Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Restoring Al-Muizz Street

After three years of disarray, Al-Muizz Street in Islamic Cairo is regaining its original allure, writes Nevine El-Aref

Al-Ahram Weekly

After Al-Qahira, the “city victorious,” was built by military commander Gawhar Al-Seqeli in 969 CE on the orders of the Fatimid caliph Al-Muizz Li-Din Allah as Egypt’s new capital, it soon became a place of opulent palaces and the host of the prestigious mosque-university of Al-Azhar.

Of the many broad streets in the new city, Al-Muizz Street between Bab Al-Fotouh and Bab Zuweila was the most magnificent and the main thoroughfare of Fatimid Cairo.

Through the centuries that followed Al-Muizz Street maintained its position and encouraged Mameluke, Circassian, Ayyubid and Ottoman rulers to enhance its character by building splendid mosques, sabils (water fountains), kuttabs (Qur’anic schools), houses and wekalas (trade complexes) along its length.

The street was lined with soaring monuments displaying many styles of Islamic architecture and embellished with fine mashrabiya (woodwork) façades and painted mosaic and decorative domes. Among these are the Sultan Qalawun Complex, which consists of a palace, a madrassa (school) and a hospital, the School of Ibn Barquq, the Beit Al-Qadi, the Sultan Al-Saleh Negmeddin dome, the sabil-kuttab of Khesru Pasha, and the Mohamed Ali Pasha sabil.

However, time took its toll on these edifices. Encroachment and misuse by residents caused harm, environmental pollution undermined foundations, and the 1992 earthquake left its mark on the historic zone. In 2000, the government launched a restoration campaign, the Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project (HCRP), which aimed to protect and conserve historic Cairo with a view to developing it into an open-air museum. Al-Muizz Street took an important share of the LE850 million project.

The 133 Islamic monuments found along Al-Muizz Street and its neighbouring alleyways were restored to their original condition. Appropriate treatment of road surfaces and street furniture enhanced the full length of the street, and residential houses were given a make-over, bringing them into line with the street’s heritage character. A high-tech drainage system was installed as well as a lighting system.

In 2010, the street was declared a pedestrian zone where people were able to enjoy the magnificent Islamic monuments within their original environment and experience the living traditions and customs of those who lived during the various ages of the Islamic period.

Trading in the street was not allowed from midnight to 7am in order to facilitate the transport of goods into and out of the street.

However, after the 25 January Revolution, when a lack of security overwhelmed the country, Al-Muizz Street and its monumental edifices suffered from negligence, theft and encroachment. Decorative elements from the mosques were stolen, such as the star-shaped bronze decoration bearing the name of Sultan Barquq from the entrance gate of the Sultan Farag Ibn Barquq funerary complex.

The gates that used to close off the street during the daytime for pedestrians were destroyed, the lamps imported from Italy were stolen or broken, and peddlers and grocers moved in to sell their goods, even on the monuments themselves.

The street resounded with a cacophony of noise, as traffic, both motorised and horse or donkey-drawn, battled with vendors and pedestrians for right of way.

The street was used as a shortcut for vehicles, and the open courtyards of the Fatimid and Ottoman mosques were turned into parking lots. The open court in front of the Ibn Barquq Mosque, a protected zone, was transformed into a folkloric food court where wooden hand carts laden with koshari (a rice and lentil dish), liver, brain and hummus served pedestrians and workers in the neighbourhood.

The empty space between the Beit Al-Suheimi, one of the area’s most beautiful and historic houses, and the house next door became an oriental coffee shop with a dozen small tables. The area in front of the Al-Hakim Mosque was converted into an olive market in the morning and a coffee shop at night. At one corner there was even a pool table where games took place.

Some of the billboards in the street, which were supposed to be in harmony with its historic atmosphere, were changed into ugly new ones. A large part of the granite used for the street’s pavements and plant basins was damaged, while the billboards and information boards were stolen along with the lamps and rubbish bins.

The walls of shops, residential houses and some edifices in the street were turned into election boards for political slogans, while other areas were used to dump garbage.

In response to this situation, last year the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) began a three-phase restoration project to return the street to its condition before the 25 January Revolution in collaboration with Cairo Governorate and the Ministry of Tourism. Garbage  was removed, information panels re-installed, damaged granite tiles replaced with new ones, and the encroachment on the monuments and the graffiti that had appeared on the walls removed.

“Finally, the security forces have taken over the street in order to return it to its previous condition,” Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, head of the project told Al-Ahram Weekly. He said that five gates had been installed to prevent vehicles from going into the street. Side gates had also been installed to block other entrances into it.  

Abdel-Aziz said that the original gates would soon be repaired along with the lighting system at a cost of LE2 million. Periodical inspections would be carried out in order to remove any new encroachments on the street or its monuments.

Cars parked illegally in the street would be removed and police units would control the entry of cars and other vehicles, he said. Trading would not be allowed from 10pm to 9am, though ambulances would be allowed to enter the street at all times, he said.

Minister of Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim, a great supporter of the restoration work, told the Weekly that the ministry was making every effort to restore the neighbouring Gamaliya district with a view to developing it into an open-air museum of Islamic art and handicrafts.

Now that Al-Muizz Street has been returned to its previous condition, visitors can once again walk freely down it, admiring the splendour of its monuments and the skills of its craftsmen. Sixty-year-old singer Sayed Roushdi is also now once again sitting on his marble bench in front of the Textile Museum singing songs of the late singer Mohamed Roushdi while accompanying himself on the oriental guitar (oud).

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