In the Eastern Cemetery in Cairo stands the dome of the Mausoleum of Sultan Qansuh Abu Said with its iconic pattern of interlocking arrow shapes across the exterior. It is now awaiting visitors after the completion of its restoration.
Since its construction in 1498 CE to be a freestanding mausoleum for the Circassian Mamluk Sultan Qansuh Abu Said, the dome has been a well-known part of mediaeval Cairo, introducing two types of decorative themes.
The decorations on the stone dome are carved in a pattern of isolated star rosettes surrounded by interlocking arrow shapes in the standard arabesque designs well known in this period. The other type of decoration features an implied triangular pediment manifested by the stone molding on the exterior transitional zone right below the dome.
Like other Islamic monuments located in heavily populated areas, the dome was suffering from environmental dangers including air pollution, a high level of humidity, and increasing numbers of cracks all over its walls before its restoration. The decorations were heavily stained with smoke, while most of the flooring was broken.
Hisham Samir, assistant to the minister of tourism and antiquities for archaeological projects and museums and supervisor of the Historic Cairo Project, explained that the restoration project of the dome was carried out by the ministry in cooperation with the ministry of housing, utilities, and new communities.
The structural and architectural restoration of the dome has been finalised, including the consolidation of the walls and foundations, the cleaning and restoring of its four façades and the transition area, and the restoration of the dome’s copper crescent.
The work was completed with the installation of windows inlaid with stained glass, giving the dome its distinctive look and illuminating its inner area and reflecting its original character with colours that make its architectural elements shine.
The mihrab and chandeliers inside the building have also been refurbished and a new internal and external lighting system installed.
The development has reached the area surrounding the dome, which has been paved and decorated with plants matching the nature of the monuments. Signs and panels describing the site and the dome have been installed, along with surveillance cameras.
Osama Talaat, head of the Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the ministry, said that the dome was constructed in 904 AH, or 1498 CE, by the Circassian Mamluk Sultan Qansuh Abu Said to be his burial chamber. However, it became known as the Dome of Al-Ghafeer because it was used as a residence for the guard (ghafeer) of the area. The land around it was called Torab Al-Ghafeer, or the guard’s cemetery.
Qansuh was the 23rd Burji Mameluk sultan who ruled between 1498 and 1500. He was originally a young Circassian purchased by Sultan Qaitbay, who appointed him as a dawadar, or protector of the sultan’s heir and future sultan, when he knew that Qansuh was the brother of another Mamluk named Mohamed.
When Mohamed later took over, the other Mamluks grew discontented with the new sultan and rebelled and killed him, electing Qansuh in his place. Qansuh faced a similar fate to that of Mohamed, however. He tried to escape but was caught and exiled to Alexandria and then supposedly strangled to death by the order of the Sultan Toman Bay.
Another building now reopened following restoration is the Haj Abdullah Asi Mosque in Abu Seifein Street in Al-Mahala Al-Kobra in Gharbiya governorate. After two years of closure, the mosque has now regained its original allure and opened its doors to worshippers.
Talaat said that the restoration project on the mosque was carried out in collaboration with the ministry of religious endowments and its aim was to consolidate the whole building and strengthen the foundations. This was achieved using a micro-pile system, which, he said, meant the installation of sharp pointed columns beneath the mosque to reinforce its foundations.
The walls were reinforced, cracks removed, the minarets consolidated, decoration cleaned, missing and decayed stones replaced, and masonry cleaned and desalinated. The mosque now stands as proudly as it did in the past.
The Haj Abdullah Asi Mosque was constructed during the Ottoman era in 1135 AH / 1722 CE and consists of four riwaq (arcades) and a shokhshekha in the middle of the roof, meaning a skylight or dome with openings that allows the air to circulate.
Each riwaq consists of three rows of marble columns, with each having four columns except the first row which has only three. The ceiling of the riwaq is made of wood. The minaret of the mosque is considered a rare example of an Ottoman minaret and is located above the main entrance to the mosque and consists of an octagonal base topped by a cylindrical layer and ending with a wicker helmet.
Regretfully, Haj Asi died before the completion of the mosque, and his sons completed its construction.
“All the restoration work has been carried out according to the latest scientific methods. Every effort has been made to ensure that all the original architectural features were retained,” Talaat said.
He added that the restoration of the dome and mosque meant individual monuments were being preserved for future generations and their surrounding neighbourhoods revived and upgraded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.