Tuesday,20 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)
Tuesday,20 November, 2018
Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Mosque lamps stolen

Six Islamic lamps out of the 15 that decorate the tombs of the former Egyptian royal family in the Al-Rifaai Mosque in Cairo have been stolen

Al-Enany inspecting King Fouad Mausoleum at Al-Rifaai Mosque (photo: Mohamed Mostafa)
Al-Enany inspecting King Fouad Mausoleum at Al-Rifaai Mosque (photo: Mohamed Mostafa)

Ambling around the awe-inspiring Sultan Hassan Complex and Al-Rifaai Mosque in Islamic Cairo is an unforgettable experience, a chance not only to explore two of the largest mosques in the Islamic world but also to delve into the dramatic life of their original owners.

If the pomp of ancient Egypt is symbolised by the Giza Pyramids and Sphinx, the pride of Islamic Egypt has to be these two unique mosques. Both share a similar Mamluke architectural style and engineering challenges, even though they were built in two different eras.

The Sultan Hassan Complex was built in 1360 CE, while the Al-Rifaai Mosque was built in 1912.

The latter was subjected to a successful theft this week, when on Sunday night the disappearance of six Islamic lamps out of the 15 that decorate the tombs of former Egyptian King Fouad and princess Ferial inside the Mosque was discovered.

The Al-Rifaai Mosque is the resting place of sheikh Ali Al-Rifaai, the grandson of Sufi Refaaiya tariqa (sect) leader sheikh Ahmed Al-Rifaai, as well as many members of Egypt’s former royal family, including the last monarch King Farouk.

The mosque also contains the tomb of the last shah of Iran Mohamed Reza Pahlavi.

Minister of Antiquities Khaled Al-Enany has referred the theft to the General Prosecution for investigation as well as to both the Tourism and Antiquities Police and the Ministry of Islamic endowments, which is responsible for both tombs, for assistance in recovering the lamps.

Secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mustafa Amin told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Ministry of Antiquities had formed two scientific committees to carry out an inventory of all the artefacts in the mosque or in its storage spaces and to check the authenticity of all these objects.

An initial inspection of the lamps remaining in situ had revealed that one of them was a replica.

“It seems that the thief replaced one of the stolen lamps with a replica as a way of covering his tracks,” Alsaeed Helmy, head of Islamic and Coptic Antiquities at the ministry, told the Weekly.

He said that the lamps hang from the ceiling of the tombs, which is more than four metres high. This means that the thief felt at ease when dismantling the lamps.

The stolen lamps are similar to those in situ and are dated to the year 1328 of the Hegira (1910 CE). They are made of opaque white glass embellished with golden enamel and decorated with a Quranic verse from the Al-Nur surah written in Mameluke raised script.

The verse says “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp.” The stamp of the khedive Abbas Helmy II is also found on part of the lamps.

Amin told the Weekly that inside the mosque in a hall neighbouring the mausoleum where the lamps were stolen the crew of a film to be called Al-Kanz (the treasure) starring Egyptian actor Mohamed Ramadan was present from Thursday at 8am to Friday at 2pm filming shots for the film.

“The crew will be subject to investigation by the general prosecutor,” he said.

“I cannot accuse anybody as the investigations have not been completed,” an official at the Al-Rifaai Mosque who required anonymity told the Weekly, adding that he was “almost sure” that workers on the film in collaboration with those from the Ministry of Islamic Endowments in charge of the tombs could have been involved in the theft.

Dismantling the lamps, he pointed out, would require special tools to deal with the electricity and a ladder six metres high in order to reach the ceiling. Moving a lamp from its original location also needs a minimum of two people because it is too heavy for one person to hold.

Smuggling the lamps outside the Mosque would have required covering them with thick rolls of paper in order to protect them from damage.

“I wonder how all that could have happened without the tourism and antiquities police noticing, since they are on duty at the mosque and in the neighbourhood, along with the Ministry of Antiquities inspectors and the personnel of the Ministry of Islamic Endowments,” the source told the Weekly.

He said that the mausoleum of King Fouad and princess Ferial had two doors. One opens onto the Pahlavi mausoleum and the second opens onto King Farouk’s tomb. The locks of both doors were intact and no traces of damage were found.

Helmy said that the Ministry of Islamic Endowments was in charge of the mausoleum and the mosque and the Ministry of Antiquities had only supervisory authority.

“The Ministry of Antiquities collaborates closely with the Ministry of Islamic endowments to ensure the highest level of protection for artefacts in Egypt’s historical mosques,” Al-Enany told the Weekly.

He added that “the mausoleum where the lamps were stolen is not used for prayers and is the home of a number of historical artefacts. It should therefore be managed by the Ministry of Antiquities rather than the Endowments Ministry.”

The prosecutor-general’s office is currently investigating the theft and questioning employees from both ministries as well as others concerned.

Amin said that a red list including full descriptions of the lamps accompanied by photographs had been distributed among all the Seized Antiquities Units in all the ports in Egypt in order to keep an eye out for any smuggling attempt outside the country.

Interpol would be informed, he said.

The Al-Rifaai Mosque is a very distinguished mosque in the Al-Qalaa area of Cairo. It was constructed in several phases between 1869 and 1912, when it was officially completed. It was built on the orders of Khushyar Hanem, the mother of the khedive Ismail, to be a burial place for her family and herself. She assigned engineer Hussein Pasha Fahmi to design it in harmony with the neighbouring Sultan Hassan Complex.

The Al-Rifaai Mosque was built over the mausoleum and zawia (chapel) of sheikh Ali Al-Rifaai, the grandson of sheikh Ahmed Al-Rifaai. Ali Al-Rifaai was considered a saint during his lifetime, and people still visit his mausoleum seeking intercession in their lives.

Some still come to the mausoleum to read a verse from the Quran for the sheikh or put flowers on his tomb, and these can be seen on top of and all around his tomb.

Helmi said that the Al-Rifaai Mosque was rectangular in shape and measured about 6,500 square metres in size. Some 1,767 square metres of this area are reserved for prayer, while the rest is the mausoleum of the Mohamed Ali family that formerly ruled Egypt.

 It was constructed in the Bahri Mamluke style popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The style was similar to the European style of buildings at the time, and most of the materials used in the construction and decoration of the mosque were imported from Europe.

The construction was moving ahead at a good pace until 1885 when Fahmi died, followed soon afterwards by Khushyar Hanem. She was granted her wish of being entombed there, and in 1894, when her son the khedive Ismail also died, he was entombed next to her.

These events, Helmi said, placed the construction of the mosque on hold for almost 20 years, but when the khedive Hussein Helmi II came to the throne he asked the Austrian architect Max Pasha Hertz, at the time head of the Committee for the Conservation of Arab Monuments, to complete the construction. The mosque was finished in 1912.

Gamal Al-Harawi, the director of the mosque, said that the mausoleum contained not only Khushyar Hanem and her son Ismail Pasha, but also his wife and two daughters. Other members of Egypt’s royal family buried there are sultan Hussein Kamel and his wife, as well as the last crowned king of Egypt, Farouk, whose body was returned to Cairo after his death in Rome in 1965.

Farouk’s daughter Ferial was buried there in 2009. The mosque also served briefly as the resting place of the former shah of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who died in exile in South Africa in 1944. His body was taken to Iran after World War II, but part of the burial chamber is currently occupied by Reza Shah’s son Mohamed Reza Pahlavi who died in exile in Cairo in 1980.

The mausoleum is small but houses wonderful decorations. Its walls are covered with colourful marble designs and golden verses from the Quran. The floor and Pahlavi tomb are of bright green marble. The tomb itself is merely a small step rising from the floor with the name of the shah and the dates of his birth and death.

The prayer hall is another distinguished part of the mosque. The ceiling is beautifully decorated and is stepped in a way similar to the ceilings of other historical Islamic buildings.

Al-Harawi told the Weekly that the gold embellishing of the ceiling was imported from Turkey at a cost of LE25,000, a very large sum at the time. The walls of the mosque are covered with coloured marble in the various styles of Mamluke ornamentation.

“There are 19 different types of marble from seven different countries in the mosque,” Nabil said. The prayer hall has 44 grand columns, as well as 18 intricately worked window grills.

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