Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
5 - 11 April 2001
Issue No.528
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Breaking the silence

If it works, why fix it? Pascale Ghazaleh hears the different sides of the restoration debate, and finds no peace within the walls of a mosque as old as the millennium

Pascale GhazalehUp here, pausing for breath a little way up the minaret, it is easy to think one remembers. The domes of Sarghatmish are off to the left, true; and the workmen are busy below. Bags of cement, plastic-strewn dilapidation, the bright yellow piles of sand: all these intrude, via peripheral vision, to remind one that these stairs have been here for a thousand years, no less. Up above, if one continues, lurk vertigo and a punch-you-in-the-stomach view. Right here, though, will do just fine.

Of the city of Al-Qata'i', founded by an Abbasid governor sent from Samarra to rule Fustat in 868CE (and promoted to the governorship of all Egypt the following year), only two traces remain: the aqueduct and the mosque of Ibn Tulun. The mosque was built (at a cost of 120,000 gold dinars) on a hill known as Gabal Yashkur -- not a purely fortuitous choice, and probably the reason it survives today. The solid bedrock on which Ibn Tulun stands, and the site's relative elevation, have protected it from natural catastrophes (from floods to the more insidious threat of rising groundwater), if not always from those inflicted by human beings. The bricks that make up its walls are fire-resistant, and the mortar that gives them coherence has been flexible enough to absorb the shocks dealt by earthquakes or aerial bombardments, and even the tremors caused by heavy vehicles passing through neighbouring streets -- though not necessarily by the inexorable blows of the bricklayer's chisel.

One of the inscription slabs in the sanctuary informs us that the construction of this edifice was completed in 879CE; the Mamluk chronicler Al-Maqrizi tells us that it took three years to build the mosque, which underwent extensive restoration work at Sultan Lajin's orders in the late 13th century. It is to this period, for instance, that we owe the imposing domed ablutions fountain in the courtyard. The fawwara or decorative fountain that it replaced was destroyed in a 986 fire; historian Doris Behrens-Abouseif describes it as having been capped by "a dome on ten columns, all made of marble and gilded."

Solid as a rock: work in the central courtyard
The mosque is a vast and imposing structure, built around a courtyard; arcades supported by piers, with engaged columns at their corners, run through its four walls. In local tradition, notes Abouseif, piers were not used, and it is said that they appear here because the architect, a Christian, "wanted to avoid having columns taken as spoils to build the mosque." K A C Creswell offers a lengthier elaboration on this brief account, which gives the tolerant initiative to the ruler: "Ibn Tulun was told that the mosque would need 300 columns and 'that he would not find them unless he sent to churches in the rural districts or in desolate parts... He thought this was wrong and would not do so... The news reached the Christian, who was then in the dungeon', and he wrote that he could build it for the Prince as he would like and choose without any columns except two for the mihrab [prayer niche]." Ibn Tulun then freed the Christian (Creswell does not say what he was doing in the dungeon) and took him up on his offer. Ibn Duqmaq and Al-Maqrizi, however, offer another explanation: "[I]t was built of bricks because columns of marble cannot withstand fire."

Visitors to Ibn Tulun invariably remark on what Creswell describes as the "peace and serenity" of the mosque, "completely cut off as it is from the noise of the street." Where specialists in Islamic architecture would comment on the entrance's similarity to that of the Palace of Balkuwara at Samarra, lost stragglers, coming across the massive edifice on vague wanderings around the area that stretches between the Citadel and Sayeda Zeinab, would be struck by its grand walls and majestic air, which seem to radiate an almost daunting silence into the immediate environment.

Today, however, there is not much silence to be found in the cool halls; that long perspective through the arcades, beloved of every guidebook, is interrupted by scaffolding and yellow plastic strips emblazoned with various warnings in stern black capitals. There is restoration work going on at Ibn Tulun, and venturing timidly into the vast sahn or central courtyard, blinking in the sunlight after the profound shade of the relatively shallow interior, will bring curious glances from the workers crouched above, on the ledges of the stucco-screened windows. Then several people come running, protesting shrilly: "No, no! Mamnou'! Get out!" When the initial ruckus segues into a friendly chat, it is explained that bashmuhandis Islam, the Ministry of Culture's on-site technical supervisor, merely fears for the visitors' safety: "The workers could throw anything off the roof, and it would hit you, and then who would be in trouble?" Apologies all around.

Ibn Tulun seems to be on everyone's mind these days. It is difficult not to notice the white prefab offices set up just inside the gate, the sand and limestone slabs in the outer courtyard, the hustle and bustle as tourists are shuttled in, around the site and back out again. Scandalous rumours are making the rounds of a small group of concerned citizens, amateurs and scholars of Islamic art and architecture, journalists... And the group is growing wider, and increasingly vocal, as what appears to be a full-scale onslaught on Cairo's pre-20th-century built heritage picks up pace. In an open letter to 28 people (whom she describes as "academics, diplomats, Cairo lovers, Egyptians, etc.), Caroline Williams, recently in Cairo to prepare for the fifth edition of The Islamic Monuments in Cairo: A Practical Guide, deplored the "EXPLOSION of reNEWal in medieval Cairo," and continued: "Of the 200 'featured' buildings in [A Practical Guide], 112 -- more than 50 per cent -- are in various stages of future, present, and past restoration. Cinderella, the beautiful but heretofore neglected sister of Egypt's rich and multiple legacies, has now been kissed by the Prince of Tourism. Suddenly it seems every contractor who has dug a hole or put up a scaffold has a heavy hand in the fine work of restoration."

Pipes protruding from the wall
photos: Randa Shaath
Hyperbole? On the face of it, Ibn Tulun appears to be placed directly in the line of fire. Visiting recently, a friend, horrified by what she saw as a violation of the mosque, asked what was being injected into the walls (which are regularly punctuated with new holes, from some of which orange plastic pipes protrude). One of the engineers, the story goes, laughed at her discomfiture and snapped: "Fulus [money]!" The story may well be apocryphal -- it has already been appropriated as first-hand experience by others (which goes to show not dishonesty or excessive fondness for a good punchline, only genuine concern). An architect examining the substance that had extruded during the pumping process identified it not as banknotes or coins but as bentonite, a clay-like compound; Ahmed Hani, general manager of Aswan Establishment for Construction and Reconstruction (which is the contracting firm charged with executing the Ibn Tulun project), explains that it is in fact kaolinite, which like bentonite is "part of the clay family," but which does not swell and therefore poses no structural danger.

Preservation advocates protest that there was no need to inject anything at all into the walls. "It was suddenly decided that an overhaul was possible," shrugs Theo Gayer-Anderson, who is working on the restoration of the nearby Beit Al-Kridliya and Gayer-Anderson Museum. "But the main structure is sound. They're doing what you could call public standard restoration. A number of activities are expected on a conservation site, so they're grouting, pinning, and replacing the brickwork put in by the Comité [de conservation des monuments de l'art arabe] in the 1920s. All that is unnecessary here. The only explanation I can think of is that these are ways one makes money on a building like this."

Fine restoration work was far more necessary than the current "infringement on the building's integrity," adds Gayer-Anderson. Furthermore, says an architect interested in Cairo's architectural heritage, the work currently being carried out will eradicate the traces of previous restoration. "The building's history was visible until now," he notes: "The original brickwork, the 1920s restoration activities, the new patches... Now it will all be covered."

Article 11 of UNESCO's International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites (or Venice Charter, drawn up in May 1964), stipulates: "The valid contributions of all periods to the building of a monument must be respected, since unity of style is not the aim of a restoration." The following article specifies: "Replacements of missing parts must integrate harmoniously with the whole, but at the same time must be distinguishable from the original so that restoration does not falsify the artistic or historic evidence." So why have some of the crenellations that run around the mosque's walls been knocked out? Why are the crenellations being covered uniformly (albeit in traditional building materials)? Why is the sahn now a vast cement slab? And why are workers removing sections of brick -- including the original ninth-century material -- from the outside wall and replacing them?

All these activities are part of the restoration work, explains the Aswan Establishment's Ahmed Hani. The project rests on three main axes: support of the elements that require it; the correction of restoration work carried out in 1983-4 and now deemed unsuitable; and the upgrading of the area surrounding the sanctuary. This last, however, does not entail introducing or improving services, which are the responsibility of the Ministry of Construction.

As for the decision to reinforce the mosque's walls, Hani says it was taken on the basis of a core test that revealed the deterioration of the mortar holding the bricks together. "The cavities inside would not be visible to the naked eye, since the wall cladding remains intact," he explains. Steel ties were also inserted as "a form of surgical intervention, a bit like darning a garment, to link the old elements with the new," Hani adds. But these rods, conservationists charge, will inevitably rust and expand, causing the wall to crack. Why was stainless steel not preferred? "Intervention is not a problem if it is carried out with non-damaging technology," Hani parries. "I don't want to damage any of the original elements if they are in good condition." Here, he states, "maybe stainless steel ties with these specifications are not available. Our work is restricted by restoration guidelines, on one hand, and technological possibilities, on the other."

The cement used in the restoration/renovation work has also been the subject of much outrage. But this is white cement -- Portland, in this instance, not black, and "international restoration conventions admit the use of white cement when necessary," argues Hani. Cement is used essentially because of its very rapid setting time: while lime and sand can take a month, white cement will set in three hours. It was used in the courtyard, he explains, "because the ground beneath was uneven," and will be tiled over in beige haggari limestone. To the innocent eye, however, the principal problem with the courtyard seems to be the complete lack of drains. Open gutters are integrated into the structure's roof; surely the rainwater they collect and spill into the courtyard below will accumulate there? Hani thinks not. "The courtyard will be very slightly tilted," he explains. "The water will be collected at certain points -- which you cannot see because they are carefully dissimulated -- and channeled out into a disposal system."

So are the conservationists' protests unfounded? What it seems to boil down to is a fundamental difference in understandings of what restoration means. Is it a careful process of saving severely threatened structures, using traditional techniques and materials -- an artisanal labour of love? Or must it entail a wholesale clean-up job -- which conservationists see, more often than not, as Disneyfication? As Gayer-Anderson says, "the aesthetics of a finished building here imply that things must be clean and new-looking." The madrasa of Sarghatmish, which abuts one of Ibn Tulun's walls, is a case in point: the domes have been plastered afresh, window grilles have been replaced, and the crescent on the minaret is new. The Venice Charter would seem to preclude such operations, since it specifies that restoration "must stop at the point where conjecture begins, and in this case moreover any extra work which is indispensable must be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp."

It was, indeed, partly to correct inappropriate restoration efforts dating from the early 1980s that the Supreme Council for Antiquities hired the Aswan Establishment to implement the Ibn Tulun project. "The wrong materials and techniques had been used," explains Hani: "They had painted elements that were not originally painted, and used yellow, which changed the place's character." In 1983-4, adds Hussein Ahmed Hussein, the Ministry of Culture's technical supervisor, "only certain parts of the mosque were restored. This time, we're doing a complete job."

That "complete job" is precisely what is causing such distress among those who feel Ibn Tulun was not in need of an overhaul, and who do not wish to see it plastered over in bright, clean white. Ahmed Hani shrugs: "A committee of experts from Cairo University's Faculty of Archaeology, the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Cairo Historical Project takes the decisions. I merely implement them. People from the area have been coming and telling me, 'this is our mosque. We like it this way. What are you going to do with it?' Well, I do what the committee tells me to. I can contribute an opinion, but I don't make the decisions."

And Hussein Ahmed Hussein from the Ministry of Culture wraps up that particular discussion in one succinct phrase: "The people? What do they have to do with it? This is a purely technical matter."


Antoine Fattal, Ibn Tulun's Mosque in Cairo, Imprimerie Catholique, Beirut, 1960.

Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Islamic Architecture in Cairo. An Introduction, the American University in Cairo Press, 1989.

K A C Creswell, A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture (revised and supplemented by James Allan), the American University in Cairo Press, 1989.

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