When water flowed from an Egyptian masterpiece

El-Sayed Hussein, Sunday 24 Mar 2013

As the world celebrates water day on 22 March, Ahram Online remembers Mohamed Ali Pasha's fountain, Egypt's first drinking water system


Readers may have heard the Egyptian folkloric songs that goes, "Girls, I am thirsty; can you take me to the drinking fountain?"

In medieval Cairo, the well-off sponsored the construction of a drinking fountain (sabil) or an elementary Quranic school (kottab), usually in one space, as one of the highest forms of charity.

There are dozens of these fountains/complexes in the older parts of Cairo, characterised by large windows covered with a metal grill with a sabil on the ground floor, and the kottab, usually sporting lovely mashrabias, on the first floor.

The complex  is usually small in size, but often highly decorative as it is meant to commemorate the benefactor who established it.

The Sabil of Mohamed Ali Pasha, which you encounter on your right about one hundred metres after you enter Fatimid Cairo through Bab Zuweila, is one such fountain that commemorates the legacy of the 'founder of modern Egypt.'

The street may be dusty and muddy, as endless construction, or renovation, seems to overwhelm the vicinity. However, if you take a moment to admire the elaborate marble work of the early nineteenth century, you may experience that unique elation that one normally associates not with architecture but with elaborate forms of art.

The building was clearly designed not only to impress but to delight. There is a palatial exuberance in the marble detail, a titillating seduction in the curvature of the facade and a definite master in the refinement of workmanship.

Mohamed Ali Pasha built the complex as a tribute to the memory of his son, Ismail, who died in Sudan in 1822, says antiquity professor Raafat El-Nabarawi.

Historian Khaled Fahmi says that Mohamed Ali broke with Mamluk traditions in erecting this fountain. The Pasha, who chose a prominent location for the building on the then main thoroughfare of Cairo, imported wood and white marble - and perhaps even artisans - from Turkey, to make it.

On the facade of the building, you will see lines of Turkish poetry written in the Arabic script. You will also notice the name of Sultan Mahmoud II, who was Ottoman sultan at the time.

According to Fahmi, the sabil introduced a new style of decorative art to Egypt, the elaborate and undulating bas relief which was the Ottoman Empire's answer to European baroque. In departure from Mamluk tradition, Mohamed Alaid didn't built a kottab on top of the sabil, but adorned it with a lead-covered cupola, also in imitation of Istanbul's most elegant buildings. Emphasising the Ottoman traits of the building, were the paintings of Turkish-style scenery that adorned the inside of the dome.

Mohammad al-Khatib, professor of Islamic history at Al-Azhar University, says that the sabil stands on top of a 9-metre deep cistern, built in the Roman style, and large enough to store 0.5 million litre of water. People who drank from the sabil often threw coins inside it by way of gratitude, and some of these coins were excavated during the renovation.

A passerby in the mid-nineteenth century who decided to stop for a drink at this sabil would have had to climb a few steps to the metal grill (the street level would have been a lot lower than it is now), to drink. From there, you would be able to look inside the sabil and enjoy the beautiful paintings of a fantasy city and lovely plants on the ceiling that were inspired by Ottoman art.

Around 1830, almost a decade after the sabil was created, a second floor was added. The newer storey was rather plain in style and devoid of ornamentation suggesting a utilitarian objective. While it is not clear if this floor was ever used as a kottab in keeping with tradition, the entire building was used as a girl school in the twentieth century.

Mohamed Ali's sabil suffered structural damage in the 1992 earthquake, and has undergone a facelift since then. 

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