Cultural initiative reconnects residents of historic Al-Imam Al-Shafii district to their heritage

Amira Noshokaty , Monday 17 Jul 2023

A new cultural initiative, named Medad El-Imamien (Continuation of the Two Imams), is reconnecting the residents of the Imam Al-Shafii neighbourhood with their cultural heritage through arts and handicrafts.

Al-Imam Al-Shafii historic district
The signs of mausoleum of both Imam Al-Shafii and Al-Leithi. Photo courtesy Sara Hasan


The neighbourhood’s children take tours of the mausoleum of Imam Al-Shafii (767-820 AD), founder of the eponymous Shafii school of Islamic jurisprudence, to learn about the man that their neighbourhood is named after. A few feet away, they take calligraphy and learn how to make handicrafts.

This new initiative was developed by five women over almost two years as part of their graduation project for their diploma of cultural development at Cairo University.

"I have always been enchanted by the neighbourhood," explained Sara Hassan, the founder and manager of the initiative, to Ahram Online. She is a filmmaker, photographer and screenwriter who was among the writing team in the latest television hit Risalet Al Imam (The Message of the Imam), which explores the life of Al-Shafii.

Hassan and her colleagues and founded the initiative for community and artistic development for the children of the neighbourhood.

The initiative works in collaboration with Al-Alam Beity (The World is My Home), a non-governmental organization (NGO).

"[The NGO] focuses on empowering widows and single mothers by training them in sewing workshops, as well as enhancing the skills of children of the neighbourhood so they have better job opportunities in the future, " explained Shimaa Mahmoud, the manager of the NGO and resident of the neighbourhood.

The collaboration between the initiative and the NGO has created a new line of hand-made bags and pencil cases with artwork depicting the mausoleum’s famous dome and quotes in Arabic calligraphy.

"We were inspired by the life of the imam whose mother was a widow who strove to support her brilliant son. Al-Shafii was focused on documenting his ideas and thoughts and his handwriting was easy and clear which helped save all his thoughts and pass it down to us," noted Hasan.

Born in Gaza, Al-Shafii moved with his mother to Mecca after his father passed away. He studied in Mecca and in Iraq, was assigned the post of judge in Yemen, and founded his school of thought in his famous book Al-Om (The Mother) while teaching in Cairo, where he lived until his death in 820 AD.

Al-Shafii neighbourhood is also referred to as Al-Imamien (The Two Imams) in reference to both Al-Shafii and his mentor Al-Imam Al-Leithi. The residential neighbourhood is the burial ground of many iconic cultural figures and has its own intangible cultural heritage.

The necropolis of historic Cairo, where the neighbourhood is located, has always been more than just a burial ground. Venerating the dead and visiting them is a ritual of grand importance to Egyptians. Having an eternal spiritual connection between those who crossed over is a belief that is deeply rooted in Egyptian mass memory. The graveyards have always had schools, public water fountains, and resting areas for visitors. There was even a visitors’ guidebook for visitors who would come visit the tombs of wallis, iconic figures, Sufi pillars as well as their loved ones.

The imam's mausoleum is surrounded by many tombs, including the tomb for the descendants of Mohamed Ali Pasha, the Ottoman ruler of Egypt 1805-1848, who like many Egyptians, chose to be buried next to the imam for his spiritual grandeur.

Decorating such tombs required skilful calligraphers that would adorn the tombstones with verses from the Quran. This helped integrate the art of calligraphy into the neighbourhood.

"Out of this came the idea to create items that reflect the cultural heritage of the place,” Hasan said.

“My colleague Noha Hanafy created the design inspired by the dome of Al-Shafaii. Parenting consultant Bothina Abdel Raaouf charted the best communication methodology with the children we cater for,”

“Since the district has many decorative heritage tombs, calligraphy was once a booming art in the neighbourhood, so I collaborated with Khalil Agha calligraphy school to teach children of the neighbourhood," added Hasan.

“Inclusion of children with hearing disability was the responsibility of Mayada Al Dibani, and Yasmine Magdy an employee at the minister of culture managed to coordinate all this," continued Hasan.

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