Rosetta as an open-air museum
The soaring monuments of Rosetta are to be restored in order to develop the Delta city into an open-air museum of Islamic art, writes Nevine El-Aref
After the Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517, Rosetta became the Egyptian port closest to Istanbul. By the 17th century it was a bustling cosmopolitan centre with a population including Greeks, Turks, Nubians and Europeans. Rosetta then remained a prosperous trading centre attracting the attention of Britain and France as the two major colonial powers controlling trade between Europe and the East.
Rosetta turned into one of the most flourishing Mediterranean ports, and rich merchants and the consuls of European countries built elegant houses there in addition to hotels, mosques and churches.
When Egypt's ruler Mohamed Ali built the Mahmoudeya Canal to carry the Nile's water to Alexandria in the early 19th century, Rosetta declined once again. As long as Alexandria was flourishing, Rosetta fell into disrepair. Another blow came when the High Dam was built in Aswan, diverting the Nile away from Rosetta. The city's freshwater fishing industry ebbed, and the once-vibrant shoreline was neglected.
Several restoration attempts were carried out in the last century, but they did not achieve the results hoped for. Some old houses were torn down due to the city's unplanned development.
Today, Rosetta boasts 22 ancient houses, 12 ancient mosques, the ninth-century Abu Shahin Mill whose grindstone was originally driven by donkeys, the Azuz public baths complex, the Abul-Rish Gate and the Qait Bey Citadel where an officer of the French expedition to Egypt found the Rosetta Stone in 1799. The interior of the citadel resembles that of its more famous brother in Alexandria.
The design of the mediaeval houses reserved the ground floors for business and storerooms, while the first floors were for men and the second for women. Some of the façades are decorated with red, black and white bricks. The first two floors, featuring corbels out into the street, have splendid mashrabeya (lattice woodwork) windows and façades. Faïence ceramic tiles were also used, known as zellig, like in the Arab Maghreb countries.
Among the oldest and biggest mosques in Rosetta is the Zaghloul Mosque, with the others being scattered all over the city.
The Azuz baths complex is over 100 years old and comprises two wings, the first a reception wing which leads to a corridor with a marble fountain in the centre. At the end of the corridor lies a wooden compartment where the master of the baths would once have sat to receive clients. The second wing is flanked by bathing rooms and has a marble floor ornamented by another fountain. Two magnificent domed ceilings cover both wings, fitted with coloured glass windows to allow adequate lighting. Annexed to the baths complex is a small house used by the owner and workers.
LTTLE ROSE: "The city of Rosetta, its name meaning 'little rose', is the second most important city in Egypt for its Islamic monument after Cairo," Mohamed Abdel-Latif, assistant to the Ministry of Antiquities for archaeological sites, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He added that the city was one of Egypt's major tourist attractions not only for its distinguished Islamic monuments but also for its unique location between the western arm of the Nile and the Mediterranean.
Unfortunately, Abdel-Latif pointed out, the city's historical and archaeological sites are suffering due to the modern jungle of surrounding houses and other buildings. The city's poor drainage system has led to the rise of the subterranean water level, which in turn has leaked inside the monuments and affected the walls and foundations. Shops and other buildings built up against the monuments have also had a negative impact.
In 2003, a major restoration project started on many of the city's houses and mosques as well as its ancient mill and gate. Restoration work on the monuments has now resumed, and the Al-Mahali and Zaghloul mosques are at the top of the list. Moreover, in order to ensure the best use of the city's historical and cultural assets, the Ministry of Antiquities has launched a major development project with a view to developing the city into an open-air museum.
A detailed study containing proposals for Rosetta's new identity is now before Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany, who will review it and give the go-ahead.
Abdel-Latif told the Weekly that the development plans had divided the city areas into seven sections, the first being the area around Dahliz Al-Mulk Street, where there is a concentration of ancient houses and mosques, including the ancient houses of Ramadan, Maharem, Abuham, Al-Gamal, Bassiumi, Al-Orabi, Koheih and Elwan.
The second area is around Al-Sheikh Qandil Street in the centre of the Islamic city where the mosques of Sheikh Qandil, Galal Thabet, Al-Tourkatli, Zaghloul and others stand with their simple and harmonious lines. The area also boasts the ancient houses of Qandil, Tabaq, and Thabit, while neighbouring streets contain the houses of Tukateli, Galal, Al-Mayzouni, Deraa and Manadili.
Al-Mayzouni was the father of Zebeida, the wife of general Jacques-François de Menou, the third commander of the French Expedition to Egypt, who converted to Islam becoming Abdallah de Menou.
The third area is the Al-Amsali Complex which includes the house of Al-Amsali Hasiba Ghazal and the Abu-Shahin Mill. Al-Amsali was a soldier in the Ottoman army. The fourth area contains the Arab Killy house, now the Rosetta Museum and its garden.
The south and south-east of Rosetta host the Al-Abbasid Mosque overlooking the Nile and the Zaghloul Mosque, considered the most famous in the city, which played a prominent role in the 19th century. It was from here that the signal to attack the British of the Frazer Campaign, part of the 1807 Anglo-Ottoman War, was made. The mosque is bigger than Al-Azhar and has 244 granite and marble sections. This area of the city, the fifth, also houses the Azuz baths, the Al-Samet Dome, the Al-Bakrouli house and the Damksis Mosque.
The sixth area includes the Abu Al-Rish Gate, the Abdel-Aal Mausoleum, and the small mosque of Abul-Rish. The seventh and last section includes the Abu Mandour Mosque, the Qait Bey Citadel and the port.
The development plans will resume restoration work on all the monuments in need of it, as well as close streets lined with monuments or leading to them to traffic, making them into pedestrian areas. The streets will be repaved and new lighting systems installed.
The fish market in Dahliz Al-Mulk Street will be transferred and encroachment on the monuments removed. The façades of houses and shops in the heritage areas will be refurbished in line with their historical and archaeological value.
The interior of the Al-Amsali house will be refurbished using original materials in order to convey the impression of age. Original furniture will be used in the Ottoman houses to give visitors an idea of how rich merchants lived in Rosetta during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Gates will be built at the entrance of the main road near the Abu Mandour site in order to prohibit trucks from passing through. Gardens will be planted and roads paved leading to the monuments and archaeological sites. Parking areas will be built, along with docks for felucca boats on the Nile. The Nile Corniche to the Qait Bey Citadel will be developed, and the area's mud brick workshops will be removed to make the area more environmentally friendly.
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