souq also has two shops of a more progressive nature. One, run by the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), works on recycling paper and fabrics to make a range of products including quilts, pillow cases, bags, rugs, cards etc. The items are made by young girls and women who are trained by volunteers. The workers receive a salary of approximately LE150 a month. The handicrafts are also sold to shops and the APE is working to develop exports. This admirable effort is in need of greater support. A second outlet, run by the Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development, sells woven fabrics from Akhmim, an area that has been famous for its textiles for 4,000 years. Originally woven from silk, cotton is now used. Woodwork from Hagaza, an area that got its name from being one of the stops for travellers on their way to Hejaz for pilgrimage, is also sold. The objects are crafted from a single piece of wood, from trees native to the area of Hagaza.

Another shop worthy of note sells jewellery handcrafted by an Egyptian artist. Although the name of the shop is a foreign franchise, the artist's products are clearly Egyptian in spirit, using silver and precious or semi-precious stones in combinations that sometimes hark back to Pharaonic times and at others strike a modern note.

MADE IN CHINA: An area that is steeped in history; a sympathetic architectural design that worked wonders to overcome all manner of obstacles from underground water levels that threatened to drown the whole area to initial antagonism from local inhabitants; artists and craftsmen who are enthusiastic about using the souq as home; a high level of quality control, with the Ministry of Tourism fighting corruption in every possible way, keeping their eye on pricing, quality, bribes, commissions, etc: it would seem the perfect recipe for success. Yet still the ball is not rolling.

Souq Al-Fustat is in dire need of promotion, an innovative way to make its existence and products known to the world and capture the interest of tourists and Egyptians. It needs to become a regular stop for visitors to Cairo.

The souq lies on the extension of the Mar Guirguis Street, the main body of which is now pedestrianised. For two years the management of the souq has been trying to include it in the pedestrianised area, where tourist buses park and visitors wander visiting the ancient churches, but all their efforts have been entangled in red tape. Moving the cones that mark the pedestrian area just 200 metres would make a world of difference.

Souq Al-Fustat is not planning on being an addition to, or a replacement for, Khan Al-Khalili. Yet to maintain the integrity of the project needs nothing less than a national support campaign.

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