New ideas on Egypt's heritage
Newly appointed head of the Islamic and Coptic Antiquities Department at the Ministry of Antiquities Mohamed Abdel-Latif explains his hopes for Egypt's heritage to Nevine El-Aref
After the Arab commander Amr Ibn Al-Ass conquered Egypt in 641 CE and founded its first Islamic capital Al-Fustat, the country became the new centre of the Islamic world. Several capitals of Egypt were later built that included opulent palaces, mosques, madrassas (schools), hammams (public baths), wekalas (trade centres) and sabils (fountains).
Although Cairo, Egypt's capital since 969 CE when the country was conquered by the powerful Shia Muslim dynasty of the Fatimids, has monopolised most of the country's splendour since, other cities still contain the remains of the Islamic Empire.
However, very often time has taken its toll on these monuments. Encroachment and misuse by residents has caused them harm, environmental pollution has 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 as a result.
Al-Muizz Street in the heart of the old city took an important share of the LE850 million project. Restoration work also extended to other Islamic buildings outside Cairo. Several edifices were restored and officially inaugurated, the last being those that lined Al-Muizz Street in Historic Cairo.
However, the lack of security that overwhelmed the country in the aftermath of the 2011 Revolution had negative impacts on antiquities, which suffered from further negligence, theft and encroachment. Fortunately, more recently many stolen artefacts were returned, encroachments were removed, and most of the Islamic monuments regained their lustre and allure.
Yet, there is still more to do, and Al-Ahram Weekly spoke to newly appointed head of the Islamic and Coptic Antiquities Department at the Ministry of Antiquities, Mohamed Abdel-Latif, about his plans to protect and preserve Egypt's Islamic and Coptic monuments.
In his office on the fourth floor of the Ministry of Antiquities in the Abbasiyya area of Cairo, Abdel-Latif seems at ease. He is no stranger to the office, this being the same room in which he used to meet his former bosses. Upon his graduation from the Faculty of Art, Islamic Monuments Department, at Sohag University in 1990, Abdel-Latif started his career at the Islamic and Coptic Antiquities Department at the ministry, then part of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.
In 2007, he left the ministry and was appointed professor of Islamic and Coptic Monuments at the Tourism and Hotel Faculty at Mansoura University. In February this year, he returned to his former home, now as head of the Islamic and Coptic Antiquities Department. He says that during his eight-year absence, the ministry has continued to work to preserve the country's antiquities in general and Islamic monuments in particular. This had even led to a financial surplus in the ministry's 2010 budget, he said.
But the 2011 Revolution had had two main negative impacts on antiquities, especially Islamic monuments, he said. First, it had put on hold all development and restoration projects, and second, it had led to a decline in the tourism industry in Egypt, which had in turn decreased the country's income and the Ministry of Antiquities' budget.
The ministry is a self-financed governmental authority, and its budget depends on the ticket sales it collects from tourist sites. Fortunately, Abdel-Latif said, last year when stability returned to the country and the tourism industry started to move once again the Ministry of Antiquities had also begun its recovery and many projects had resumed.
"Regretfully, the condition of Egypt's Islamic monuments is not one hundred per cent perfect, but the situation is much better than it was three years ago," Abdel-Latif told the Weekly, adding that "although several postponed restoration and development projects have been restarted there is still much more to achieve."
He explains that the 19th century building of the Assay and Weights Administration in the Gamaliyya area of Historic Cairo, which has been recently put on Egypt's Antiquities List of Islamic Monuments, is to be converted into an authentic hotel, for example. In addition to rooms and restaurants, this would include a visitor's centre showing the history of the administration and the building itself from the mediaeval period until the current era.
The present building was built in 1888 as the first premises dedicated to minting gold and silver coins. The police station building now in Gamaliyya, Abdel-Latif pointed out, was also on the Antiquities List and would be handed over to the ministry when the new police station was completed. The building would then be converted into a cultural and historical centre for the area's inhabitants and visitors.
This would play a major role in raising cultural awareness among the inhabitants of the area, acquainting them with the importance of their heritage and how to protect it for the next generations. It would also be a permanent market building for the area's handicrafts. For visitors, the centre would be a destination before walking tours around the monuments of the area and would include an exhibition of documentary films and photographs.
The inaugurations of the Mameluk mosque and madrassa of Aytmish Al-Bagassi and the Blue Mosque in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar after restoration were other projects recently undertaken by the ministry, along with the inauguration of the city's Ayyubid walls, the Qubet Tarabay Al-Sharifi in the Al-Azhar area and the Hanging Church in Old Cairo. Restoration work on the Um Al-Sultan Shaaban and Khayer Beik Mosques in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar are also underway, with a campaign also taking place to refurbish the monuments in the Beit Al-Qadi area of Historic Cairo.
"The Ministry of Antiquities is exerting all its efforts to protect the country's Islamic and Coptic monuments," Abdel-Latif said, adding that several international organisations and research centres were extending helping hands to develop and preserve Egypt's Islamic monuments. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, for example, has resumed its cooperation with the ministry to restore several monuments in the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar area.
"But for me the present campaigns are not sufficient, and they do not quench my ambitions for the country's Islamic monuments," Abdel-Latif told the Weekly. He pointed out that Egypt's Islamic heritage is unique, as it is the only country in the world to house monuments from all eras from the Islamic conquest in 641 CE until the 1952 Revolution.
Egypt, he said, is also the only country in the world to boast different types of structures for every Islamic era, displaying religious, civil and military architecture. The same thing is true for movable artefacts, as Egypt has collections of objects made of all kinds of material, including glass, porcelain, gold, silver, clay, iron and copper. "Egypt is an exhibition of the Islamic world's different civilisations," Abdel-Latif asserted.
"The country's Islamic monuments are my life, and my ambition for them has extended all my expectations," he said, adding that his dream was to see Egypt's Islamic monuments at the top of the list of all such monuments in the Islamic world. Abdel-Latif said this would be achievable if the country reorganised its working methods and appointed members of a well-educated younger generation that would refresh the ministry's ranks.
"I have already appointed more than 20 young managers in different inspectorates all over Egypt, among them two women in Assiut and Luxor. Now I want to work with more transparency, putting negative aspects in front of us in an attempt to find a way to change them," he said. "Denying negative aspects does not benefit the work of the ministry. People who never commit mistakes are probably either dead or not working," but there was a need to be honest about them.
NEW PROJECTS, NEW IDEAS: There was also a need to develop the department's own resources in an attempt to guarantee its budget, he said. Sites like Baron Empain's Palace in Heliopolis, the Al-Suhaimy House in Historic Cairo and others could be a source of income for the ministry and could host scientific and cultural conferences, seminars, concerts, plays and other events, he said. "I have already asked some foreign embassies and archaeological institutes in Cairo to host some of their events at these institutions," Abdel-Latif said.
Opening sites to the public at night, such as the Qayt Bay Fort in Alexandria and the Salaheddin Citadel in Cairo, could also be contemplated. "Using public events to promote new tours around Egypt's Islamic and Coptic sites is another aspect of the ministry's work," Abdel-Latif noted.
Promoting the Holy Family's journey in Egypt following in their footsteps around the country could also be considered. Abdel-Latif said that every place the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus stopped or passed by during their flight to Egypt could be celebrated on the day when the holy family visited it in antiquity. This would mean that a celebration could be held every month in a different place until 7 January when Christmas mass takes place in the Egyptian Coptic Church. The stops start in the ancient Egyptian city of Pelusium in the Sinai Peninsula and run through to the Upper Egyptian city of Assiut passing by the Delta and Cairo.
Promoting the Muslim pilgrimage road from Egypt to Mecca could be another tour. Egypt, Abdel-Latif said, had been the gateway for Muslims on the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, and citizens of the Greater Arab Maghreb, Andalusia and Africa had once all had to pass through Egypt on their pilgrimages to Mecca.
He said there were two ancient pilgrimage routes across Egypt, the first starting from Alexandria and going through the Delta and then Sinai towards Mecca and the second also starting from Alexandria and going through the Delta and then going to Qous in Upper Egypt, passing through the eastern desert towards Qusseir and then to Jeddah.
"The trip of the keswet al-kaaba (the covering of the Kaaba in Mecca) from Egypt to Mecca is another historical event that can be promoted," Abdel-Latif said. He explained that from the mid-fourteenth century during the reign of sultan Ismail Ibn Al-Nasser Mohamed Ibn Qalawoun Egypt began sending the keswa annually to Mecca. The last keswa was sent in 1963, and since then it has been made locally in Mecca.
The mahmal (bearer), the wooden structure designed to carry the keswa which was traditionally carried on one or more camels, once followed a specific route through Egypt to Mecca.
Abdel-Latif told the Weekly that although Cairo houses more than 60 per cent of the country's Islamic monuments, the provinces also have a distinguished collection of Islamic landmarks. "I would take tourists out of the capital city by opening new Islamic sites in other governorates," Abdel-Latif said, adding that a target could be the Qaliubiya governorate.
A comprehensive development project had started at the Delta barrage of Al-Qanater Al-Khayriya (Benevolent Bridges), the first modern irrigation structure located at the apex of the Nile Delta, he said. The nearby mahlag al-cotn (cotton gin), considered the oldest in the Middle East, is now under restoration in an attempt to convert it into a hotel. It will be completed in December. The gin is to be put on Egypt's Antiquities List in an attempt to convert it into a museum of the cotton industry.
Meanwhile, Abdel-Latif continued, the pavements over the Al-Qanater Bridge would be converted into paths for artists similar to those over the Notre Dame Bridge in Paris. The paths would be opened next month, he said.
Al-Qusseir also houses many Islamic monuments, and Abdel-Latif explained that its collection of 23 Islamic monuments from the end of the Mameluke era to the time of the ruling Mohamed Ali Dynasty could be restored and refurbished. Among them are Mohamed Ali's military fortress overlooking the Red Sea, a seed and grain barn, and the Mohamed Ali-era police station. A restoration and development project was currently underway in order to open a further 16 sites soon, Abdel-Latif said.
The Al-Qasr village in the New Valley is another site that the ministry intends to develop in collaboration with the Valley's community development association. The site is the home of a large collection of mudbrick houses built more than thousand years ago and is to be opened in October after restoration.
Abdel-Latif added that a large conservation and development project at the Abu Mena Monastery southwest of Alexandria was to take place soon. Abu Mena, a town, monastery complex and Christian pilgrimage centre, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. There are very few standing remains, but the foundations of most of the major buildings, including the great basilica, are easily discernible.
Recent agricultural work in the area has raised the water table, however, causing instability to a number of the site's buildings. As a result, it was added to the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2001 and sand had to be placed in the bases of the most-endangered buildings at the site.
Abdel-Latif said that a complete study aiming to protect the tomb of St Mena from further leakage of underground water had been completed last week and the ministry intended to implement the project immediately after gaining the necessary approval. UNESCO had promised to provide finance for the project and several Egyptian businessmen had asked to provide some of the project costs, he said.
"When the budget is provided the project can be started and completed in six months," Abdel-Latif said.
He also said that the modern buildings that have been illegally constructed in Historic Cairo would be removed soon in order to preserve the harmony of the area. He hopes to see Historic Cairo turned into a pedestrian zone where people can more easily admire the Islamic monuments and enjoy walking around them.