Citadel mosque reopens

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 19 Sep 2023

The Sariyat Al-Gabal Mosque in the Cairo Citadel reopened on Saturday after five years of restoration, reports Nevine El-Aref

Sariyat Al-Gabal
photo: Islam Al-Leithi

At the eastern corner of the Cairo Citadel, the fortress overlooking Egypt’s capital that was once the seat of the country’s sultanate, the awe-inspiring Sariyat Al-Gabal Mosque with its 23 black and green-tiled domes, walls panelled with polychrome marble revetement, and prayer hall and minbar (pulpit) inlaid with Iznik tiles, now stands waiting for worshippers and visitors.

The restoration of this edifice, which was officially reopened on Saturday by Tourism and Antiquities Minister Ahmed Issa, Cairo Governor Khaled Abdel-Aal, and Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Mustafa Waziri, is now complete after five years of being hidden under scaffolding.

Meanwhile, restorers and workmen have been consolidating, strengthening, cleaning and polishing its walls and masonry.

The mosque had been suffering from environmental damage including from air pollution and high levels of humidity. Some of its decorative tiles were missing, cracks had spread in parts of the walls, and parts of the flooring were broken.

The mosque has been closed to prayer and visitors since 2018 when a comprehensive restoration project began to repair the building and to return it to its original grandeur.

Engineers, restorers, and archaeologists from the SCA have been busy removing plasterwork added over the centuries in different restoration campaigns, while others have cleaned the masonry, façade, and minaret, as well as repairing cracks, consolidating the walls, and restoring the woodwork and decorative elements.

The kuttab (Quranic school) and mausoleum inside the mosque were also restored, while all the ceilings were consolidated to protect them from rainwater and the sun’s heat. A new lighting system was also installed to give the mosque a dramatic look at night.

Assistant Minister for Archaeological Projects Hisham Samir said all the restoration work had been carried out according to the latest scientific methods. “Every effort was made to ensure that all the original architectural features were retained,” he said.

He added that the restoration of the Sariyat Al-Gabal Mosque had been part of the Ministry’s efforts to preserve individual monuments for future generations and to enhance the Cairo Citadel visitor experience with a new attraction within its walls.

“The restoration is a self-financed project carried out by restorers from the SCA according to the latest scientific techniques and with reference to the original design of the mosque as signaled in various documentation,” Waziri said, adding that the work had taken about five years at a cost of about LE5 million.

“The mosque is a masterpiece of Ottoman architecture and an invaluable part of the country’s cultural heritage,” Issa told reporters during the opening ceremony.

He said that the reopening of the mosque was one of the most important results of the recent financial reform of the SCA, which has led to an increase in public spending on antiquities projects to about LE3 billion in the current fiscal year compared to last year’s figure of LE1.5 billion.

He said that the financial reform of the SCA had enabled the implementation of self-financed restoration projects through an increase in revenues from tickets to archaeological sites and museums by about five-fold over the last two years.

Built in 1528 by the then Ottoman Governor of Egypt Suleiman Pasha Al-Khadem, the Sariyat Al-Gabal Mosque is considered to be the first Ottoman-style mosque to be established in Egypt and is charaterised by domes, semi-domes, pencil-shaped minarets, and the use of ceramic-tile revetement on the inner walls.

Abu Bakr Ahmed, chargé d’affairs for Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Antiquities at the Ministry, said that the mosque was built on the ruins of a former Fatimid mosque built in 1140 by Abu Mansur Qastah Ghulam Al-Muzaffar ibn Amir Al-Guyush, a governor of Alexandria during the Fatimid period, to serve the Janissaries, a unit of the conquering Ottoman armies that entered Egypt in 1517 with the Ottoman Sultan Selim.

Its architectural style is inspired by the Istanbul mosques in Turkey, such as the Suleimani Mosque.

The mosque consists of two sections, the first one covered with a central dome surrounded by half-domes decorated with colourful inscriptions interspersed with various writings.

The second section is connected to the first by a door in the western wall and is an open courtyard with the floor covered with coloured marble and surrounded by four porticoes covered by domes supported on arches resting on shoulder straps.

On the western side of the courtyard, there is a small dome containing several tombs on which are marble structures that contain evidence of the different head coverings that were widespread in the era in which the tombs were built.

The minaret of the mosque is located to the left of the southwestern façade and consists of a square base with bevelled corners topped by a cylindrical body surrounded by two wooden balconies. Each balcony is supported by three tiers of muqarnas (ornamented vaulting). The top of the minaret is conical-shaped, and the central dome of the mosque is panelled with green-glazed tiles.

The prayer hall has two iwans (arcades). The first is the qibla iwan, which contains the mihrab signalling the direction of Mecca and is marked by a pointed arch and polychrome marble decoration. The upper portions of the walls of this iwan have four circular plaques inscribed with Quranic verses, the name of their sponsor, and the name of the Sultan Suleiman Al-Qanuni.

The second iwan has a marble floor that is lower than the floor of the qibla iwan, and on its southeastern side there is a decorated marble minbar (pulpit) embellished with gilded geometric and foliage designs.

There is a door in the northeastern wall that leads to the interior annexes of the mosque and the ablutions area. This wall, which faces the qibla wall, has four arched niches, one of which contains a window, while another has a door that leads to the mosque courtyard.

In front of the northwestern wall is the dikkat Al-mouballigh, an elevated platform from which prayers are recited to worshippers, supported by 10 wooden consoles and from which daily prayers are recited.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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