Egypt's Ibn Tulun Mosque in need of rescue

Nevine El-Aref , Sunday 21 Apr 2013

Cairp's historic Mosque of Ibn Tulun has lost much of its splendour recently, with wastewater and garbage lining its walls; Egypt's cash-strapped antiquities ministry fails to intervene

water swamp

In Cairo's Al-Sayeda Zeinab district, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun stands as imposing as when it was first constructed in 876 on top of a hill known as Gabal Yashkur.

Recently, however, the mosque lost some of its splendour as garbage and swaps of drainage water amassed along its external wall.

The mosque is not the only monument to suffer neglect. Several Islamic, Coptic and ancient Egyptian monuments share the same fate. Among them are Dahshur area, where the first ever complete pyramid of King Senefru is located, Al-Muizz Street in Old Cairo which is lined with distinguished Mameluk and Ottoman monuments, the religious compound in Old Cairo where the Amr Ibn Al-As Mosque stands, and the Hanging Church and Ben Ezra Synagogue, to name but a few.

Antiquities in darkness

“The mosque is in a real mess,” Mohamed Hassan, a resident of Al-Sayeda Zeinab who lived in the buildings beside the mosque told Ahram Online. He said that for long time now the lighting system of the mosque has not been working, which left the mosque in darkness, prohibiting Maghrib and Al-Esha prayers.

Those responsible at the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), Hassan said, say that despite restoration carried out in 2005, the lighting system installed is not up to standard.

On personal funds, said Ali Kutb, a workshop owner at the area, all the area's inhabitants pitched in to light the mosque, buying and installing new lamps. It proved a failure, however, as the low quality of the mosque's electricity network exploded the lamps plunging the compound into darkness again.

“Several times we asked those responsible in the MSA and the Ministry of Religious Endowments, but they did nothing. They said the problem is vast and there is no budget available to repair the electricity network,” said Kutb.

Last Ramadan, says Montaser Abdel Azim, another resident, the MSA found a solution to light the mosque for Tarawih prayer, but darkness prevailed again after Ramadan.

A growing swamp

Recently, he went on, drainage water leaked onto the external wall of Al-Imara House located behind the main Qibla of the mosque. Al-Imara House is a very important archaeological site as it is the only one remaining out of four that once surrounded the mosque. This house has wooden halls with ceilings decorated with geometrical ivory decoration.

“Water is now spread along the mosque’s external wall and the swamp gets bigger and bigger,” said plumber Sayed Abdel Metaal, adding that he knows the source of the problem and he is willing to repair it but his hands are tied until he gains the permission of the government or district office to do so.

People who are not aware of the importance and historical value of the mosque throw their garbage at the foot of mosque’s wall, beside the water swamp. The area is now a source of disease.

Mohamed Abdel Rehim, head of the Islamic and Coptic section at the MSA, told Ahram Online that the MSA is doing everything it can to protect the mosque from negligence and encroachment.

Whenever leaking water or garbage accumulates, the MSA contact the Tourism and Antiquities Police, as well as the district office, to pump the water out. But days later, the water leaks again and inhabitants start throwing their garbage there.

“The lack of security and budget is behind the mess,” said Abdel Rehim, adding that to repair the source of the leak and the mosque's electricity network needs money not available due to the retreat of tourism.

Also, the lack of security and the absence of police in the area ends with inhabitants throwing their garbage at the mosque’s wall.

“The MSA will continue its role to protect the mosque as well as Egypt’s heritage, but the MSA alone cannot do the whole work: it needs the help of inhabitants themselves, the Ministry of Endowments and the Tourism and Antiquities Police.”

History threatened

The Ibn Tulun Mosque is the largest mosque ever built in Egypt. It was the focal point of Al-Qatai city, which was also the capital city of the Tulunids. The mosque originally backed on to Ibn Tulun's palace, and a door adjacent to the minbar (pulpit) allowed him direct entry.

The mosque was built in Samarran architectural style. It has a vast and imposing structure built around a courtyard; arcades, supported by piers with engaged columns at their corners, run round its four walls. The mosque has a Samarran-style spiral minaret with outside staircase. Because of its vast area and the absence of microphones at that time, the mosque has three places for mobalegh (those who repeat the imam's words during prayers).

The original mosque has its madiaa (ablution water fountain) in the area between the inner and outer walls, but a distinctive fountain with a high drum dome was added by Mamluk Sultan Al-Malik Al-Mansour Hossameddin Lajin Al-Mansuri at the end of the 13th century.

Sultan Lajin also added a clock in the shape of a dome with 24 small windows representing the hours of the day.

The mosque was built at a cost of 120,000 gold dinars. Al-Qatai was founded in 868 after the Abbasids gained control over the Islamic Empire. Abbasid governor Ahmed Ibn Tulun replaced Egypt's earlier capital of Al-Fustat. The historian Al-Maqrizi noted that construction started on the mosque in 876, while the mosque's original inscription slab identifies the date of completion as 265 AH, or 879 AD.

The high and solid bedrock on which it was built has protected the structure from natural catastrophes, including floods and the more insidious threat of rising groundwater.

The bricks that make up its walls are fire-resistant, and the mortar that gives them coherence has proved flexible enough to absorb the shocks dealt by earthquakes and military bombardment, and even the constant tremors caused by heavy vehicles passing through neighbouring streets.

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