Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Landscaping a religious complex

By Nevine El-Aref

The old city, situated about 15 kilometres south of Midan El-Tahrir, is one of the most historically important areas of Cairo. Besides the Coptic Museum, it houses monuments that represent the three monotheistic faiths -- Judaism in the synagogue of Ben Ezra, Christianity in the churches of Al-Moallaqa and Saint Sergius and Islam in the mosque of Amr Ibn Al-Aas. It used to be a difficult area to visit. Flanking ancient Fustat and with access routes cutting across highly congested areas, even tourist agencies tended to shy away from the area.

But change is in the air. Old Cairo is being highlighted as a major attraction of the millennium celebrations, and in addition to the restoration of historical monuments, the whole is being landscaped for tourism.

Change is apparent. Piles of sand, stone and state-of-the-art equipment occupies the backyard of Al-Moallaka (better known as the "Hanging Church"), piles of limestone blocks cover the courtyard of Amr Ibn Al-Aas mosque, iron and wooden scaffolding are affixed to arches and columns, domes and bell-towers. Workers mill around bearing raw material to deliver to different sites while removing debris from others. Drainage water is being pumped out of the historical zone and as for the Coptic Museum itself, its walls are being cleaned, mashrabeya woodwork restored and a new outer wall built. Work is in full swing to develop Old Cairo into the world's first-ever religious complex.

The conservation scheme of Old Cairo was mooted almost three years ago when restoration of the synagogue of Ben Ezra, the Hanging Church and the Amr Ibn Al-Aas mosque started. The synagogue, originally a sixth-century church near the old Roman fortress of Babylon, was a joint project of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and the Canadian Centre for Architecture and Restoration (CCAR). "In the ninth century, Jews bought the church and a large piece of land surrounding it and converted the whole area into a Jewish temple," said Mohamed Mahgoub, director of the archaeological area in Old Cairo. He pointed out that the synagogue became internationally famous when writings, known as the Geniza documents, were discovered there, casting light on the community in medieval times.

Christian and Muslim influence is apparent in its architecture and interior decoration: the former in the basilical style with the ceiling supported by 12 marble columns and decorative motifs including vines, sheaves of wheat and olive branches; the latter in the carved woodwork and chandeliers, on one of which the name of Sultan Qalawun is inscribed.


Restorers building a fence around the religious compound of Old Cairo photo: Khaled El-Fiqi

The ongoing restoration project of the Hanging Church is in high gear. The first phase entailed reducing the level of subsoil water beneath the ancient fortress on which part of the church is built, reinforcing the supporting columns and restoring all woodwork. The current second phase includes consolidating the architectural elements of the bell-towers and ceiling, cleaning the floor and replacing damaged tiles. The third phase will entail restoration of icons and artifacts in the church.

"More than 500 Egyptian workmen, engineers and antiquities experts are carrying out the work of a consortium comprising Orascom, the Arab Contractors and two other Egyptian firms," said Hussein Ahmed Hussein, the engineer responsible for the project.

Electronic sensors have been placed on the most serious cracks (some 150 in number) in the structure of the church. They are linked with computers with readings reported every hour. "This allows us to monitor the movement of the cracks while the de-watering process is going on so as to be aware of whether the process is adversely affecting the foundations of the church," said Hussein. Restoration of the Hanging Church runs hand-in-hand with restoration of the Old Wing of the Coptic Museum.

Restoration of the church of Abu Serga, famous as one of the places where the Holy Family are believed to have hidden during their flight into Egypt, is at present focused on decreasing the level of subsoil water in the tiny shrine beneath the altar, reinforcing its columns, walls, floors, tiles and ceiling.

Amr Ibn Al-Aas mosque which lies outside the walls of the Old Roman fortress is included in the historical zone. It was the first to be built in Egypt in 642 A.D. and has naturally undergone considerable change in the last 13 centuries. Few, if any, of the original architectural elements remain. In modern times, it was restored twice, first during the 1980s and then again in the 1990s. "The current project aims to correct serious architectural errors in earlier restorations and in the extension to the mosque carried out in the time of the Mameluke Emir Murad Bek in 1797," said Abdalla El-Attar, head of the Islamic and Coptic Monuments department of the SCA. He explained that special attention is being given to the Iwan Al-Qibla, the prayer hall with a raised floor which opens onto the main courtyard through arcades. "The columns of the Iwan will be dismantled, restored and re-erected in their original form. Damaged and fragile pillars which cannot be satisfactorily consolidated will be replaced by similar ones from the SCA stores. The concrete ceiling installed during a preThe World Travel Market (WTM), the second biggest international travel fair (held in London from 15 to 18 November), was a platform for Egypt to reveal its ambitious plans for the millennium celebrations.

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