Islamic monuments restored
Islamic Cairo continues to shake the dust off monuments that once were the symbols of a great Islamic empire, writes Nevine El-Aref
Cairo is an unequalled treasure house of Islamic architecture, with its many distinguished Fatimid, Mameluke, Circassian, Ayoubid and Ottoman edifices.
Al-Muizz Street stretching from Bab Al-Fotouh to Bab Zuweila in Islamic Cairo is the iconic heart of the city and is adorned with soaring monuments displaying many styles of Islamic architecture and embellished with fine mashrabiya (wood lattice work) façades and painted mosaic and decorative domes.
It is lined with sabil-kuttab (water fountains and Quranic schools), mosques, wekala (trading establishments) and khanqah (hostels for Sufi dervishes).
Last Sunday, despite a blistering heat wave Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany, Cairo Governor Atef Abdel-Hamid, Local Development Minister Hisham Al-Sherif and other ministers, high-ranking officials, foreign ambassadors to Egypt, and the directors of foreign archaeological institutes joined hands to cut the opening ribbons of three newly restored Mameluke, Ayoubid and Ottoman edifices in Islamic Cairo.
In Darb Al-Masmat alley in the Gammaliya district of the mediaeval city off Al-Muizz Street, the Mohebeddin Abul-Tayeb Hall, the dome of the Al-Sultan Al-Saleh Negmeddin Mosque and the sabil-kuttab of Khesru Pasha all recovered their splendour.
Before the inauguration, dignitaries as well as journalists gathered on the stairs in front of the façade of the magnificent Mohamed Ali Sabil in Al-Muizz Street in a candlelight vigil in memory of the army officers and soldiers killed in the deadly attack in North Sinai on Friday.
El-Enany and visitors then embarked on an inspection tour around the newly restored monuments. "Restoring these monuments is a milestone in efforts to preserve and protect Cairo's Islamic heritage," El-Enany said, adding that the inaugurations marked the end of a two-year restoration programme that had come within the framework of a national campaign launched by the ministry in 2015 to safeguard 100 monuments in Islamic Cairo.
El-Enany said that within this national campaign the ministry had allocated LE9 million to restore seven monuments, among them the newly inaugurated edifices. Still on the list are the Maqaad Mammay Al-Seifi, the Al-Saliheya Madrassa, the Said Al-Saadaa Khanqah and the Abul-Dahab Complex.
Sherif Fawzi, the Al-Muizz Street archaeological coordinator at the ministry, said that the most imposing of the three monuments was the Mohebeddin Abul-Tayeb Hall which reflects the architectural opulence of the Mameluke era. The hall was originally the reception area of a palace built during the 14th century, but during the 1940s the palace was severely damaged when work began on the Beit Al-Qadi Road.
The hall was the only section left intact and takes the form of a vast square visitor hall with a large mashrabiya façade. A marble water fountain decorates its middle, and overhead is a fine wooden ceiling ornamented with colourful geometrical and foliage designs. To the left is a small passage leading to a vaulted ceilinged bathroom.
"Time had taken its toll on the hall," Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, director of the Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project, said, adding that parts of the damaged marble floor of both the water fountain and the surrounding floor had been dismantled, restored and replaced in their original positions.
Missing Quranic texts embellishing the hall's walls have been completed, while those which were hidden beneath dust have been cleaned. The walls have been reinforced, missing and decayed stones replaced, and masonry cleaned and desalinated. "Now the hall stands as proudly as it did in the past," Abdel-Aziz said.
Nearby is the Al-Sultan Al-Saleh Negmeddin Madrassa and dome as rare examples of a significant period in Egyptian history when the Mamelukes took control of Egypt from the previous Ayoubid Dynasty.
The dome was built by the female ruler Shagaret Al-Dorr to act as the burial place for her husband Al-Sultan Negmeddin, the last Ayoubid ruler of Egypt. It consists of a large hall in which a wooden tomb containing Negmeddin's body stands in the middle and two other halls dedicated to a kuttab and a small mosque. The dome has a number of white cement windows decorated with stained glass and a large mashrabiya façade, all of which were previously damaged by high humidity that led to the spreading of cracks over its parts.
The floor beneath the tomb had subsided and some of its blocks had been separated from each other.
The madrassa is erected on the site where the Fatimid Eastern Palace, the palace that originally gave the street its name, once stood. It was built to teach the four Sunni schools of Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence), and is considered to be the first school built in Egypt for that purpose.
To the north lies the sabil-kuttab of Khesru Pasha, one of the most beautiful Ottoman sabils that entranced 17th-century historians and travellers with its extremely fine design. It is a two-storey building in which the sabil is on the first floor and the kuttab on the second. The sabil has an Al-tasbil room, which is a niche to cool water before it runs into the well. The kuttab was dedicated to teaching poorer children the Quran free of charge.
The north-eastern façade of the sabil has a large rectangular entrance with two windows. Before each of them is a marble shelf on which cups were originally put for drinking.
High levels of humidity were the main reason for the building's deterioration and the spreading of cracks over its walls. These have now been repaired, restoring the sabil to its original magnificence.
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