Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 July 2008
Issue No. 906
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In the shadow of the Mamluks

To celebrate the end of decades of restoration work, minister of culture Farouk Hosni last week led a group of writers and journalists on a walking tour of Fatimid Cairo. Photographer Sherif Sonbol was there

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Anti-clockwise from top left: Qalawun Complex; Al-Kamelia School; Sabil Katkhuda; a distant view of two minarets; smoking shisha in the shadow of the Mamluks

Like many of the rulers who have ruled Egypt since antiquity, the Mamluk Sultan Qalawun (1279-1290) destroyed the constructions of his predecessors in order to raise buildings that reflected his own rule on their foundations. As a result, the magnificent Qalawun Complex of buildings in the heart of Islamic Cairo is built on the foundations of an older Fatimid palace.

This tradition among Egypt's rulers of building over the works of their forbearers continued well into the 19th century, when Muhammad Ali and his son the Khedive Ismail demolished many older monuments and used the stone either to build roads or to erect new monuments extolling the virtues of their rule.

While this tradition gave rise to some splendid buildings, not least those of Sultan Qalawun, it came to an end in the 20th century as a result of growing awareness of the value of older monuments.

However, one thing that unfortunately did not always end was the neglect that many of Cairo's historic buildings and monuments have suffered over the years. It is this neglect that the present minister of culture, Farouk Hosni, has pledged himself to stop, and over the past 20 years or so the ministry, under Hosni's guidance, has taken on the task of redressing past negligence and bringing back the glory of Egypt's sometimes neglected heritage.

Last week, Hosni, in the company of a group of writers, journalists and ministry officials, set out on a walking tour of Fatimid Cairo to inspect the restoration work that has been done and to mark the imminent completion of the project's final phase.

Part of the heritage of the area includes the Qalawun Complex, named after Sultan Qalawun, the second of the so-called "Bahri Mamluks" who ruled for some 100 years during the medieval period. Sultan Hassan, builder of Cairo's marvelous Sultan Hassan Mosque, near the citadel, was the last ruler of the dynasty.

Sultan Qalawun was inspired to build the complex of buildings that bears his name following his experience in Damascus, where he had gone to fight the Crusaders. He fell ill, and was treated in a Damascus hospital whose cleanliness and standard of care made a great impression on him. As a result, he resolved to build a similar hospital in Cairo.

A piece of land was chosen on which a Fatimid palace then stood, and the Sultan ordered its demolition in order to free the space for his hospital complex. This included a hospital building, as well as a school, mosque and mausoleum.

Al-Muizz Street, the main thoroughfare through Fatimid Cairo, was the site of the construction. History tells us that during the construction of the complex the builders had difficulties moving materials to the site, the medieval historian El-Maqrizi reporting that even passing pedestrians were stopped and forced to help carry building materials.

Later, Sultan Qalawun's son, Nasser Mohamed ibn Qalawun, built a mausoleum for himself next to that built for his father. This second mausoleum incorporated a gate originally belonging to a church in Acre in Palestine, which the Mamluks had carried off as a trophy of their victory in the battle of Acre against the Crusaders.

Al-Muizz Street, now the heart of the Khan El-Khalil district in Islamic Cairo, has a history that dates back to the building of the city more than a thousand years ago. During Mamluk times, musicians would play in the street all night during Ramadan, some of them perched in the minaret of the Qalawun Mosque.

The Sultan would sit and listen to the music, while watching performers crossing a tight rope stretched between two minarets.

Al-Muizz Street has always been a centre of activity, though in recent years this has tended to be mostly pedestrian in character: the district's narrow alleyways, originally built for two camels to pass through, are far too narrow for motor transport.

Today, after some 20 years of restoration work, the last phase of the street's renovation has almost been completed. From next October it will become an entirely pedestrian zone.

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