Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Historic Ayyubid walls reopen

After more than a decade of restoration, Cairo’s Ayyubid walls and the Qubet Al-Amir Tarabay Al-Sharifi were inaugurated, reports Nevine El-Aref

Historic Ayyubid walls reopen
Historic Ayyubid walls reopen
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Ayyubid walls stretch for 1.5 km in the Bab Al-Wazir area, just below Al-Azhar Park, on what was once the rubbish tip of mediaeval Cairo. The walls were constructed in the 12th century by Sultan Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubi (Saladin) as part of his plans to connect the Fatimid city of Al-Qahira (Cairo) with the Citadel and its aqueduct.

These walls, with their gates, towers, interior chambers and galleries, were one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the late 1990s, as was the Qubet Al-Amir Tarabay Al-Sharifi, a dome structure built by the commander of the Mamluke soldiers during the reign of sultan Qunsuwah Al-Ghuri located next to the walls.

After more than a decade of restoration both monuments have now been reopened to visitors. Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty, Cairo Governor Galal Al-Said and Aga Khan Trust for Culture General Manager Luis Monreal were all on hand to cut the ribbon on Wednesday night as part of the monuments’ official reopening.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb was scheduled to attend the event but cancelled at the last minute.

Eldamaty told attendees that the restoration projects for both monuments highlighted the strong and fruitful cooperation between the ministry and the Aga Khan Foundation. He said the restoration of the wall sections had cost $8.5 million while restoration of the dome had cost $6.8 million.

Both projects are part of a much larger urban regeneration programme undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture with the support of the Egyptian government, the governorate of Cairo, the Ministry of Antiquities and other partners.

It includes the 30-hectare (74-acre) Al-Azhar Park, a number of restored mosques, schools and public spaces, training programmes for the youth of the area, health and education initiatives and improvements to water and sanitation.

Deputy Minister of Antiquities for Islamic and Coptic Monuments Mohamed Abdel-Aziz told the Weekly that restoration work carried out on the Ayyubid walls included consolidation of the gates and towers and the replacement of damaged and missing stone blocks with new ones.

 Cleaning work also took place, and salt that had accumulated on the walls was removed and a new lighting system installed.

Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubi started the construction of the walls in 1176 CE. He wanted to contain the former Fatimid palace city and its suburbs, the pre-Fatimid city of Fustat, and the pre-existing fortifications within a single system. In the centuries that followed, Cairo’s rapid expansion went well beyond Salah Al-Din’s boundaries, rendering the old walls obsolete.

In the 15th century, the eastern part of the city went into decline, and the Darassa area, where Al-Azhar Park is now located, became a rubbish dump. In the 20th century, the Ayyubid walls were largely covered in rubble and lost several parts of their historic structure.

During excavation and grading works for Al-Azhar Park, a 1.5-km section of the remaining Ayyubid walls stretching from Bab Al-Wazir to Al-Azhar Street was restored to international standards. It now forms the boundary between the Darb Al-Ahmar district and the Park.

Abdel-Aziz said that Cairo’s Ayyubid walls were built in Bab Al-Wazir in the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar area by architect Bahaa Al-Din Qaraqosh on the orders of Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubi to protect Cairo from invasion.

Qaraqosh built circular walls around Cairo, along with the Al-Gabal and Al-Fustat fortresses. He constructed several gates in the walls, among them Bab Al-Bahr, Bab Al-Shaareya and Bab Al-Mahrouk. Restoration work on the gates started in 1999.

Just outside the Ayyubid walls on the southern side of Al-Azhar Park stands the Tarabay Al-Sharifi Dome, which includes a mausoleum, gate, sabil-kuttab (water fountain) and madrassa (school).

The building is a beautiful proportioned and exquisitely decorated structure with a zigzag pattern carved on its stone dome. It was built in 1505 for Tarabay Al-Sharifi, commander of the Mamelukes under Sultan Qansuwah Al-Ghuri.

According to Abdel-Aziz, Tarabay Al-Sharifi was a slave purchased by the Mameluke Sultan Qaytbay, who was subsequently freed and appointed amir, or prince, in the late 15th century.

Another Mameluke, Azdumur, was also purchased by Qaytbay and appointed to a number of governmental positions. He built his tomb on the northern side of the mausoleum of Tarabay, but there is no documentation regarding the relationship between Tarabay and Azdumur to explain why their mausoleums were constructed in such close proximity.

Abdel-Aziz said the dome was restored in 1905 by the Comité de l’Antiquités, an early heritage organisation. The mausoleum is a large domed cube typical of late Burgi Mameluke buildings, set within an enclosure entered through the gate opposite a drinking trough built by the Mameluke Aytmish.

All that remains of a much larger complex, the structure is a magnificent example of late Mameluke workmanship, including double-leaf cresting, windows in the form of three oculi over three arched panels, roundel inscriptions with the amir’s name, double bands of moulding and decorated shoulder cascades in the dome’s transition zone.

Abdel-Aziz said the restoration of the dome included the removal of several metres of rubbish that had accumulated around the monument, structural consolidation and conservation of both the interior and exterior surfaces of the mausoleum, madrassa and sabil-kuttab.

The exterior spaces have been reorganised in order to prepare the area as the southern entry point to Al-Azhar Park. The restoration work started in 2006.

Monreal said that both the Ayyubid walls and the Tarabay Al-Sharifi monuments are part of the broader urban regeneration projects begun in 1984 when the Aga Khan Award for Architecture sponsored a symposium in Cairo titled “The Expanding Metropolis: Coping with the Urban Growth of Cairo.”

At that time, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture offered to create a park for the citizens of the capital. The creation of Al-Azhar Park and the numerous urban regeneration projects around it, including the Ayyubid walls and the restoration of the Tarabay Complex, speaks to the possibility of rejuvenating areas that once appeared to be in terminal decline, he said.

Another example is the restoration of the 14th-century Amir Aqsunqur “Blue Mosque” in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar, which was inaugurated a month ago.

In all of its restoration and regeneration work, Monreal said, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has the objective of leveraging culture in ways that could lead to the alleviation of poverty.

In Al-Darb Al-Ahmar, one of the poorest districts in Cairo, the Trust has consciously worked to create a critical mass of activities that not only focus on the restoration of monuments, but also on the creation of public spaces, water and sanitation improvements, education and health initiatives, microfinance and employment generation and training, he said.

The 1984 programme not only aimed to create a park visited by almost two million people a year, Monreal said, but also extended to socioeconomic initiatives in the neighbouring Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district, including housing rehabilitation, microfinance, apprenticeships and healthcare.

Local housing was renovated and returned to its owners. Job training and employment opportunities were offered in different sectors such as shoemaking, furniture manufacturing and tourist goods production. Apprenticeships were made available in automobiles, electronics, mobile telephones, computers, masonry, carpentry and office skills.

Microcredit loans enabled residents to open small businesses such as carpentry shops and a drycleaner. Hundreds of young men and women in the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar area have found work in the park, in horticulture and on project teams restoring the Ayyubid walls, Monreal said.

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