When Mohamed Ali Pasha rose to power in Egypt in 1805, he saw that the previous ruling Mameluke factions were the biggest obstacle to his authority and that they could undermine his plans. They still controlled much of the country and resisted much of his authority through their baronial rights.
Therefore, he ruthlessly crushed them after inviting them to a banquet in the Cairo Citadel in honour of his son Tosoun as a step towards building a new relationship. In March 1811, 500 Mameluke chiefs under the leadership of Shahin Bey marched in a military procession to a huge banquet set up in the Citadel’s southern enclosure. The Bab Al-Azab gate was firmly locked behind them as the last guest walked in.
Once seated, the unarmed Mameluke lords realised that they were trapped and the high walls of the gate and Citadel prevented them from fleeing. They were faced with a battalion of Mohamed Ali’s loyal Albanian soldiers, who killed them all, thus ending the Mamelukes and their dominion in Egypt.
The Bab Al-Azab is the great lower gate of the Cairo Citadel that looks out over the Sultan Hassan and Al-Refaai Mosques. The commander of the Mameluke Al-Azab Corps, the emir Radwan Katkhuda Al-Galfi, built the gate in 1754 to replace an older one built by a predecessor. It is in the same architectural style as the Citadel’s two other gates, but is considered the larger and more beautiful.
It has two rectangular towers that contain the structures from which hot oil was once poured on attackers, and it long served as the main entrance to the southern enclosure of the Citadel. When the khedive Abbas Helmi I extended neighbouring Remeila Square in the late 19th century, he restored and embellished the gate’s Gothic elements and external double stairs.
Osama Talaat, head of the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, said that the Bab Al-Azab had been named many years before its construction. In 1517, when the invading Ottomans arrived in Egypt, they began referring to the Citadel’s lower enclosure as “Al-Azab” after the stables built by the Mameluke Sultan Al-Nasser Mohamed Ibn Qalawun in 1311 to house the 4,800 horses in his possession.
The area started being used as a dormitory for an Ottoman regiment known as Al-Azab — in Arabic it literally means the “bachelors” — since its members were not allowed to marry until they retired.
The French Expedition to Egypt under Napoleon Bonaparte at the end of the 18th century changed these rules, and the members of the Al-Azab Corps were allowed to marry and even given permission to build houses within the fortress walls. By the mid-19th century the Citadel had been turned into a kind of residential district with shops, public baths, and commercial enterprises as a result. It lost part of its military functions, and a labyrinth of small streets was created.
Today, Abdel-Aziz continued, the gate area is home to six major archaeological sites, including the Mosque and Palace of Katkhuda, the Tower of Al-Ashraf Khalil Ibn Qalawoun, and a string of warehouses and one-storey buildings once used as soldiers’ dormitories and stables.
In 1989, the Italian government offered to develop the Bab Al-Azab area, but the plan came under fire when former culture minister Farouk Hosni intended to lease the land to a private company to build a hotel and shopping complex.
The plan won the approval of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Permanent Committee for Islamic and Coptic Monuments in 1993. But as arguments raged between its opponents and supporters the project was put on hold and the Bab Al-Azab fell into disrepair.
NEW DEVELOPMENTS: Last week, the SCA and the Sovereign Fund of Egypt (SFE) signed a contract to develop and manage the provision of services to visitors to the Bab al-Azab area.
The SCA will solely manage the historic site, while the SFE will manage the operations and services in the Bab Al-Azab area, reflecting the collaboration between the parties to revive the area and increase its historic and economic value.
The SFE aims to boost sustainable economic development in Egypt through attracting private investments to develop state assets, in accordance with best international practices, optimising their returns and maximising their long-term value for future generations.
The contract between the SCA and the SFE for the development of the Bab Al-Azab area was signed by Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the SCA, and Ayman Suleiman, CEO of the SFE, in the presence of Hala Al-Said, minister of planning and economic development and chair of the board of the SFE, and Khaled El-Enany, minister of tourism and antiquities.
This contract is part of Historic Cairo’s rehabilitation efforts, reflecting the government’s focus on improving the quality of services to visitors to the Citadel, one of the most important historic sites in Egypt.
It is the first investment project for the SFE in the tourism and antiquities sector, in cooperation with the SCA, and it will include the complete development of the Bab Al-Azab area. Opening this unutilised area of the Citadel to the public after reviving it will place it on Egypt’s list of historic and cultural tourist attractions and provide cultural services to the area, in addition to establishing and operating traditional markets and handicraft shops and cultural events.
Al-Said said the agreement reflected the SFE’s role in increasing returns on state-owned assets through value-accretive investments to better utilise Egypt’s resources for future generations. “It is important for the SFE to contribute to developing historic areas to introduce new generations to Egypt’s history and generate positive returns on state assets through creative projects,” she said.
She added that the objective of the SFE was to attract investors to contribute technically and financially to such projects in order to increase state revenues and create employment opportunities in sectors with high potential.
El-Enany said the collaboration directed more investments to touristic development and provided a model for investment projects to operate attractive and efficient services for visitors to major touristic destinations in Egypt.
“It also confirms the success of the ministry’s vision in developing and operating services in historic sites, enhancing their cultural value and diversifying Egyptian touristic products while adding new cultural tourism destinations,” he added.
Al-Said and El-Enany witne ssing the signing of the development protocol
Waziri said the SCA was seeking to re-utilise, preserve, and develop Egypt’s historic areas in a sustainable manner, as well as to provide services to the visitors of these areas to enrich their cultural experience. He said the rehabilitation of historic buildings after their restoration was one of the most important methods of preserving them, and it worked to raise their cultural and economic value, promoting such areas as new touristic and cultural destinations.
Suleiman said the SFE would team up with private investors to develop the Bab Al-Azab site. The buildings in the area would then offer visitors a rich cultural experience that accentuated the Citadel’s historic value and highlighted the pivotal events it had witnessed and its role in Egypt’s modern history, he said. It was essential that the private sector played an integral role in adding economic and cultural value to the historical tourism sector, he added.
The Bab Al-Azab development project would include a museum with interactive technologies, a market for spices, traditional crafts and foods, a design school, a theatre for traditional and cultural arts, as well as a historical library, Suleiman said.
The importance of the project was that “we are utilising an undeveloped, closed part of the Citadel that will positively impact the entire area of Historic Cairo, creating jobs and value in the tourism sector with private partners and adding new investment products in the Egyptian economy,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly