Mameluke mosques restoredCeremonies were held this week to celebrate the restoration of the Aqsunqur and Aytmish Al-Bagassi Mosques in Cairo, reports Nevine El-Aref
Cairo, the city of a thousand minarets, this week saw the reopening after restoration of two of its Mameluke mosques, the Aqsunqur and Aytmish Al-Bagassi Mosques in the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district of Islamic Cairo.
In the Tababan quarter of this part of the city stands the Aqsunqur Mosque. The mosque was damaged in the 1992 earthquake and remained hidden beneath wooden scaffolding and large green sheets. In 2001, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture started a larger project of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Urban Regeneration Programme and Aqsunqur mosque was among the list.
The Aqsunqur Mosque also serves as a funerary complex, containing the mausoleums of its founder, Mameluke Emir Shams Al-Din Aqsunqur, and his sons, as well as a number of children of the Bahari Mameluke sultan, Al-Nasser Mohamed, and its principal restorer, Ibrahim Agha Al-Mustahfizan.
According to Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, an assistant to the minister of antiquities, Aqsunqur built his mosque in the 14th century, using a Syrian architectural style with a large open courtyard enclosed by four riwaqs (arcades). The dikket al-mubalegh (tribune) from which the Qur’an is recited is found in front of the courtyard, while the mausoleum was located at the portal’s northern side.
The mosque’s interior design is irregular because of the restoration work carried out during the Ottoman era, which changed the cross-vaulted arcades to columns. The mihrab (prayer niche) was built in a geometric interlaced style and decorated with relief painted carvings, fluctuating lintel panels, marble panels, carved marble registers and mosaic inlay. To the right is the minbar (pulpit) decorated with coloured stone inserts in light-grey, salmon, green and plum.
The three-storey minaret is situated at the southern corner of the mosque’s façade. The three storeys are circular, but the exterior of each is done in a different style: the first is plain, the second is ribbed and the third is a bulb resting on a pavilion supported by eight slender stone columns.
Abdel-Aziz said the condition of the mosque had already started to decay in the 15th century, leading the Mameluke Emir Tughan to use it only for Friday prayers.
During the Ottoman era, Emir Ibrahim Agha Al-Mustahfizan restored the mosque’s arcades and roofs and changed the decoration of the prayer hall. He brought exquisite blue indigo and green tiles from Constantinople and Damascus, Abdel-Aziz said, these being made in the Iznik style with floral motifs depicting cypress trees and vases holding tulips. “This is why the mosque is known as the Blue Mosque,” Abdel-Aziz pointed out, adding that Al-Mustahfizan built his own mausoleum inside the mosque and decorated it with marble tiles.
During the reign of the Khedive Tawfik in 1899, the minaret of the mosque was restored and covered with a metal sheath. In 1908, the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe, a restoration association, restored the mosque, but in 1992 it was closed to worshippers because of earthquake damage.
The present restoration started in 2009 when the Aga Khan Trust for Culture began a comprehensive project to return the mosque to its original state as part of the larger Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Programme.
Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty said the restoration work cost LE20 million and included the removal of scaffolding installed following the 1992 earthquake and installation of seismic retrofit measures, particularly in the minaret base, that will reinforce the durability of the building in the event of a future earthquake. Other restoration work included conservation of the delicate marble panels, Iznik ceramic tiles, roofing and façade.
In restoring the mosque, the Aga Khan Trust adopted a strategy that seeks to leverage culture to alleviate poverty, Abdel-Aziz said. As in many of the locations in which it works, the Trust sought to create a series of activities that not only focus on the restoration of monuments, but also include the creation of public spaces, water and sanitation improvements, education and health initiatives, and microfinance.
The World Monuments Fund and the Selz Foundation were also key supporters of the mosque’s restoration.
At the opening ceremony, Karim Aga Khan described the event as “an immense pleasure and an extraordinary moment.” He said that the inauguration of the Aqsunqur Mosque marked the culmination of a larger revitalisation that has taken place over many years in historic Cairo.
“As Muslims, we are invited to protect and enhance the world in which we live during our lifetimes. We are trustees of God’s creation, hence the word ‘trust’ in the name of the agency responsible for this restoration,” he said.
The Aga Khan is involved in several restoration projects in the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar area, including restoration of the Um Al-Sultan Shaaban Mosque, Khayer Bek Complex, Palace of Emir Alen Aq Al-Hosamy, Qubbet Tarabay Al-Sharif and Al-Selehdar Mosque.
A few metres from the Bab Al-Wazir Mosque, in the same district, stands the mosque of Emir Seif Al-Din Aytmish Al-Bagassi, who was close to the Mameluke Sultan Barquq and became a regent for his son Farag. Al-Bagassi later fled Cairo when Farag came to power.
The entrance of his mosque is decorated with beautifully shaped leaf patterns and a ribbed dome. The main façade has a high-level inscription, plus two further inscription bands on the main portal, which has a muqarnas hood and a decoration of inverse heart-shaped leaf patterns. “It illustrates the characteristics of the 13th-century decorative style,” Abdel-Aziz said.
On the northern side of the façade is a sabil kuttab (water fountain and library) that has a cup blazon and inscription on its wooden lintel. Mameluke historian Al-Maqrizi mentions the mosque in his account of these years, writing that Al-Bagassi built a mosque to be a school for teaching Hanafi jurisprudence. He had also built a hotel to accommodate foreign traders, a water basin for animals, and a domed mausoleum, Al-Maqrizi said.
Abdel-Aziz said the mosque’s mausoleum was empty because Al-Bagassi was killed in Damascus in 1400. The mausoleum has a distinctive brick and plaster dome, which illustrates a popular 13th-century design.
It has ribs that rise straight up for the first quarter of the dome, then bend to the right and spiral up to the top. There is an inscription at its base and alternating keel-arched windows and niches on the drum. The Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe restored the stonework on the mosque’s main facade.
“The opening of these mosques highlights the ministry’s efforts to preserve and protect the country’s Islamic heritage, as well as to provide new tourist attractions,” Eldamaty told the Weekly.
He said that the events hall adjacent to Al-Bagassi Mosque has also been restored because it provided services for the inhabitants of the area, including weddings and funeral ceremonies. It will now host a series of lectures and seminars to raise cultural awareness among residents of the district, Eldamaty said.
Prior to the restoration, cracks had weakened the walls of the mosque and the masonry and wooden decorative elements showed signs of damage, Abdel-Aziz said. Today the walls have been consolidated and the woodwork restored.