The sound of the 175-year-old clock filling the northwestern arcade of the Mohamed Ali Mosque in Cairo’s Salaheddin Citadel will soon be heard again by visitors after years in which it was not working.
After its arrival in Cairo in 1845, the brass clock tower, a gift from king Louis Philippe of France to Egypt, was damaged, and three attempts were made to repair it.
The last one was during the reign of king Farouk, and a memorial plaque on the base of the tower says that during the reign of Farouk and by his decree the tower was restored and the clock dedicated to Mohamed Ali Pasha by king of France Louis Philippe was repaired in 1943.
The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities is now restoring the metal body of the clock tower, strengthening its decorations and golden straps. French expert in clock-making François Simon-Faustier is in Egypt to examine the clock with a view to its repair.
Cairo Citadel clock
“Egypt is seeking to repair the citadel clock, one of the oldest of its type in the world, so that it will work again,” said Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mustafa Waziri.
The Great Mosque of Mohamed Ali Pasha, or the Alabaster Mosque, is situated in the Cairo Citadel and was commissioned by Mohamed Ali between 1830 and 1848 in memory of Tusun Pasha, Mohamed Ali’s oldest son, who died in 1816.
The mosque is the largest one to have been built in the first half of the 19th century, and with its animated silhouette and twin minarets it is the most visible mosque in Cairo.
The restoration of the clock tower is one of several developments being carried out at the citadel. Earlier this month, the centuries-old Ramadan cannon housed at the citadel fired again after 30 years of silence. The cannon, last fired from the citadel in 1992, was restored as part of a programme to develop the country’s heritage sites.
Osama Talaat, head of the Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, said the cannon is fired throughout the holy month of Ramadan to keep the heritage of the fortress alive. Modern technology means it can be fired by laser beam some distance from the cannon.
The tradition is believed to have begun in 1460 when the Mameluke Sultan Khashqodom received a cannon as a gift. Testing the cannon, the sultan’s soldiers fired it at sunset, coinciding exactly with the sunset call to prayer that marks the end of the day’s fast in Ramadan. The inhabitants of Cairo at the time believed that this was the sultan’s way of alerting them that the time to break the fast had arrived.
Cairo Citadel clock
Recognising the potential for boosting the sultan’s popularity, Muslim scholars and a handful of dignitaries visited him in his residence, where they suggested that the cannon be fired every day throughout the month to mark the beginning and end of the daily fast.
A competing story about the tradition’s origin casts Mohamed Ali, the 19th-century founder of Egypt’s former royal family, in the role of the 15th-century sultan Khashqodom.
Several other Islamic countries followed suit in acquiring their own Ramadan cannons soon afterwards.
A development project to provide services to visitors at the citadel is also being carried out. It will include a museum using interactive technology, a market for spices, traditional crafts, and foods, a design school, a theatre for traditional and cultural arts, and a library.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly