The Istabl Antar archaeological site, rich in diverse Islamic monuments and remains, could vanish because of a mafia, Nevine El-Aref
When Arab conqueror Amr Ibn Al-Aas entered Egypt in 641 AD he built the first Islamic capital of Egypt called Al-Fustat, a name which means a large tent or pavilion. According to tradition, the location of Al-Fustat was chosen by a dove which laid its egg in Amr Ibn Al-Aas tent, located to the north of the Roman fortress of Babylon. Ibn Al-Aas saw that this is a sign from God and left the tent untouched at its location until he returned victorious from Alexandria. He ordered his soldier to pitch their tents around his and established Al-Fustat Misr (The Pavilion of Egypt), the first Islamic Egyptian capital.
Al-Fustat remained Egypt's capital until 750 AD when the Abbasid revolted against the Umayyads and gained power. They moved Egypt's capital to Al-Askar located to the north of Al-Fustat. In 868 when the Tulunid took power, the capital moved to a nearby area called Al-Qattai. In 905 the Al-Qattai was destroyed and the capital returned to Al-Fustat where it remained Egypt's capital until 1168 when its own vizier Shawar ordered it burnt to keep its wealth out of the hands of the Crusaders. The remains of the city were absorbed by nearby Cairo which was built by the Fatimids to the north of Al-Fustat. The whole area consisting of Al-Fustat, Al-Ask and Al-Qatai remained in disrepair for 1,000 years and was used as a garbage dump. Only a few buildings are still visible as well as remains of some others.
Time took its toll on the Al-Fustat city until Khedive Mohamed Ali built Al-Baroud Khana, a storehouse for gunpowder in 1820.
Modern Al-Fustat includes the three main old capitals of Egypt: Al-Fustat, Al-Ask and Al-Qatai which they called Ezbet Kheirallah in Old Cairo.
The area is very rich in its archaeological remains as it relates the history of Egypt since the beginning of the Islamic era right through the modern time of Khedive Mohamed Ali. The area includes Istabl Antar which was visited by a French archaeological mission from the IFAO; Khadra Al-Sharifa mosque and mausoleum; and the seven domes which is the burial place of seven members of the family of the Fatimid ruler Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah. According to myth, said Ibrahim Abdel-Rahman, head of the Al-Fustat inspectorate, those members were killed according to a decree issued by Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah because they did not obey his rules. But a few years later he pardoned them and built on their burial site seven domes.
These domes, explains Abdel-Rahman, is a very important archaeological monument since it is the first example that shows the development of Islamic architecture from the square to dome structure.
The area continued to be an empty virgin until the early 1980s when armed gangs stole some of the 800 feddans of Ezbet Kheirallah. They divided the land into small portions and distributed them among the people who in turn built mud brick houses and converted the land into a slum area.
Abdel-Rahman pointed out that only yesterday the government removed all encroachments on archaeology in the area. The decision comes too late -- residents have ruined these sites by building on top of them.
In 1985 the Supreme Council of Antiquities, now the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), succeeded in preserving four feddans to the north of Cairo at Istabl Antar area where a French archaeological mission is digging there.
According to the IFAO web site, the chronology of the site starts with the foundation of the city of Al-Fustat in 642. It is on this site that levels of habitat at the time of the conquest were revealed for the first time. They discovered remains of a habitat built by a Yemeni tribe of Ma'│■fir on the heights overlooking the Birkat Al-Habash at the time of the founding of the city. Roland Pierre Gayraud, responsible for the site, wrote that the levels of habitat could be divided into two distinct phases: the first, between 642 and 690, is that of the Arab and Muslim city, the second, between 690 and 750, is that of the city melee. In 750 a fire, started by the last Umayyad caliph, on the run, ravaged the whole of this southern quarter of Fustat.
Immediately after this event, a very small residential area was rebuilt. It includes a few houses on the sidelines but it is mainly a necropolis which then took the place of the Umayyad habitat.
This funerary complex was built between 750 and c.765, date of construction of an aqueduct that served the buildings. It is likely that these large tombs belonged to notable families Ma'│■fir│«.
These are, wrote Gayraud, actually the oldest Muslim mausoleums now known in Egypt and probably throughout the Islamic world.
"The contribution of the search is thus significant in this regard, especially as some architectural and decorative aspects are able to change our approach to the history of Islamic architecture," noted Gayraud.
Studies on the mausoleums revealed that they were taken up, restored and enlarged in 973, with the arrival of the Fatimid family who gave a second burial to the deceased brought back from Africa.
Until the late 11th century, the cemetery developed into a small town with organised cobbled streets and adorned mausoleums attributed to patrician houses of the │ępoque: gardens, ponds and even baths. But regrettably, in around 1070, all was destroyed and looted.
The chronology of the five aqueducts discovered during the excavations revealed the exact date of the gradual drying of Birkat Al-Habash and also allowed for the study of the topographic evolution of the city of Fustat for these periods.
In the report Gayraud sees that the material collected during the excavation of Istabl Antar is an exceptional documentary contribution. Ceramics and glasses found were allowed to establish new chronologies and typologies, which were found in Polish-led excavations at Kom Al-Dikka. As for organic materials such as textiles, papyrus, paper, leather, wood and bone, two levels of scavengers (ninth and early 12th century) provided an exceptional documentation.
But early this month, the site was invaded by an armed gang that covered the excavation area with sand and began to bulldoze it. The area is now rubble-filled with few remnants of its monuments and historical buildings. The intruders began to divide the land and distribute it among each other into parcels of approximately 800 square metres each. Every man surrounded his part with blocks of stones in order to separate it from the others.
Ali Moenes, an inhabitant who gave this reporter a fake name for fear of being caught by the gang, said the armed assailants consisted of several wealthy local residents, and some 15 armed men stood by to guard the operation.
Until now, said Moenes, it is unclear what exactly they will build on the land, but based on similar incidents in the neighbouring area it could be another bunch of residential houses. "I want to make sure that the names [of those responsible] are mentioned, because given Egypt's ongoing security vacuum, only the media can shed light on the situation," said Moenes.
He claimed that approximately 56 people were involved in the armed invasion, the best known of whom were Ahmed Metwalli, Shehab Barouma, Ahmed Saad, Mohamed Kahana, Hussein Rashwan, Hosni Saad and Ibrahim Saad -- all of them relatively wealthy entrepreneurs from the neighbourhood. Saad and Barouma, said Moenes, joined the scheme on the same day that results of Egypt's first post-Mubarak presidential poll were announced, on 24 June.
The Al-Fustat inspectorate called the police to stop the invasion. The prosecutor-general ordered the removal of all blocks and to return the land to the MSA but until now nothing has happened and the armed gang still has the upper hand.
"They are erasing Egypt's early Islamic history," Abdel-Rahman told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We are in a theatre of chaos". He said that despite several complaints nothing had been done. "It's out of our hands; we're not an executive body."
Abdel-Rahman stated that since the 1980s, such incidents had become increasingly common after the increase of urban encroachment on the site of Ezbet Kheirallah. Only six months ago, he said, a section of the historic Ibn Tulun aqueduct, located in Old Cairo's Basatin area, was brought down to open the road to pedestrian traffic. Abdel-Rahman attributed this largely to a lack of understanding on the part of the general public about the importance of preserving historical monuments.
"The government must get rid of these slum areas in order to preserve its history. A country without history is nothing," said Abdel-Rahman. Those residents in slums, he added, could be transported to other areas where a suitable standard of living is found.
"We have to have good urban planning in order to avoid such incidents," Abdel-Rahman said.