From the 10th to the 18th centuries Al-Muizz Street, which runs through the heart of Fatimid Cairo, gloried in its splendid Islamic architecture. In the years following it became badly run down. It has taken almost 20 years of restoration and rehabilitation for the street to regain much of the splendour it saw in the days of the Fatimids, Ayoubids, Mamluks and Ottomans.
Formerly the street resounded with the cacophony of shouts as traffic -- both motorised and horse or donkey-drawn -- battled with vendors and pedestrians for right of way. Now by day it is a pedestrian zone, not quite in keeping with the past but rather more suited to the nature of today's visitors.
At the invitation of Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, Mrs Suzanne Mubarak attended the openning on Saturday and was given a tour of four of the 34 architectural monuments lining the street. The buildings showcased were the Egyptian Textile Museum, the school of Rokaya Bint Qalawun, the Sultan Barqouq mosque and the school and complex of Al-Mansour Qalawun. Mrs Mubarak, who has long championed the arts, has lent her support to several such projects that cultivate awareness of Egypt's heritage, both old and modern.
The buildings in Al-Muizz Street, like other any Islamic monuments in Mediaeval Cairo, have been encroached on and misused by residents to the extent of causing irreparable damage. Environmental pollution -- ranging from particulates from petrol fumes to a rising underground water table -- has undermined foundations in the historical zone, while the 1992 earthquake left visible structural marks.
The project to protect, conserve and preserve Al-Muizz Street with a view to developing it as an open air museum falls within the ministry's remit to restore Egyptian cultural heritage whether Pharaonic, Coptic, Islamic or Jewish.
Farouk Abdel-Salam, first undersecretary at the Ministry of Culture and supervisor of the project, said that as well as the fine architectural restoration, appropriate treatment of road surfaces and street furniture enhanced the full length of Al-Muizz Street. Ground height has been lowered to its original level, paving has been kept simple and direct to express the urban quality of the street, and the original irregular pattern has been retained. Residential houses have been polished and painted in an appropriate colour.
Abdel-Salam said that, to accord with the development project, every day between 9am and midnight Al-Muizz Street would be a pedestrian zone to enable the people to experience the living traditions and customs of those who lived during the various ages of the Islamic era. Outside these hours traffic will be allowed so that merchants can transport goods in and out of the area. Entrance to the street is controlled by 11 electronic gates which prohibit daytime admission, although emergency vehicles are allowed access at all times.
"Rescuing Al-Muizz Street and developing it into an open air museum has been a dream for all archaeologists, and making it come true has been a challenge for me," Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that the street would be the most important touristic zone in Cairo, rather like the old part of Geneva, and would combine the tangible and intangible heritage of Islamic Egypt.
One major adverse effect on the buildings was caused by industrial waste from workshops and small factories being dumped against the walls. These establishments have now been moved, except for those that agreed to change their activities.
"Skilled workers and their handicraft stores are essential to the distinct character of Al-Muizz Street, since they provide the vivid atmosphere of the area and the government is keen on settling craftsmen in their original locations, but in a manner that complements the splendour of the area," Hosni said. Other small enterprises have been transferred elsewhere. The government helped the labourers involved and provided them with training courses and materials for new businesses. "We want to bring back the area of the silk market, the tent market and other enterprises that are part of the Islamic heritage," the minister added.
Because of Hosni's belief that these Islamic monuments are living entities inhabited by people who must remain a part of the total environment, the sabil (water fountain) of Mohamed Ali in Nahassin, which was encroached on by a primary school, has been vacated of its pupils, desks and blackboard, and has been restored and redesigned as Egypt's first textile museum.
The sabil was originally built on the order of Mohamed Ali Pasha to commemorate his son Ismail, who died in Sudan in 1822. It consists of a large rectangular hall opening onto the Tassbil hall, with a rounded, marble façade and four windows surrounding an oval marble bowl. The "logo" of the Ottoman Empire featuring a crescent and a star decorates the area above each window. The sabil 's wooden façade and the top of the frame are decorated in a rococo and baroque style, the main style seen in several of Mohamed Ali's edifices. One of those overseeing the restoration was the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA's Islamic monuments consultant Abdallah El-Attar.
The museum displays 250 textile pieces and 15 carpets dating from the late Pharaonic era through the Coptic and Islamic ages. Among the collection on display are tools and instruments used by ancient Egyptians to clean and wash clothes, along with illustrations demonstrating the various stages of laundering clothes in ancient time. Monks' robes, icons and clothes from various times in the Islamic era are also exhibited.
According to Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, one of the most beautiful items on show is a red bed cover ornamented with gold and silver thread, said to have been a gift from Mohamed Ali to his daughter on her marriage. Another is a large cover for the Kaaba in Mecca sent by King Fouad of Egypt to Saudi Arabia. This is a black velvet textile ornamented with Quranic verses and woven with gold and silver thread.
The Sultan Al-Mansour Qalawun complex, comprising a kuttab (Quran school), mosque, mausoleum, madrasa (school) and maristan (asylum), was built in 1284 and is typical of Mamluk architecture with columned windows reminiscent of the Gothic style. Beyond the masonry entrance, a long corridor gives onto the mosque and kuttab to the right. To the left, the mausoleum retains its original beam and coffered ceiling, ending with the entrance to the maristan. The mausoleum is known to be among Cairo's most beautiful buildings; its main courtyard is shielded from the corridor by a screen and all is finished in stucco; the soaring dome, carved in arabesques, is finished in luminescent coloured glass. And yet it was in the time of Mansour's son Nasir Mohamed Ibn Qalawun, who ruled intermittently from 1293 to 1340, that Mamluk art reached its zenith; Nasir's complex, built in 1295 and similar on the whole to his father's, boasts Cairo's first cruciform kuttab ; the entryway is taken from the Crusader Church of St John of Acre and may be the finest extant example of its kind.
Source: Al-Ahram Weekly
18-24 February 2010