Restoring the aqueduct
Stretching from the River Nile to the Salaheddin Citadel, the Magra Al-Oyoun Aqueduct has many stories to tell, many of them highlighted in its current development, writes Nevine El-Aref
Magra Al-Oyoun Aqueduct
When the mediaeval Egyptian Sultan Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi, known in the West as Saladin, built the Cairo Citadel and new city walls from close to the former capital at Fustat, he also ordered the construction of a canal on top of them to carry water from the Nile to the citadel where it could be used for drinking and irrigation. The water was carried up to the walls by waterwheels.
Following a population boom during the reign of the Mameluke Sultan Al-Nasser Mohamed Ibn Qalawoun at the beginning of the 14th century, the need for more water became imperative, and a plan was drafted to construct waterwheels linking up with the great Al-Qanatir Barrages north of Cairo that would then channel water to the citadel.
The sultan built a great tower, the Borg Al-Saqiya, to contain the wheels and a large cistern in Fumm Al-Khalig, now Qasr Al-Aini Street, on the banks of the Nile. The waterwheels were operated by oxen to raise the water up to a canal system on raised arches supported by large stone piers. The whole was designed to form a slope that could be connected to the older aqueduct built by Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi.
Later still, the Mameluke Sultan Qaytbay undertook renovation work of the aqueduct, as did the sultan Qansuh Al-Ghouri who brought the system up to date. The water was now pooled in the square at the foot of the citadel before being raised by waterwheels to cisterns inside. The aqueduct was functional until the Ottoman period, but it fell into disuse during the French Expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century, when it was used for military purposes. The French blocked some of the arches supporting the canal and turned them into fortifications.
In 1810, Mohamed Ali ordered the renovation of the aqueduct and a new branch was added to service the Southern Cemetery, ending near the Mosque of Al-Imam Al-Shafei. The aqueduct remained in use until 1827, when a more modern system was introduced.
"Today, the aqueduct runs from Fumm Al-Khalig on the banks of the Nile to the Sayeda Aisha area of Cairo, with its remaining section being about 3km long. It is one of the most beautiful examples of aqueduct architecture not only in Egypt but also in the entire Islamic world," said Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, head of the Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project.
Abdel-Aziz said that in the early 2000s the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), now the Ministry of Antiquities, had begun restoration work on the aqueduct, with the aim of turning it into a tourist destination. The work involved cleaning the stonework, replacing stones that were damaged, restoring the waterwheel tower, demolishing workshops that had encroached on the structure, and clearing away refuse in the surrounding area.
The project was then halted, but today, more than a decade later, the Ministry of Antiquities has decided to revive the aqueduct restoration and development project to turn it into an open-air museum. The project is within the framework of a strategy to restore Cairo as a city of heritage and the arts. Leather tanneries in the area will be removed to Al-Robeiky near Badr City in collaboration with the Ministry of Industry and the relevant professional association.
The aqueduct passes through a heavy populated area, and it has been encroached on by residents and leather tanneries, causing significant damage. Environmental pollution ranging from exhaust fumes to a rising underground water table, outdated sewage system and weak infrastructure has undermined the aqueduct's foundations and an earthquake in 1992 left visible cracks in the structure.
Abdel-Aziz said that after the removal of the tanneries the area surrounding the aqueduct would be converted into a tourist destination. "Although the urban texture that surrounds the aqueduct does not have as long a history as that in Historic Cairo and Fustat, it is worthy of preservation because of its social and economic importance and the aesthetic value arising from the relationship between the houses and the walls of the structure, these having often been built without the help of architects," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He said the façades of the buildings located in front of the aqueduct would be improved to suit the historical environment and the informal housing area would continue to be used as houses for craftsmen. Two museums will also be established in the area to show visitors the water system that was used in mediaeval Cairo and its architectural designs, he said.
A pedestrian esplanade will also be created along the aqueduct to provide a walking area for visitors.
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