Wednesday,21 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1416, (1 - 7 November 2018)
Wednesday,21 November, 2018
Issue 1416, (1 - 7 November 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Zaher Baybars bounces back

Restoration work on the Al-Zaher Baybars Mosque in Cairo has resumed after a seven-year hiatus, reports Nevine El-Aref

Al-Zaher Baybars Mosque
Al-Zaher Baybars Mosque

After a seven-year hiatus, the restoration project on the Al-Zaher Baybars Mosque in the Al-Daher district in Cairo has resumed, and this week Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany along with the Kazakh ambassador to Egypt and the head of the Arab Contractors Company inspected the site.

El-Enany promised to proceed quickly to complete the restoration work of the mosque in the most efficient manner possible, while respecting its historical, aesthetic and political value and preserving its archaeological and architectural style. 

“The ministry is keen to complete the project without any further stops along the way,” El-Enany said, adding that thanks should go to the Arab Contractors Company for continuing to pump out underground water from beneath the mosque and preventing its leakage into the building.

Upon taking office, El-Enany said, he had been keen to meet the Kazakh ambassador to Cairo to discuss the mosque restoration project and solve any problems standing in the way of its completion.

Some 18 months later, the obstacles have been removed, and the work should be completed in 18 months’ time, as scheduled.

The Kazakh ambassador described the resumption of the work as a concrete step in the efforts that the Ministry of Antiquities and the government were making to complete the project, adding that the mosque had an important position in the hearts of all citizens of Kazakhstan. 

Some 120,000 Kazakh tourists visit Egypt annually, and the first landmark they visit, even before the Giza Pyramids, is the Al-Zaher Baybars Mosque. 

Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, supervisor of the Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the mosque’s restoration had started in 2007, but was stopped in 2011 when the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) archaeological committee supervising the work realised that the red bricks used in the restoration did not match the originals.

“The Permanent Committee of Islamic Monuments had agreed to use adobe bricks in the restoration work that were similar to those originals and not mudbrick ones,” Abdel-Aziz told the Weekly. He said that the restoration was funded by the Egyptian government and the government of Kazakhstan had also contributed $4.5 million. The overall budget is LE100 million.

The first phase of the project was completed in 2008, when the mosque’s foundations were consolidated, putting an end to the leakage of subterranean water into the foundations by installing a new drainage system. The faulty electricity system was also replaced. The second and third phases have been started and include the restoration of the minaret, the dome and the columns.

“The second phase of the project will be more holistic in scope,” Abdel-Aziz said. The floor of the open courtyard will be paved with tiles similar to those used in the original design, while the four halls around the open court will be covered in a manner consistent with the mosque’s architectural style to protect the edifice from rain. A new lighting system will be also installed. 

The third and final phase will include the restoration of the decorative features inside and outside the mosque building.

 

A KAZAKH SULTAN: Sultan Al-Zaher Baybars was one of the greatest of the Mameluke sultans who ruled Egypt in the mediaeval period, and he is remembered for his battles against the Mongols and the Crusaders. 

He possessed unique qualities that enabled him to rise from the position of a slave to become the ruler of Egypt from 1260 to 1277 CE. As a military leader, he accomplished enormous achievements for his adopted country, originally coming from Central Asia and what is now Kazakhstan. 

He established good relations with many foreign nations, sending ambassadors to the Byzantine Empire and the kingdom of Sicily, and signing commercial treaties with Christian kings in Spain.

Baybars’ model was Salaheddin Ayoub (Saladin), the military leader and former Egyptian sultan who conquered Crusader strongholds in the Middle East. Baybars rebuilt the citadels and fortresses in Syria that had been destroyed by the Mongol invasion at the beginning of his rule, and he built advanced military infrastructure including new arsenals, warships and cargo vessels.

In 1267, Baybars built the mosque that bears his name in the Al-Husseiniya district of Cairo, now known as Al-Daher, a corruption of Al-Zaher, the sultan’s first name. 

The mosque covers an area of 10,000 square metres enclosed by a 10-metre wall. It has three monumental projecting entrances. The main one in the western wall leads to a passageway with a domed ceiling at the beginning and ends with a shallow dome. Inside the mosque is a square courtyard surrounded on four sides by aisles. 

The most distinguished feature of the mosque is the chamber that precedes the mihrab, which indicates the direction of Mecca, which is a square structure topped by a red-brick dome. The southern aisle consists of six colonnades; those on the east and west consist of three colonnades each, and the northern aisle has only two colonnades. All the latter’s arches are supported by marble columns.

The original doors of the mosque resembled those of the Madrasa Al-Zahiriya in Cairo, while the dome would have been as large as that of Al-Shafei Mosque. The rest of the plan is very similar in design to that of the Fatimid Al-Hakim Mosque, built 250 years earlier, but some scholars argue that it looks more like a fortress and consider it to be a symbol of the triumph of Sunni Islam.

For Baybars, constructing a mosque of this size was part of his desire to establish his authority as a legitimate Muslim ruler. Raw materials for its construction were imported from all corners of the Empire. Marble columns and wood were taken from the citadel of Jaffa, which Baybars had taken from the Crusaders. The marble was used in the facing of the mihrab and the wood in the construction of the maqsura (chapel).

Abdel-Aziz pointed out that the mosque has been through many changes since it was built at the end of the 13th century. According to historians, prayers were held in the building until the early 16th century, almost at the end of the Mameluke period. But the Ottoman conquest in 1517 turned Egypt from a seat of power to a mere province, and under such circumstances the mosque was too big for the provincial government to maintain and it fell into disrepair.

During the Ottoman period it was used as an army storehouse where supplies such as tents and saddles were kept. During the Napoleonic Expedition at the end of the 18th century, the contemporary historian Abdel-Rahman Al-Jabarti reported that it was used as a fortress and a garrison for soldiers.

In the 19th century during the rule of Mohamed Ali it became an army camp and bakery and later a soap factory. In 1812, Sheikh Al-Sharqawi, a prominent sheikh of the time, used some of the mosque’s marble columns to build the Riwaq Al-Sharqawi at the Al-Azhar Mosque. It is even rumoured that some of the columns were used to build the Qasr Al-Nil Palace in Cairo.

At the end of the century the British occupying forces used the mosque as a bakery and a slaughterhouse, hence the still-popular name of Al-Madhbah Al-Ingilizi (the English slaughterhouse). This continued until 1915.

Abdel-Aziz said that several attempts to restore the mosque had failed until 1995 when a restoration project focused on cleaning the mosque, removing some small shops from the external enclosure, and raising the height of the walls to prevent future incursions. 

However, cracks were found in the walls of the northern riwaq (prayer hall). The Ministry of Culture blamed the contracting company, which said that the cracks were related to the mosque’s poor condition.

Work was halted, and the ministry filed a lawsuit against the company. In 2000 the dispute was resolved, and the company resumed the restoration work. In 2007, the government of Kazakhstan signed a cooperation agreement with the Ministry of Culture to restore the mosque, seeing the building as marking the achievements of one of Central Asia’s greatest sons.

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