Strains of oriental music filled the air of the Al-Daher district of Cairo this week as four men in traditional Kazakh costume stood at the gates of the Al-Zaher Baybars Mosque welcoming visitors and worshippers to the now magnificently restored building.
They were taking them back in time to the reign of the Mameluke Sultan Al-Zaher Baybars (reigned 1260-1277) to celebrate the restoration of his magnificent Mosque and the Sultan’s 800th anniversary.
Dignitaries from Egypt and Kazakhstan flocked to the Mosque to witness its official opening by Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb and Chair of the Kazakh Senate Maulen Ashimbayev. Egyptian Minister of Religious Endowments Mokhtar Gomaa and Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Ahmed Issa, along with Cairo Governor Khaled Abdel-Aal, also attended.
After 16 years or restoration work with a seven-year hiatus, the Al-Zaher Baybars Mosque has now regained its original glory.
Hisham Samir, assistant to the minister for archaeological projects at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, said that the restoration project had originally started in 2007 but had been halted in 2011 when the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) supervising the work realised that the bricks used in the restoration did not match the originals.
The Permanent Committee of Islamic Monuments had agreed to use adobe bricks in the restoration work that were similar to the originals and not mudbrick ones.
The work did not resume until 2018, when the mosque’s foundations were consolidated, putting an end to the leakage of subterranean water into the foundations by installing a new drainage system to lower the groundwater level. The faulty electrical system was replaced, and the mosque’s minaret, dome, and columns, as well as inner walls and ceilings, restored.
The ground of the mosque’s open courtyard was paved with tiles similar to those used in the original design, while the four halls around it were covered in a manner consistent with the mosque’s original design to protect it from rain.
New lighting and security systems were installed, while decorative features inside and outside the Mosque were cleaned and restored.
“The restoration of the Al-Zaher Baybars Mosque highlights the keenness of the Egyptian government to preserve its Islamic history and monumental mosques,” Gomaa said at the opening.
He added that this year the government has restored three mosques: Al-Hussein, Amr Ibn Al-Aas in Old Cairo, and now the Al-Zaher Baybars Mosque in Al-Daher.
The restoration project for the mosque cost LE237 million funded by several government entities and the Kazakh government, which helped with $4.5 million. The Ministry of Religious Endowments provided LE60.5 million, while the ministries of tourism and antiquities, finance, and planning jointly provided LE150 million.
Gomaa said that throughout its long history, the mosque has suffered from ill use. During the French invasion of Egypt at the end of the 18th century, the mosque was used as a military fort, and the minaret was used as a defensive tower and then destroyed.
In 1812, some of the mosque’s columns were moved to Al-Azhar. During the Ottoman period and then the Mohamed Ali era in the 19th century, the mosque was used as a soap factory and then a bakery. The British used it as a military storehouse and then a slaughterhouse until 1915.
After 1918, the mosque was the subject of several restoration projects carried out by the Committee for the Preservation of Arab Antiquities, which repaired some parts of it and the qibla riwaq (prayer hall).
Ashimbayev said that the restoration and opening of the mosque were part of 600 events organised in Kazakhstan and Egypt dedicated to the memory of Sultan Baybars, who was of Kazakh origin.
“The opening of the mosque is a very important day for Kazakhstan and Egypt. We are not only rediscovering one of Cairo’s landmarks, but also strengthening the cultural and spiritual bond between our two nations. Sultan Baybars is an important figure in the history of our countries, which is why I would like to thank the Egyptian side for their cooperation in preserving cultural heritage that is important for all of us,” he said.
Despite losing its decoration over time, the Al-Zaher Baybars Mosque has always maintained its sense of grandeur through its colonnades, inner hypostyle hall, and the marble columns supporting it. Built in 1267 CE, the mosque functioned until the 16th century as part of a larger complex featuring a hospital, a madrassa, and a mausoleum.
The mosque’s architectural style bears the influence of Mameluke and Ayoubid designs. It is considered to be an iconic example of Mameluke architecture.
The mosque is rectangular in shape and consists of a large courtyard enclosed by arcades and covered with a domed ceiling. The main prayer hall is located on the western side of the courtyard and is richly decorated with ornate carvings, intricate tilework, and beautiful calligraphy.
The mihrab (pulpit) is covered with a semi-dome and has delicate inlaid mosaics. The mosque’s minaret, which stands 45 metres tall, is one of the tallest in Cairo.
Al-Zaher Baybars, of Central Asian origin, rose through the Egyptian Mameluke ranks until he became a commander and later sultan. He proved his abilities in the defeat of the French during the Seventh Crusade, and in 1259 he successfully repelled the Mongol forces that were threatening Egypt, a victory that was a turning point in history.
Baybars was the first to organise the Mamelukes into a system of governance and was the founder of the Bahri Mamelukes. He organised the country’s bureaucracy and improved the military as well as the infrastructure of Cairo.
Baybars used his military strength to achieve legitimacy for his government. A soldier by training, he continued to campaign against foreign enemies for the duration of his sultanate. To further bolster his legitimacy, Baybars incorporated the Abbasid caliphate, driven out of Baghdad by the Mongols, into Egypt’s government.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.