At 9am on Wednesday, a group of men from the Ministry of Antiquities, including technicians, officials and two head figures in the Islamic Antiquities Sector began a mission to disassemble and remove several dozen historic items and architectural pieces from Islamic Cairo mosques for temporary storage in the warehouses of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) pending committee decisions to put them on exhibition.
According to official documents, this project was not to be officially announced.
Fifty-five minbars, or pulpits for preaching the khutba (religious sermon), and 60 other pieces, including Mishkahs (mosque lamps), Quran reciters' chairs and antique chandeliers are set for relocation under decision no. 110/2018.
Officials at Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities told Al-Ahram Arabic that the purpose of the move is to protect the Islamic treasures from being stolen.
Between the removal and re-displaying of the pieces, several historic Cairo mosques will remain without minbars.
Heritage experts confirmed to Al-Ahram that it will probably be impossible to reassemble the minbars after they are dismantled for transportation to the closed warehouses.
Al-Ahram witnessed the dismantling of one of the most elaborate minbars from Cairo's Mamluk era: the minbar of the Abu-Bakr Muzhir mosque and school.
When asked why this was being undertaken, ministry figures at the site provided only one answer: "This is the decision of the cabinet."
This decision and others raises a number of questions, the least of which is: Do our officials know the worth of what they dealing with in the first place?
Over the last fifteen years, some 17 minbars from Cairo's historic mosques have been stolen in either entirety or part, as were numerous other precious items, only to emerge later in auction rooms.
Among the most important stolen items were historic mishkahs and other smaller pieces that can easily be carried away. The culprits are unknown, but accusations have been exchanged in accountability between the Ministry of Antiquities and the Ministry of Religious Endowments.
The Ministry of Antiquities has a moral and legal obligation to protect those possessions and buildings. The Ministry of Religious Endowments, on the other hand, is the legal owner and administrator of those mosques.
Throughout 700 years, Egypt’s historic mosques have endured as a lasting heritage. That is now threatened.
Less than a month ago, England announced that it will undertake an important year-long project to restore and document 25 of Cairo's Mamluk-era minbars, and the Ministry of Antiquities annouced its partnership in the endeavor.
Protection from Theft?
The distinguished place was transformed into a barracks of workers and officials as they began to dismantle the huge minbar with unusual speed.
Al-Ahram observed as the stairs of the minbar were placed on the ground and arranged in order. Quickly, one of the ministry's restorers began packing the minbar's parts using plastic sheets and sponge panels to tie them together.
The Egyptian Institution for the Preservation and Protection of Heritage was also present. The civil organization worked to photograph and record the pieces as they were being dismantled. Ministry officials also began documentation. Confusion arose when it was discovered that an Al-Ahram journalist was also present.
When Al-Ahram asked about the purpose of these efforts, Dr. Abu-Bakr Abdullah, Cairo antiquities supervisor and head of the technical bureau, said “Mosques have became disasters. We estimate that everyday that a theft takes place and we cannot allocate guards for every mosque, especially because the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which owns and administers these mosques, is lax, while the Ministry of Antiquities is responsible for their protection and preservation."
He added that all the minbars will be stored in the warehouses of the NMEC for display later.
When asked how 55 minbars will be put in one showroom, Abdullah did made no comment and referred Al-Ahram to a higher official. That official also refused to comment.
Interpreting a Vague Decision
According to official documents, the aforementioned decision was taken after the Ministry of Antiquities asked the cabinet to agree upon “the transfer of heritage possessions from mosques to the Ministry of Antiquities in order to protect them from theft."
The cabinet agreed, and issued decision no. 110 on 20 February 2018, and asked the Ministry of Antiquities to provide copies of these items.
What comes as a surprise is the second article of the decision: “Taking care that this topic won’t be announced.”
The Head of the Islamic antiquities section at the ministry issued an executive memorandum specifying the kind and number of antiquities and the timetable for their transfer.
This memorandum stated, “The documentation and registration processes are ongoing, and last February, 117 Mishkahs in the Al-Rifa'i Mosque were registered and transferred to the NMEC."
This means that the transfer process began well before the cabinet issued its decision.
The first form of nuisance was the minbar of the Abu-Bakr Muzhir mosque and school in Bergwan Alley, which was built in 1480 AD.
Dr. Omniya Abdel-Bar, an expert in Mamluk architecture, said, “The mosque’s minbar specifically is a masterpiece for its woodwork and seashell work which is very accurate and beautiful. In addition, the mosque in general is one of Cairo's architectural masterpieces, especially its wooden ceilings and marble columns."
"It is very rare to see the signature of the maker who made the decorations and engravings of the minbar and the mihrab (niche). His name was inscribed as as ‘the work of Abdel-Qader Al-Naqqash,’ perhaps as a testament to his virtuosity," she explained.
The minbar’s decorations are repeated on the doors and window stiles.
She adds the Abu-Bakr Muzhir's minbar is still in its original state, which is a rare in Egypt and the entire Arab region.
"It has only required minor restoration work. Consequently, the minbar should be kept in its original place because it is part and parcel of this historic building," she concluded.
Abdel-Bar said such a mass disassembly and re-displaying has not been undertaken in any country in the world.
She also wonders about planned storage methods, because these minbars are made of timber which requires very precise care in order to preserve it.
“I am not sure that the Ministry of Antiquities has this capacity in the first place."
*This report was first published in Al-Ahram Daily newspaper