Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Pulpit controversies

The transfer of a Mameluke pulpit from the Abu Bakr Al-Muzhir Mosque to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation led to controversy this week, reports Nevine El-Aref 

A restorer packing Al-Muzhir pulpit

An ambitious scheme to document all the artefacts in the country’s mosques started last year and is an indication of the government’s commitment to preserving the nation’s Islamic as well as Pharaonic, Coptic and Jewish heritage. 

However, the project created controversy this week after the documentation and transfer of a minbar (pulpit) from the Abu Bakr Al-Muzhir Mosque in Cairo to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) for restoration and display. 

Opponents claim that the transfer is a step towards the removal of 55 other pulpits from mosques to be stowed in the Ministry of Antiquities’ galleries, which they describe as “irreparable damage and the obliteration of the mosques’ artistic value”.

Supporters say that no more pulpits are going to be relocated and removing the Al-Muzhir pulpit from its original location was the only solution to preventing irreparable damage.

the pulpit before relocation

The Abu Bakr Al-Muzhir Mosque is in the Bergwan Alley in the Gammaliya district of Islamic Cairo and is hidden under scaffolding erected to consolidate its walls in the aftermath of the 1992 earthquake. The mosque was built by Abu Bakr Al-Muzhir, who was head of the diwan (government) during the reign of the Mameluke sultan Al-Ashraf Abul-Nasr Qaytbay. 

The mosque was built in 1480 CE and has a rectangular shaped madrassa (school) with a wooden ceiling and a shokhshekha (wooden dome with holes). It has four iwans (vaulted halls) with marble floors decorated with geometric painted elements. It also has two façades and a unique wooden minbar, gates and cupboards. At the end of the qibla iwan (prayer hall) there is a sabil (water fountain).

Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, supervisor of the Historic Cairo Conservation Project, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the structure of the madrassa and mosque was in a very bad condition, a fact that has led to its closure for more than five years. Cracks have spread in its walls, which are suffering from humidity and decay. 

Three parts of the metal decorative elements of the mosque’s wooden gates were stolen a few weeks ago.

As a result, it was necessary to relocate the Al-Muzhir Mosque minbar in an attempt to protect it not only from theft but also from the unstable building and high humidity and heat. “The minbar is unique and is the only Mameluke minbar that still exists with all its architectural and decorative elements,” Abdel-Aziz said.

the mosque maintained with scaffolding and its gate that were subjected to theft

Before its relocation, the minbar was scientifically documented and recorded not only by the ministry’s documentation department but also by the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation (EHRF) that carried out the project on Mameluke pulpits in collaboration with the Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project.

Abdel-Hamid Al-Sherif, the EHRF chairperson, told the Weekly that the foundation had started a comprehensive project last month to study and document Mameluke pulpits in Cairo in an attempt to create a complete database.

Mameluke pulpits have been targeted by robbers and antiquities traders, he said, a fact that had encouraged the EHRF to help in rescuing these distinguished monuments through its documentation programme and restoration priority list.

“Mameluke pulpits are the most important not only for their age, but also for their rich significance and historical value. Arabic carpentry reached its summit during the Mameluke era in particular,” Al-Sherif said.

He explained that the project had been carried out in two phases, each lasting for six months. The first aimed at documenting each pulpit scientifically, architecturally and artistically, as well as creating a record of every pulpit’s patterns and inscriptions. Conditions and risk assessments and a priority list would then be written.

One pulpit of the documented ones would be completely restored and three others preliminarily restored and maintained to stabilise their condition. The second phase of the project would then witness the actual work of restoration, he said.

“We succeeded in completing the documentation of the Al-Muzhir pulpit before it was dismantled and carried out a photogrammetry survey of the pulpits in four other mosques,” he said, adding that a risk-assessment had been carried out for 23 other pulpits.  

“According to the data, the pulpit can be restored to its original look on condition that its different segments have been properly stored and there are not parts missing,” Al-Sherif said.

The Al-Muzhir pulpit was unique because it is the only pulpit to bear the name of its artist and the day of its fabrication, he said. In order to protect the Mameluke pulpits, it was necessary to document them and to tighten security measures. It was also necessary to consolidate responsibility between the ministries of antiquities and Islamic endowments, he added.

the mosque maintained with scaffolding and its gate that were subjected to theft

DOCUMENTING MONUMENTS: Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), described the documentation project for artefacts and pulpits inside mosques as “unique” because it was happening for the first time in the history of the Islamic and Coptic Antiquities Sector. 

He said the project was a step towards the preservation and protection of these artefacts, which are threatened by antiquities traders. Early last year, seven lanterns from the Al-Refaai Mosque in Cairo were stolen, though then recovered. Nine years ago, the pulpit of the Qanibay Al-Ramah Mosque in the Citadel area was stolen and still has not been found. 

“Documenting the pulpits in mosques is a very important means of protecting them from threats,” he concluded.

Mustafa Amin, an assistant to the Ministry of Antiquities on technical affairs, said that documenting the pulpits did not mean removing them, but was the most efficient measure for their preservation.

“The ministry’s aim is to keep the pulpits in their original locations and to collaborate with the Ministry of Endowments to increase the safeguarding measures around the mosques as it is the authority in charge,” Amin told the Weekly.

An employee in the ministry who requested anonymity told the Weekly that before taking the decision to transfer the pulpits the ministry should have found a sufficient area to display them or to replace them with replicas, however.

“I think the beauty of a site comes from its features and historical context,” he told the Weekly, adding that when visiting an ancient Egyptian tomb with the mummy of its owner within its sarcophagus this is more valuable than seeing that mummy in the Egyptian Museum.

“Glass showcases could be a solution to protecting the pulpits instead of transferring them to storehouses,” the source said.

Mohamed Abdel-Latif, head of the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the ministry, told the Weekly that the Al-Muzhir pulpit was the only one to be removed and not 55 pulpits as reported in the newspapers. 

“The 55 will be documented and the one from Al-Muzhir put on display at the NMEC after restoration,” he said, adding that the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo has several pulpits, including one from the Al-Azhar Mosque and one from the Al-Sayeda Rokaya Mosque.

No pulpits will be transferred from their original locations except in cases of absolute necessity. The situation of each pulpit will be inspected separately to determine its conservation condition and the most efficient method to maintain it. This will be implemented for those pulpits that are in dire need of transfer and their existence in their current location represents a threat to their architecture or decorative elements.  

Every pulpit will be documented scientifically after being studied and submitted to the Permanient Committee for Islamic and Coptic Monuments to decide whether to transfer it or preserve it in its original location, he said. 

Amin said that the most important mosques in Egypt were under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Endowments, which is responsible of their safeguarding and protection. Due to the theft of artefacts from the mosques, it was decided to document and record lanterns, pulpits, the benches of reciters, Quran holders and other items, he said. 

Tarek Al-Murri, founder of the NGO Diwan for Architecture and Patrimony, said that the pulpits should not be dismantled but removed entirely because the dismantling process could affect their original fabrication and weaken their structure. 

He said that tightening security measures in mosques could protect artefacts from being stolen, as could inspecting worshippers on entering and leaving mosques as happened in churches abroad. “Installing monitoring cameras and electronic security system in mosques is another solution,” he said.

Al-Murri said that Islamic Cairo with its mosques, houses, alleys and streets was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979 and should be maintained properly. “Any decision concerning Historic Cairo and its monuments and urban features should be discussed before being implemented in order to correctly manage and preserve this hugely distinguished site,” Al-Murri said.

Sameh Abbas, a heritage conservator and site-management expert, said that the solution to protecting mosques and artefacts was to transfer responsibility from the ministry of endowments to the ministry of antiquities. 

A supporter of transferring the pulpits, Abbas suggested establishing a museum and replacing pulpits in mosques with replicas because the majority of pulpits were not in an appropriate environment.

Abdel-Aziz Saleh, a professor at the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University, opposed the relocation of the pulpits and said that it was important they were kept in situ. “The only solution is to implement new security systems in mosques,” he said.

He added that “as the country is trying hard to integrate the economic and educational dimensions of cultural heritage protection to help achieve sustainable development, imprudent decisions and uncalculated steps could undermine its ability to protect its monuments.”

He continued that the artefacts inside mosques were parts of their structure and the only reason that they had been preserved was because they were in religious edifices.

“Removing pulpits from mosques, or tapestries, lanterns, doors and windows, will diminish their historical and archeological value and will be a great loss to the Egyptian cultural heritage,” Saleh told the Weekly.

Ibrahim Al-Assal, a lecturer in Islamic Civilisation at Cordoba University in Spain, objected to the methods used in dismantling and relocating the Al-Muzhir pulpit. He said that in Cordoba special paths had been set up for visitors around historical sites including mosques. 

He also suggested enclosing the pulpits inside glass showcases and installing modern ones for prayers. The worst-case scenario would be to remove the pulpits for storage, Al-Assal concluded. 

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