Al-Tunbugha Al-Maridani Mosque reopens

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 4 Jun 2024

The Al-Tunbugha Al-Maridani Mosque in Historic Cairo has reopened to the public after almost two decades of restoration, reports Nevine El-Aref

Al-Tunbugha Al-Maridani Mosque reopens
Al-Tunbugha Al-Maridani Mosque reopens

Historic Cairo is Egypt’s Islamic architectural gem listed on the UN cultural agency UNESCO’s World Heritage List and including 600 of the finest and best-surviving Islamic monuments in the world dating from the 7th to 20th centuries.

However, over the last six decades environmental pollution, population density, and other causes have posed an increasing threat to the historic city. An ambitious rehabilitation project to rescue it was therefore launched and several monuments were restored, among them those stretching along Al-Muizz Street in the heart of Historic Cairo.

Another project aiming to restore and rehabilitate 100 other monuments was also launched, as well as conservation projects in collaboration between the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and several private companies and NGOs.

The appropriate treatment of road surfaces and street furniture has enhanced the area, and residential houses have been given a makeover, bringing them into line with the area’s historical character and urban fabric. A high-tech drainage system has been installed as well as a lighting system.

On Tuesday this week, strains of oriental music filled the evening air of Al-Azhar Park in Historic Cairo as students and graduates of the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School, part of the Aga Khan Music Programme, played renowned oriental songs.

Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Mohamed Ismail Khaled, EU Ambassador in Cairo Christian Berger, Luis Monreal, manager of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), along with top governmental officials and Egyptian and foreign journalists and photographers were all at the Al-Tunbugha Al-Maridani Mosque in the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district of Historic Cairo to declare its official inauguration after almost two decades of restoration.

The mosque was built in 1340 CE by the Emir Al-Tunbagha Al-Maridani, the saqi (cupbearer) and son-in-law of the Mameluke Sultan Al-Nasir Mohamed, in the style of the congregational mosques of the time with a court surrounded by four aisles. The deepest and largest of these is in the direction of prayer.

In the centre of the nave, there is an octagonal fountain clad in marble. The façade of the northern aisle is also clad in marble inscribed with the date of construction. The rest of the prayer-direction wall is covered with a fine marble panel inlaid with mother of pearl.

The mosque has three entrances and a dome supported by eight granite pillars. It houses an interior garden with trees. Its mashrabiya (turned wood) screens and wooden ceiling are spectacular, as are its stained-glass windows.

The exterior façades are decorated with recessed panels crowned with stalactites. The divergence between the street alignment and the interior, which is oriented towards Mecca, is cleverly overcome by the stepped layout of the exterior.

Marble, stone, and stucco are all employed in the courtyard facades. The marble columns, like those of the arcades, support pointed arches whose stone voussoirs are framed with a continuous moulding forming a loop above the keystone of each arch. Above these arches is a row of alternating keel-arched niches and medallions. Above each medallion is a lozenge. The niches, medallions, and lozenges are all carved in stucco. A line of stepped crenelation adorned with arabesques carved in stucco runs along the summit of the courtyard façades.

The minaret of the mosque has an entirely octagonal shaft and is topped by a pavilion consisting of eight slender columns surmounted by a bulb on a muqarnas cornice.

The mosque is one of the most striking examples of Bahri Mameluke architecture in Historic Cairo, but it has sat untouched for more than a century since it was restored by the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe (the Arab Heritage Conservation Committee) between 1895 and 1905.

Time has taken its toll on the mosque, causing several problems. There was a high level of humidity and accumulated salts on its walls due to the leakage of water from nearby streets. Its location in a busy residential area had added to its deterioration due to neglect by some of the area’s inhabitants. The prayer hall (iwan al-qibla) was the most damaged part of the mosque and needed to be completely rehabilitated. Cracks had spread over the walls, and its woodwork and marble were in poor condition.


RESTORATION: The story of the restoration project began in 2016, when a French expert examined the condition of the mosque in a step towards drawing up a plan for its renovation.

In 2018, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the SCA and the AKTC with funding from the European Union. The first phase of the restoration project began in 2021. It included the restoration of the qibla riwaq, the minaret, the qibla exterior façade, the entrance portal, the wooden fountain of the inner court and the insolation and repair of the roof.

In 2022, the second phase of the project began, and its results could be seen last Tuesday. It included the restoration of the three remaining riwaq, the cleaning and conservation of the south and west monumental gates, and the conservation of the northeastern and northwestern façades.

 “The mosque is now restored and ready to welcome worshippers and visitors,” said Sherif Erian, CEO of Aga Khan Cultural Services-Egypt.

He explained that the restoration project had included initial architectural surveys focused not only on the principal structural components of the mosque, but also on its fittings and decorations, such as the historic doors and painted wooden ceilings and stucco carvings. Preparatory work began with a thorough architectural survey and photographic documentation of the building, followed by a detailed analysis and assessment of its condition and state of conservation.

Erian said that the assessment had included a review of structural issues, as well as the state of decorative features, whose outstanding aesthetic qualities had started to come to light after having been hidden for decades under layers of dust and grime.

An essential component of the project was to ensure the full rehabilitation of the building’s envelope to guarantee its durability over time. This included the replacement of defective water insulation with a new bitumen-based insulation membrane covering the entire roof surface of 2,000 square metres.

Hisham Samir, assistant to the minister of tourism and antiquities for archaeological projects, said that the damage and deterioration of the exterior envelope of the mosque, such as cracking, partial settlement, material loss and deterioration, were carefully mapped and eventually fixed, including the replacement of individual stone units, particularly at the base of the walls, to ensure the building’s overall stability.

The stonework of the exterior façades had been subjected to gentle cleaning using poultice and hand tools, which had revealed the façade’s original decorative pattern of alternating bands of red and yellow stone.

Fine conservation work was also carried out to preserve the important decorative elements found inside the Mosque and its prayer hall, he said. Manual cleaning and labour-intensive conservation techniques were applied to the bicoloured stone surfaces of the interior courtyard, as well as the polychrome marble mosaics and marble panels found on the qibla wall and mihrab (prayer) niche.

The stained gypsum windows were restored by specialists, as were the painted and gilded wooden ceiling surfaces. These called for gentle cleaning, the consolidation of coloured surfaces, and the reintegration of missing parts.


The stone tiles and pavement of the inner courtyard as well as the fountain were repaired. All the masonry was restored, along with inscription bands, marble and granite columns, columns capitals and bases, wooden and iron windows.

The minbar, the wooden pulpit from which prayers are led, was painstakingly reintegrated to the highest standards of woodworking, inlaying, interlocking, and finishing work, all done by hand without the use of glue, nails, screws, or other fixing devices.


During the restoration work, the team uncovered a cistern in the mosque’s courtyard next to the ablution fountain, a well in the southwestern iwan, and the staircase of one of the side doors, reaching its original level.

The comprehensive approach used called for the recruitment of highly skilled conservators, craftsmen, specialised conservation architects, a consultant engineer, and the training of numerous workers. When necessary, international expertise was called in to reinforce the capacities of local staff.

Throughout the conservation process, all the work was carried out under the supervision of the SCA, which provided valuable opportunities to share knowledge and discuss the technical solutions under implementation. The project was also an opportunity to train junior professionals and apprentices in the various crafts needed to restore the mosque.


Access project: The mosque’s restoration was one of three components of a project entitled “Creating Access to Cairo’s Islamic Cultural Heritage.”

The EU grant under which the project was funded paid for activities such as the conservation work, the creation of a visitor path through the district, and the provision of accompanying physical and socio-economic tourist infrastructure that will allow visitors to appreciate the outstanding Mameluke monuments in the area.

It also helped in the development of local products and services related to the expected increase in cultural tourism in response to the larger numbers of visitors. The financial returns of these are expected to bring benefits to the entire district.

As part of the project, the AKTC developed products and services for the tourism sector. Mezalla, a locally registered and managed development organisation, passed on technical and managerial capabilities to the local population, both to develop local crafts for the tourist market and to provide marketing skills and training in tourism-related services.

The EU aim in funding the project was to preserve and celebrate Cairo’s rich Islamic cultural heritage, as well as to promote cultural tourism as a stimulus for local socio-economic development.

Khaled expressed his delight at participating in his first inauguration since becoming SCA secretary-general. He said that the opening of the second phase of the mosque restoration project reflected the ongoing achievements of the SCA in preserving Egypt’s archaeological and cultural heritage and its continued role as a scientific institution dedicated to safeguarding antiquities.

He explained that the restoration work was conducted under the supervision of the SCA following international standards. The project was funded by the EU and the AKTC, with a total cost of LE32 million and was carried out in collaboration with the Ministry of Islamic Endowments.

He praised the effective cooperation with all the parties and institutions involved in preserving cultural heritage in Egypt. “The meticulous restoration has maintained the mosque’s visual and historical identity and its archaeological character by highlighting its rich Islamic architectural inscriptions and arts. Utilising the latest restoration techniques, the mosque now appears in its most splendid form,” he said.

He highlighted the project’s significance in integrating the local community in the area, which has enthusiastically embraced the development and its relation to heritage and civilisation.


“This integration is a key element of the SCA’s strategy moving forward, aiming to enhance community awareness, educate residents about their history, and involve them in the development and preservation of their heritage,” Khaled said.

“I saw the Al-Maridani Mosque for the first time in 1963 when I was working with the Spanish archaeological mission in the UNESCO Campaign to Safeguard the Nubia Monuments, and since that time I have understood the importance of the mosque among the mediaeval monuments in Historic Cairo, the city that has the highest concentration of ancient Islamic architecture in the world,” Monreal said.

“As manager of the AKTC, I have had the honour to collaborate for the past 20 years with the SCA in the restoration of the most important mosques in the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district.”

The huge group of Islamic monuments in Historic Cairo is an important tourism attraction that could contribute to reviving the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar neighbourhood and promote the traditional crafts industry.

“The Al-Maridani Mosque now shines again in its beautiful Mameluke design and is a place for prayers and cultural engagement,” Berger said, expressing the EU’s happiness at seeing the completion of the restoration work at the mosque, as well as the establishment of a tourist path from Al-Azhar Park to Bab Zuweila.

He explained that the projects are part of the EU-funded “Boosting Heritage Tourism in Islamic Cairo” project, reaffirming the EU’s commitment to conserving and restoring cultural heritage, contributing to sustainable and inclusive socioeconomic development, and encouraging growth around restored heritage sites.

The EU contribution to these projects has been around €1.8 million over a period of around five years since 2018, finishing in 2024. Their aim is to preserve and celebrate Cairo’s rich Islamic cultural heritage, as well as promote cultural tourism as a major stimulus for local socio-economic development.

Since September 2022, more than 10,000 tourists have visited the project and eight capacity-building training sessions for local heritage employees and staff of the Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism have taken place.  

“The project successfully participated in the Berlin International Travel Trade Show (ITB), where Islamic Cairo together with the EU project was promoted to a large international audience as an upcoming tourist destination,” Berger said.

A heritage path was inaugurated early last year exploring 12 Islamic monuments in the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district, where electric cars take visitors through the eastern Ayyubid walls around Al-Azhar Park and to the dome of the Emir Tarabay Al-Sharifi Mosque, the architectural complex of the Emir Khair Bek, the Blue Mosque, the Um Al-Sultan Shaaban School, the Qasabet Radwan, the Al-Razzaz House, the Qijmas Al-Ishaqi Mosque, the Al-Saleh Talaa Mosque, and the Ibn Barqouq Zawya (a zawya is a small mosque).

The tourist path in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar will take visitors on a trip through history, allowing them to admire some of the most mesmerising monuments of Islamic Egypt from the Fatimid, Ayyubid, and Mameluke eras. The monuments include mosques, schools, complexes, palaces, and 700-year-old handicraft markets whose workers are as talented and skilled as ever.

Services along the path have been developed including benches and sunshades as well as signage displaying information about each monument. QR codes are also provided to enable visitors to know more about the history of every monument.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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