Historic Cairo, with its famous mosques, madrassas (schools), sabil-kuttab (water fountains and Quranic schools), hammams (bathhouses) and wekalas (trade centres), is one of the oldest mediaeval cities in the world. Since 1979, it has figured on UN cultural agency UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
In 2016, a national campaign was launched by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to restore 100 monuments in the area. It aims at rescuing the monuments not only for their historical and archaeological value, but also to restore their role in the community through halting deterioration, removing debris, and upgrading the sites and their surroundings.
It also develops the skills of workers in the field of restoration through direct participation in such work, as well as providing investment opportunities to rehabilitate the ancient buildings. A permanent maintenance programme will be adopted after the completion of the campaign.
Early this week, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany embarked on a tour of the Al-Hattaba district and Souq Al-Selah Street in Historic Cairo to inspect projects within the government’s development plans to preserve and revive the district.
The visit included the sabil (water fountain) of Al-Amir Shaykhu in the Al-Hattaba area along with sabils of Roqaya Dodo, Mustafa Sinan, and Hassan Agha Kokliyan and the portal of the Hammam Bashtak in Souq Al-Selah Street.
Tucked right behind the Salaheddin Citadel, the Al-Hattaba district with its distinguished mediaeval monuments bears witness to an influential segment of Egypt’s history. The sabil of Al-Amir Shaykhu was a water dispensary for animals during the Mamluke era, and it has now been restored to its original glory.
“It is one of a kind,” Osama Talaat, head of the Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), told Al-Ahram Weekly. He explained that the sabil was set into the rocky hill on which the Salaheddin Citadel and has an architectural design unlike other sabils in Egypt.
“It stands alone without being attached to a mosque or a madrassa or any religious or civil edifices,” he said.
The restoration work included the cleaning of the façade, the inscriptions, and the decorations, Talaat said. All encroachments on site were removed and an iron fence was erected to protect it. The sabil was built by Al-Amir Shaykhu al-Omari al-Nasiri in the year 775 AH / 1354 CE. He was a prince who reached a high position during the reign of the Mameluke sultan Al-Muzaffar Haji Ibn al-Nasser Muhammad.
A few km from the Al-Hattaba district, El-Enany headed towards Souq Al-Selah Street, the ancient armoury market that is believed to have been the main source of arms in Cairo during the mediaeval era.
The street teems with many Islamic monuments, including Prince Bashtak’s Hammam (bathhouse), where brides used to be scrubbed and adorned before their wedding ceremonies. There is also the Agha Kokliyan sabil and the Al-Tanbugha Al-Mardani Mosque, both considered treasures of the street because of their exceptional ornamentation, and the sabils of Mustafa Sinan and Roqaya Dodo.
There are other significant monuments on the street that have been recently restored.
During his tour, El-Enany met with the area’s inhabitants and shop owners and talked about the government’s development projects in Historic Cairo. He visited an old house that has been rehabilitated as a venue for workshops to raise cultural awareness among the area’s inhabitants as well as the Al-Tanbugha Al-Mardani Mosque and prayer hall that will be officially reopened soon.
He also inspected the Fustat excavation site — the first Islamic capital in Africa — to check on progress in transforming the area into an open-air museum that will add to tourist experiences in Historic Cairo.
Hisham Samir, assistant to the minister for projects and supervisor of the Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project, said that the monuments visited by the minister had been undergoing restoration for almost two years. This had been carried out according to the latest methods and after consulting original documents.
“Every effort was made to ensure that all the original architectural features were retained,” Samir said, adding that the restoration had been part of plans to see individual monuments preserved for future generations and neighbourhoods revived and upgraded.
The walls of the buildings were reinforced, the masonry cleaned and desalinated, and decayed parts of the mashrabiya windows restored and replaced with similar ones. The wooden ceilings were restored and paintings retouched. New lighting systems were installed, giving the buildings a dramatic look.
Portal of the Bashtak Hammam: The portal of the Amir Bashtak Hammam is the only surviving remnant of the original Mamluke bath.
Now located about one-and-a-half metres below ground level, the portal has a ribbed keel arch inlaid with black-and-white marble strapwork, and a dated inscription. The interior was modified during the Ottoman period, but it still retains many typical elements of bathhouse design.
It may have originally been a double bath for men and women, but only one half survives, providing bathing facilities for people of the lower and middle classes who lived nearby.
Mosque of Al-Tanbugha al-Mardani: This was built in the style of the congregational mosques of the time and has a court surrounded by four aisles. The deepest and largest of the aisles is the one in the direction of prayer.
In the centre of the nave there is an octagonal fountain covered with marble. The facade of the northern aisle is covered with beautiful marble inscribed with the date of construction. The rest of the prayer-direction wall is covered with a fine marble dado, or panel, inlaid with mother of pearl. The mosque has three entrances and a dome supported by eight granite pillars.
Hassan Agha Kokliyan Sabil-Kuttab: The sabil-kuttab of Hassan Agha Kokliyan lies at the corner of Souq Al-Selah Street. The nobleman Hassan Agha Kokliyan established the sabil during the early Ottoman period. It has a beautifully coloured lunette.
Mustafa Sinan Sabil: The sabil of Mustafa Sinan was founded by its owner in 1630 CE and is the only remaining part of a complex that was once including a kuttab, or elementary school.
The sabil has a unique style of decoration mixing Ottoman and Mamluke styles, as well as marvelous geometric patterns and arabesque works over its windows and panels of handsome ornate marble and harmoniously painted tiles
Roqaya Dodo Sabil: This is among the most opulent 18th-century edifices still standing in Historic Cairo and is a rare example of Rococo-influenced Ottoman-period architecture in Cairo.
It was built in 1761 by Badawiya Shahine as an act of charity in memory of her daughter Roqaya Dodo. The interior has a painted wooden ceiling bearing numerous inscriptions, while its exterior façade is decorated with ceramic tiles, a wooden canopy, segmented arches, and stalactites (muqarnas), as well as rich geometrical and floral ornamentation engraved in stone.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly