In the heart of Cairo’s southern cemetery of Al-Qarafa stands the Mausoleum of Al-Imam Al-Shafei with its distinguished 17-metre dome. This week, the mausoleum of this renowned scholar and founder of one of the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence was reopened to visitors after five years of restoration.
Although Mohamed ibn Idris Al-Shafei only spent four years in Egypt, it is here in the family graveyard of his colleague Abdallah ibn Abdel-Hakam that he was laid to rest in 204 AH 820 CE.
His tomb soon became a venerated site and an important stop on visitors’ itineraries. Its popularity also attracted the patronage of various rulers from Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi (Saladin) in the mediaeval period to the khedive Tawfik in the late 19th century. The current mausoleum is attributed to the Ayoubid Sultan Al-Kamil Mohamed who built it in place of an earlier Fatimid shrine after burying his mother there in 1211.
The ambitious wooden dome, with a diameter of about 17 metres, is the largest in Egypt. The mausoleum is also one of the few remaining Ayoubid buildings in existence today, and it includes rare examples of Ayoubid stucco decoration and woodwork. Its painted wooden interior is a kaleidoscope of Ottoman patterns and is one of many renovations throughout the 14th-19th centuries that render the interior a palimpsest of decorative styles, attesting to the mausoleum’s cultural and political significance.
Local and foreign devotees continue to visit the mausoleum to this day.
It was reopened this week by Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany, Minister of Religious Endowments Mokhtar Gomaa, Cairo Governor Khaled Abdel-Aal, US Ambassador Jonathan Cohen, and head of the Religious Committee of Egypt’s Parliament Ali Gomaa after five years of being hidden under scaffolding as workmen polished and strengthened its walls.
The aim of the conservation project was to remedy damage including floor subsidence, salt damage, the loss of masonry cohesion, damage to the marble cladding and gateway, the disintegration of the external stucco and plaster, and roof leakage. While the interior was better preserved, it was also marred by patchiness in the shades of paint used in various restorations. This was accentuated by unsuitable lighting.
At the reopening ceremony, El-Enany said the restoration of the Mausoleum did not only embody Egypt’s commitment to preserving its heritage for future generations, but had also resulted in a new tourist attraction that could be visited along with the neighbouring Al-Imam Al-Shafei Mosque inaugurated in November after restoration.
Ambassador Cohen said the US had been pleased to support the conservation of the Al-Shafei Mausoleum through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. “This project is part of our $100 million investment, over the past 25 years, to preserve, restore, and protect more than 85 cultural heritage and religious sites throughout Egypt,” Cohen said.
Hisham Samir, assistant to the minister for archaeological projects, said that the restoration work had included conserving the decorative stucco exterior and painted wood and coloured marble interior of the mausoleum, along with structural masonry repair, comprehensive roof work and tiling, and special items such as the conservation of cenotaphs and screens and lead cladding.
It had also included excavation, lighting, and site presentation, he said, along with extensive documentation of the architecture and decorative details.
May Al-Ibrashy, the director of the restoration project, said that new elements had been uncovered that were varied in scale and meaning. The excavations had revealed the remains of a Fatimid dome that had not been mentioned in the historical sources. Inscription panels were found hidden behind more recent architectural elements and decorative elements were revealed under more recent paint, she said.
“A detailed design was also developed for a visitors’ centre, in which all the finds will be placed and the story of the site told in an interactive manner,” she added.
The restoration project, running from 2016 to 2021, was implemented by the agency Megawra within the framework of Athar Lina, an initiative run in partnership with the Built Environment Collective. All the work was carried out under the supervision of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. This project was funded by the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation with supplementary funding from the Barakat Trust, the Prince Claus Fund, and ALIPH.
According to the Athar Lina website, the religious and political significance of the dome of the Al-Imam Al-Shafei Mausoleum attracted several renovation projects. The first known renovation was undertaken by the Mameluke Sultan Al-Nasir Mohamed, probably during his third reign (1310-1341 CE), as part of his vast programme of construction and renovation work throughout the city.
Sultan Qaitbay’s restoration over a century and a half later in 1480 is commemorated by two inscription plaques on the eastern and western wall of the mausoleum. A third undated plaque on the northern wall refers to the renovations of Sultan Al-Ghuri (d. 1516). The extent of each renovation is unclear, but the marble cladding and the scheme of the three-tiered muqarnas squinches carrying the dome are generally attributed to Qaitbay.
In the Ottoman period, the dome did not escape the attention of Abdel-Rahman Katkhuda, the Mameluke janissary who famously renovated and expanded several of Cairo’s shrines. Before his exile in 1765, Abdel-Rahman built a mosque in place of the Madrasa Al-Nasiriya and renovated the entrance to the mausoleum.
A few years later in 1772, Ali Bek Al-Kabir, perhaps attempting to assert his position as the self-proclaimed viceroy of Egypt, commissioned another renovation. He redecorated the interior, repaired the dome’s damaged wooden planks, and clad them with lead. Aside from the addition of a new maqsura (shrine), the mausoleum itself has not been significantly altered since. However, the adjacent mosque, entrance, and administrative wing that exist today east of the dome were built by the khedive Tawfik in 1891-92.
The mausoleum includes four cenotaphs surrounded by wooden maqsuras. The largest, marked by a marble funerary column, is that of Al-Imam Al-Shafei. Commissioned by Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi in 1178-79, Al-Shafei’s cenotaph predates the current mausoleum and is one of the finest surviving examples of Ayoubid woodwork. It is signed and dated by the Syrian “Ubaid the carpenter known as ibn Maali,” in a small inscription at the top.
The maqsura surrounding it was installed by the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe at the beginning of the 20th century. To its south is the cenotaph of Ibn Abdel-Hakam, while to its west is that of Al-Kamil’s mother. The latter also preserves its original Ayoubid cenotaph, of similar design to that of Al-Shafei.
The southernmost cenotaph, a brick platform, is attributed to Al-Malik Al-Kamil, although he is buried in Damascus. It is surrounded by a 19th-century maqsura similar to the one around the cenotaph of Al-Imam Al-Layth.
Al-Imam Al-Shafei remains dear in the collective memory of Egyptians. Lots of letters, among other items, are said to have been addressed to him, even after his death, in order to discuss worldly disputes and injustices. People also used to send him personal belongings. Most of the letters deal with injustice, as he was often seen as a judge.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly