Mameluke makeover

Nevine El-Aref, Wednesday 10 Nov 2010

Three restored Mameluke edifices in Cairo's Sayeda Zeinab district have reopened to the public

As Muslims were celebrating the end of the holy month of Ramadan, Culture Minister Farouk Hosni and Minister of Endowments Hamdi Zaqzouq attended the official reopening of three restored Islamic buildings in Al-Saliba Street in Sayeda Zeinab. The historic mosque and khanqah (hostel for itinerant Sufis) of Prince Shaykhu and the sabil-kuttab (water fountain and Quranic school) of Prince Abdullah Kathuda, which reflect the brilliance of the mediaeval Mameluke period when Islamic architecture flourished in Cairo, have been restored and are again open to the public.

All three monuments were suffering from the same classic problems: leakage of subterranean water, misuse by the area's residents, structural deterioration and serious environmental damage from air pollution, humidity and decaying foundations, and not least the effects of the 1992 earthquake which caused cracking to all three monuments and the collapse of some archaeological elements. Some parts of their original floors had completely vanished, as well as parts of their mashrabiya (wooden lattice work) façades.

"Restoring these monuments is a milestone in the efforts to preserve and protect Cairo's Islamic heritage," Hosni told the assembled guests and reporters. He said the opening marked the end of a 10-year restoration project that cost the ministry almost LE12 million.

Almost 140 Islamic monuments out of the 400 scheduled for restoration have reopened following completion of the work within the framework of the rehabilitation project, while the others are in the process of restitution. The overall vision is to develop the whole area as an open-air museum. So far 45 sabils, kuttabs, mosques, madrasas, wekalas (merchant centres), and khanqahs have been restored and are ready to open their doors to worshippers and visitors. "We will attempt to recapture the area's original fame and splendour after 100 years of negligence," Hosni said.

In his speech at the opening ceremony, Zaqzouq stressed the strong amity and mutual cooperation between the ministries of endowments and culture, both of which he said had placed the preservation of Islamic monuments at the top of their list of priorities. "We are exerting all our efforts to protect and preserve Egypt's Islamic monuments, specially the mosques which are under mutual supervision and guardianship from both ministries," the minister said. He described the news recently published in the press about the waves on the surface in the relation between the ministries of endowments and culture as "a media boom".

The first monument to be inaugurated was the mosque of Prince Shaykhu, the commander-in- chief of the Mameluke army during the reign of Sultan Hassan. The great Arab historian Al-Maqrizi described this mosque as one of the most outstanding and beautiful mosques in all Egypt. Its façade is divided into five recessed walls crowned by tiers of muqarnas (honeycomb-like architectural ornamentation adorned with domes and cobles), below which are window openings. On the upper area is a band of inscription carved into the stone in naskh script (a style of Arabic calligraphy). The entrance, located on the left of the façade, is in the style of Mameluke portal design, consisting of an archway with a ceiling topped with a semi-circular dome adorned with muqarnas.

The entrance is decorated with polychrome marble decoration, and the spandrels of the arch are adorned with vegetal leafy motifs carved into the stone. A slender minaret made up of three stories tops the entrance. The first and the second stories are octagonal, while the third is crowned by a pinnacle in the form of a small dome.

The minaret is identical in height and form to the minaret of the khanqah opposite. It is adorned with an inlaid casing of red and white stones, arranged in geometric pattern and made up of zigzag lines that assume the form of a linked chain of V-shaped letters.

The mosque is composed of a rectangular courtyard surrounded by four iwans (vaulted halls). Among the most distinguished features in the iwan al-qibla are the minbar (pulpit) and the dikkat al-muballigh (a raised area from which prayers are reiterated to worshippers).

The mosque's minbar is made of stone carved with beautiful geometric decoration.

"This minbar is considered to be one of the very few surviving examples of that kind in Cairo, since almost all pulpits are wooden constructions," Mohsen Sayed, director of Islamic and Coptic monuments section, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He continued that the dikkat al-muballigh, which is also made of stone, is thought to be the first stone dais in Egypt, while daises built of wood and marble were more familiar.

The mosque was restored in 1931, and in 1998 the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) began a two-phase restoration project to return the mosque to its original condition.

Farag Fada, head of the Islamic and Coptic monuments department in the SCA, said that during restoration work at the madiaa' (a fountain used for ritual ablution) restorers stumbled upon what is believed to be a water well, a cistern and ruins of the chambers used by visiting Sufis. In fact, Fada continued, the mosque originally housed 20 Sufi cells behind its north wall, and was initially in use as a madrasa (school) for the four Sunni schools of law. "Therefore the mosque was sometimes called Al-Madrasa Al-Shaykhuniya," Fada said. Five years after the mosque's construction, these Sufis moved to the khanqah of Shaykhu opposite the mosque. The façades, portals and minarets of this building are similar to those of the mosque. Although it does not follow the typical madrasa layout, it has a hypostyle prayer hall on the qibla side of the courtyard while on the other three sides are several floors of living units for Sufis. At the north east corner of the hall is the mausoleum of Prince Shaykhu.

A good example of a foundation whose plan exhibits the two contrasting patterns is provided by the khanqah, where they are distinguishable both by geometry and orientation. Their superimposition, however, creates an awkward divergence between the courtyard's street side and the street façade. This is cleverly rectified by introducing an iwan, whose trapezoidal layout follows the two diverging grids at the same time, between the two walls, thus serving as an interesting reconciliation between the street grid and the spatial scheme of the khanqah.

The third monument is the sabil-kuttab of Prince Abdullah Kathuda, who was the patron of architecture of his time. The edifice offers richness and ingenuity in its decorative architectural style. It consisted originally of a sabil - kuttab, a house, bakery and a group of bazaars, but through the ages most of this complex had vanished except for the sabil-kuttab and remains of the house as well as three bazaars. The splendid monument is a two- storey building divided into two connected parts; the sabil-kuttab and the houses. The architecture of the sabil-kuttab is typically Mameluke, with mashrabiya façades and with living apartments with a wide open court and four chambers.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, said all the restoration had been carried out according to the latest and most scientific methods. "Every effort was made to ensure that all original architectural features were retained," he said.

Hawass added that the restoration of the sabil- kuttab had two important advantages: individual monuments were being preserved for future generations, and the entire neighbourhood was being revived and upgraded.

Abdallah El-Attar, consultant of Islamic and Coptic antiquities at the SCA, said the aim of the restoration was chiefly to strengthen the foundations and protect them from future damage. This was achieved using the "micro- pile system" which, he said, was the installation of sharp pointed columns beneath the archaeological complex to reinforce its foundations. The walls were reinforced, missing and decayed stones were replaced and masonry cleaned and desalinated. The edifice now stands as proudly as it did in the past.

Source: Al-Ahram Weekly

9-15 October 2008

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