Al-Ahram Weekly Online
8 - 14 November 2001
Issue No.559
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

History's trail

The Egyptian branch of "Museums without Frontiers" is to be launched soon. Nevine El-Aref and photographer Sherif Sonbol review what's on offer

Egypt's cultural heritage is the envy of the world, and the art of the Mameluke period, particularly, continues to intrigue and beguile. The finest examples of the art and heritage of this period will now be displayed to visitors, in their original settings, as part of the "Museums without Frontiers" project.

The project has its roots in the Barcelona Conference of November 1995, which created a comprehensive framework for Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. The declaration established a partnership between 15 European members and the following Mediterranean countries: Algeria, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority.

As part of this initiative, 16 projects dealing with cultural heritage in the region were launched. One of those was "Islamic Art in the Mediterranean." Egypt was chosen to display its unique heritage as part of the project, and its contribution to the museum opened on Wednesday. The guiding concept of the project is to develop museums "without borders." Rather than imprisoning artefacts in an enclosed space, the project turns an entire cultural identity, left in its original setting, into a museum experience.

"The idea is to allow the visitor to experience art as a living illustration of history. This new way of displaying heritage, called the exhibition trail, will be devoted to a specific theme," Eva Schubert, president of the project, told Al-Ahram Weekly. Egypt's Mameluke past seems a good choice. The Mameluke period is known for introducing innovations into building methods. According to Abdalla El-Attar head of Islamic and Coptic department in the SCA, Mameluke art "captures the richness brought to Egypt by migrating Turkish, Circassian, Byzantine and Mongol artists, builders, scientists and clergymen. Using a variety of artistic techniques, they created the most splendid buildings in the history of Islamic art." Obsessed by the need to establish their political sway, the Mameluke sultans used architecture as a way of legitimising and consolidating power. They covered Cairo with countless religious and public structures, including palaces, mosques, wekalas (shops), madrassas (religious schools), mausoleums and sabils (drinking water foundations). These monuments will be the highlights of Egypt's eight itineraries, five of which are in Cairo and three in Alexandria, Rosetta and Fuwah.

(Clockwise from top left) Highlights of the museum include: El-Mu'izz street; the old gates of Alexandria; Ibn Tulun mosque; the Nilometer

The first itinerary will begin with a quick visit to the Islamic Museum in Bab El-Khalq, and then head straight to the Seat of Sultanate: the Saladin citadel and its surroundings. Tarek Turki, producer of the Egyptian exhibition explained that the tour begins with the citadel because it is an important Islamic monument and combines various architectural structures that represent the best of Mameluke art. Among these is the tower of El- Zaher Baybars, with its distinguished motif featuring the conqueror in the shape of a horse and holding a saw in his hand. The citadel site has several museums of its own, housed in restored historic palaces, among which are the military, royal carriage and police museums, and the Al-Gawhara palace. The palaces of Mameluke princes, mosques, and madrassas scattered around the citadel will also be visited.

The second itinerary will retrace the steps of the original procession of the Sultan, starting from the Mameluke cemetery and heading to Bab El-Nasr through El-Mu'izz street, Bab El- Wazir and then to the citadel. The third itinerary exhibits the intellectual achievements of the Mamelukes, beginning with a visit to Al-Azhar mosque, the oldest continuously active university in the world. This itinerary will also include the madrassas of Sultan Al-Ghuri and Al-Mansur Qalawun.

The fourth itinerary focuses on the Nile, starting with the Nilometer, followed by the aqueduct in Ain El-Sira area and Sabil Kuttab Qait Bey on Saliba street, the building that connects the Ibn Tulun mosque with Sultan Hassan school.

The fifth itinerary is directed at commerce, and visits a collection of wekalas : Al-Ghuri and Khan El-Khalili market being the main highlights.

The sixth itinerary will be in Alexandria, gateway to the West, where Mameluke Sultan Al-Ashraf Qait Bey built his citadel in 1447 BC. Rosetta, with its profusion of Islamic monuments is the subject of the seventh itinerary. Rosetta is the second of Egypt's ancient ports to be graced by a citadel built by Qait Bey.

The last itinerary will be in the peninsula city of Fuwah, which sits on the widest section of the Rosetta branch of the Nile. During Mohamed Ali's era, Fuwah was home to the factory that made the tarboushes (fez hats) for the army. It is also an area of well preserved mosques, tekkeyas (charitable hostels), wekalas and mausoleums. The Hassan Nasrallah, Abul Karim and Al-Namiri mosques have been recently restored within the framework of the project and will add to the delights of the tour.

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