Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)
Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Entrapping the Mamelukes

The long awaited restoration of Bab Al-Azab — which helped Mohamed Ali vanquish his arch-nemesis the Mamelukes — is to start soon, Nevine El-Aref reports


Entrapping the Mamelukes
Entrapping the Mamelukes

When Mohamed Ali Pasha rose to power and ruled Egypt in 1805, he saw that the Mameluke factions were the biggest obstacle to his authority and could undermine his plan as they were still controlling much of the country and resisting much of his authority under their baronial rights.

Therefore, he ruthlessly crushed them by inviting them to a banquet in the citadel in honour of his son Tusun as a step towards building a new relationship.

In March 1811, 500 Mameluke chiefs under the leadership of Shahin Bey marched in a military procession in Mohamed Ali’s celebration as a huge banquet was set up at the citadel’s southern enclosure. The Bab Al-Azab gate was firmly locked as the last guest walked in.

Once seated, the unarmed Mameluke lords realised they were trapped and the high walls of the gate and citadel prevented them from fleeing. They were suddenly faced with a battalion of Mohamed Ali’s loyal Albanian soldiers who killed them all, ending the Mamelukes and their dominion in Egypt.

Bab Al-Azab is the great lower gate of the Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi Citadel, which overlooks the Sultan Hassan Madrassa (school) and Al-Rifaai Mosque.

Commander of the Al-Azab corps, Prince Radwan Katkhuda Al-Galfi, had built the gate in 1754 to replace an older one built by a Mameluke predecessor. It has the same architectural style as the citadel’s other two gates, Bab Al-Fotouh and Bab Zuweila, but is considered the largest and most beautiful.

It has two rectangular towers that contain the structure from which hot oil was once poured on invaders. It was the main entrance to the southern enclosure of Bab Al-Fotouh, Cairo’s gateway. When Khedive Abbas Helmi I extended Remeila Square, he restored and embellished the gate’s gothic elements and the external double stairs.

Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, director-general of the historic Cairo rehabilitation project, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Bab Al-Azab was named so many years before its construction. In 1517, when the Ottomans arrived in Egypt, they began referring to the citadel’s lower enclosure as Al-Azab, after the stables built by Sultan Al-Nasser Mohamed Ibn Qalawun in 1311 to house the 4,800 horses in his possession. It started being used as a dormitory for an Ottoman regiment known as Al-Azab (in Arabic it literally means the bachelors). They were not allowed to marry until they retired.

The French expedition to Egypt changed such rules and members of Al-Azab were allowed to marry and even given permission to build houses within the fortress walls. By the mid-17th century the citadel had already been turned into a residential district with shops, public baths and commercial enterprises. The citadel then lost its military designation and a labyrinth of small streets was created.

Today, Abdel-Aziz continued, the gate is home to six major archaeological sites including the mosque and palace of Katkhuda, the tower of Al-Ashraf Khalil Ibn Qalawun and a string of warehouses, one-storey buildings once used as soldiers’ dormitories and stables.

In 1989, the Italian government offered to develop Bab Al-Azab but the plan came under fire when former culture minister Farouk Hosni intended to lease the land to a private company to build a hotel and a shopping complex. The land houses more than 100 monuments, dating from the Mameluke and Ottoman periods. The plan won the approval of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Permanent Committee for Islamic and Coptic Monuments in 1993.

But between opponents and supporters the project was put on hold and Bab Al-Azab fell into disrepair.

Early this week another restoration project was approved by the Permanent Committee and will start soon.

Abdel-Aziz said the Bab Al-Azab restoration project comes within the framework of the Ministry of Antiquities’ plan to restore and develop a series of monuments in historic Cairo. The plan is to be executed in three phases over 10 months with a grant from the American Research Centre in Cairo (ARCC).

The first phase aims to consolidate the monumental structures of Bab Al-Azab as well as to remove the debris and garbage piling around it. Its floors would be isolated and minor restoration would take place on the two doors of the Bab Al-Azab, the wood works and windows. The blocks of the walls would be consolidated in an attempt to prevent their erosion until restoration work begins.

The second phase, Abdel-Aziz continued, includes full scientific documentation of every structure of Bab Al-Azab as well as preparing its restoration. Studies to rehabilitate the site and reuse it will also be conducted.

The third and final phase is to hold workshops and seminars in order to prepare a plan for the preservation of these buildings which in turn will ensure its periodical maintenance through the forming of a group of young archaeologists and architects, especially from the area’s inhabitants. Their aim is to realise the project’s goals and ensure the preservation, maintenance and rehabilitation of the area.

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