Current Affairs - Islamic Monuments



Renovating Islamic and Coptic Heritage

This last year has been a busy year for the SCA renovating Islamic and Coptic monuments. In December 2004 the Prime Minister - Dr. Ahmed Nazif, accompanied by the Minister of Culture, inaugurated five newly restored religious sites on el-Mu'izz el-Din Allah Street, in the heart of Islamic Cairo. The sites include the al-Ashraf Barsbay School; Sheikh Ali el-Mutahhar Mosque and Sabil; the Dome and School of el-Nasser Mohammed Qalaoun; Barquq Madrasa (School and Khanka), and the el-Silha Dar Mosque.

Over the last five years Mohammed Ali's Palace in Shubra, once known as the Egyptian Versailles, has been subjected to a comprehensive LE25 million restoration project. These exquisite early 19th Century buildings feature a blend of rococo and baroque styles. Complete with groves of shrubs, a labyrinth, a hippodrome, and a great expanse of water surrounded by galleries flanked by four pavilions, it also includes a mosque and large avenues lined with trees.

This magnificent palace originally took 13 years to build (1808 to 1821) and covered an area of 11,000 feddans. However, over the years it has lost many of its features. It originally consisted of 13 buildings used by Mohamed Ali Pasha as a guest house for foreign ambassadors and members of his family. During World War I, the main palace, built in white marble in the early 19th Century Orientalist style, with loggias and balconies adorned with metalwork and stucco arabesques, was demolished by Aziza, a member of the royal family, when it was rumoured that the British were thinking of using it for military purposes. Parts of the garden were destroyed during the construction of the Cairo-Alexandria agricultural road in 1935. A few years after the 1952 Revolution the palace garden became the premises of Ain Shams University's Faculty of Agriculture, and the site was turned into a farm complete with chicken coops, rabbit hutches, a barn, research laboratories and cultivated areas used by students for experiments. Today three sections of the original palace complex are still in place: the gabalaya, used as a residence for women; the fasqiya, a nymphaeum complex used for receptions and festivals, and the saqiya (watering well), which once supplied the palace with water from the Nile.

The Shubra Palace has been owned by the SCA, which caused conflict with Ain Shams University. The Faculty of Agriculture refused to evacuate the buildings and the SCA did not want to start restoration work as long as the faculty was still occupying the premise. However, in 2000 the Minister of Culture - Farouk Hosni embarked on an inspection tour around the palace and called for an immediate restoration project to save it. After several meetings at which both sides tried to reach a compromise solution, it was agreed to build a wall separating the palace from the faculty, while the chicken coops and rabbit hutches which encroached on the saqiya, as well as the student hostel, were moved out of the palace site. A separate entrance has been created for the palace.

Iman Abdel-Moneim, Director of the Shubra Palace restoration project, said that the renovation was conducted in three phases. The first aimed at reinforcing the foundations of the three buildings (the gabalaya, which was in especially bad condition, the fasqiya and the saqiya) and protecting them from water leakage. The second phase focused on the ceilings, many of which had beautiful paintings, walls, floors and marble columns and the decorative items of the fasqiya, while the third phase was devoted to the garden which included several exotic plant species and the badly damaged marble bestiary water fountain basin decorated with frogs, lions, serpents, fish and crocodiles.

Another of Mohammed Ali Pasha's monuments to be renovated is the Kusha Hall, which is being restored as part of an overall plan to renovate the Gawhara Palace at the Saleh El-Din Citadel. The Kusha is supported by four gilded columns, linked from above by a gilded network bearing the initial F. The thrones of the bride and bridegroom are placed under the columns. Among the items displayed in the hall are a wedding photo, crystals and watches dating back to the l8th Century, in addition to a French styled salon. The SCA are also renovating the Bab Al Azab area situated within the walls of Citadel. The project, which will last for two years, is to be implemented over three phases. Zahi Hawass said that the Bab Al Azab project will include the establishment of a school for restoration and a museum with post- Pharaonic era displays. These will be located on a site used as army barracks until 1984. Under the project, Bab Al Azab will also enjoy a research centre, a convention hall, workshops and retail outlets.

Renovation work on the Barquq Complex on el-Mu'izz Street

Also as pert of the masterplan for renovating the World Heritage site of Islamic Cairo, Mrs Mubarak reopened the magnificent Prince Taz Palace. The renovation of this Mamluk monument took two years of hard, serious and careful work and cost LE20 million. The palace was built in the 14th Century AD by the well-known Mamluk Prince, Seifuldin Abdullah Taz ben Katghaj. The location of the palace was very carefully chosen, as it lies in the heart of Islamic Cairo, in the popular district of Khalifa. It's located in el-Siufia Street, off el-Saliba Street, which was one of the most important roads in Mamluk Cairo. Prince Taz, a prominent figure in Mamluk Egypt, is described in the history books as being brave, very generous and a patron of scientists. He emerged in the reign of Sultan al-Saleh Ismail bin el-Nasser Mohammed (1343-1345 AD), who was succeeded by his brother al-Mozfer Haji, who later inaugurated Taz’s palace.

Over the centuries the Taz Palace, which had large gardens with a fountain surrounded by halls, rooms, haramlek (halls where females only were allowed in) and stables, witnessed various events that took their toll on the building and its architecture. The original 14th Century architecture of the palace had almost disappeared, after concrete ceilings were introduced, new walls were built and WCs added. The palace was also used for long years as a storage depot by the Ministry of Education. As part of its ambitious plan for restoring Islamic Cairo, the Ministry of Culture retrieved the Taz Palace from the Ministry of Education and initiated the project to restore the old architecture of the palace. The project was divided into four stages, the first of which was the most urgent: shoring up leaning walls and mending the cracks. The second stage included unearthing the palace's sewerage network, the tank that supplied the palace with water and a well over which there was a wheel that lifted the water to feed the animals originally kept there. The baths of the palace, laying to the east of haramlek, were badly decayed and needed much conservation work. The third stage focused on strengthening the foundations and walls of the palace. The fourth stage involved repairing the mashrabiya (latticed woodwork) and windows, painting the building in its original colour, and conserving the pottery, glasswork and ornaments belonging to the palace.

Rosetta (Rashid), in the West Delta is most famous for being the town in which the Rosetta Stone - a black basalt slab that enabled Champollion to decipher hieroglyphics - was found. Rosetta is much more than a find site, for it also boasts Egypt's largest number of Islamic structures outside of Cairo. These monuments include twenty historic mansions, ten mosques, a public bath, a mill, a citadel, a gate and remains of an old wall. These all date back to the Ottoman age with the exception of the citadel and the gate, which date to the Mamluk period. All the magnificent monuments of Rosetta are now unfortunately surrounded by modern buildings that have affected them almost as badly as other factors.

Although several of these structures have undergone restoration in the past, many of the mansions have large wall fissures with disintegrated floors. The SCA has launched a programme to restore the architectural and ornamental aspects of Rosetta's Islamic monuments. This will include replacing some of the buildings' existing wooden ceilings with new ceilings of the same pattern. The interiors will be refurbished using paint made from original material in order to convey the same impression of age. Rust will be also removed from the ironware in houses which will then be coated with Vaseline to protect them.

Among the houses to be renovated are: a three-story building constructed in 1808, Bayt Osman Al Amasyli, the owner of which was a soldier in the Turkish army; the 9th Century Abu Shahin Mill, where the grindstone was originally driven by donkeys; and the Bayt Al Maizouni, built in 1740, which belonged to the father of Zbeida, the wife of Mino, the third commander of the French expedition in Egypt. Renovation work will also be conducted on the Azuz Baths, which are over 100 years old and comprises two wings. The first wing, the reception wing, leads to a corridor with a marble fountain in the centre. At the end of the corridor lies a wooden compartment where the master of the place would sit to receive people. The second wing was flanked by bathing rooms and had a marble floor ornamented by another fountain. Two magnificent domed ceilings cover both wings, fitted with coloured glass windows to allow adequate lighting. Annexed to the bath building was a small house used as a residence for the bath owner and its workers. The Ali al-Mahali and Al-Abbas Mosques, constructed in 1721 and 1809 respectively, are two of the city's mosques included in the renovation plan.

The restoration of the four-storey mansion of Arab Killy, built by the governor of Rosetta in the first half of the 18th Century is almost complete. The Arab Killy House - now the Rashid National Museum, originally documented Egypt’s struggle to free itself from colonialism. This house is the largest in Rosetta, with a large ground-floor area. It reflects the tall style of architecture, construction and carpentry typical of the time. Designed to echo the Islamic style, the house contains, as well as its exquisite mashrabiya, decorative inscriptions, grouted burnt bricks alternatively coloured red and black and its very fine mashrabiya (lattice woodwork) facade, inlaid sea shell work, it boasts a ceiling dome and a densely-ornamented door. The Rashid Museum is shortly to be opened to the public, the exhibits now reflect the history of the town, particularly the Islamic history. Zahi Hawass, Secretary-General of the SCA, said the highlight of the exhibition was a life-size replica of the Rosetta Stone donated by the British Museum in response to an official request submitted by Hawass to the museum's ancient Egyptian department. The replica stone, which arrived late November, will be on show in the museum foyer.

The Qaitbey Citadel at Rosetta is also due to be renovated, with segments of it having collapsed in recent years. Before embarking upon the project, a barrier is to be erected around the citadel to prevent water leakage within. The interior of the citadel resembles that of its more famous brother at Alexandria. It was in the citadel of Rosetta that an officer of the French expedition found the Rosetta Stone in 1799. (

In the St Katherine's Protectorate in the southern Sinai the SCA have initiated a site management project for St Katherine's Monastery. The project comprises of three stages, the first includes a comprehensive documentation of all manuscripts at the monastery, the second focuses on compiling an encyclopaedia on the monastery from an Egyptian-Graeco perspective and the third includes filming a documentary on the monastery in cooperation with its custodians, tracing the emergence of monasticism in the world as a whole and in Egypt in particular. This project is part of the larger management plan for the St Katherine's Protectorate, which ECHO Trustees were instrumental in during 2001, when they documented all the early sites and created a management programme for them, a programme which has since been implemented.

In February 2005 the SCA sent an appeal to UNESCO urging it to participate in saving the World Heritage Site of Abu Mina. Another appeal concerning Coptic monuments was sent by the monasteries of Wadi El-Natrun (where the Pope often goes for meditation). Most of the monasteries are suffering from the encroachment of underground water and from the advent of highways, which are causing cracks in the ancient walls surrounding them.

The 4th Century AD Monastery of Anba Antonius (St. Anthony) in the Eastern Desert is still undergoing renovation at a cost of LE25 million. The project, which began four years ago, is now almost half completed. However, because the monastery has several extensions added in later years, the project has classified the existing structures into religious, archaeological and modern religious dwelling places and services structures. The archaeological part includes the monastery, a mill, an oil press, Anba Morqos Church, the Church of the Virgin and a fortress. The residence includes the monks' cells and a guest palace which was initially a mere room with an annexed area for cooking. In the age of Patriarch Kirilus IV, it was converted into a palace comprising four rooms and a hall.

Restoration work is continuing on some structures and the surrounding wall. Excavations are also to be conducted to uncover the extension of the fortress that goes back to the 6th Century AD. The school, modern monks' cells in and outside of the wall, and the dining hall that was used for offering food to Bedouins, which are all classified as non-archaeological, will undergo some changes so that their facades will integrate with the rest of the archaeological structures on site.

Conservators from the Centre of Egypt Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences have spent the last year rehabilitating wall paintings in the church of al Muallaka in Cairo.

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Restoration of the Mosques of Sarghatmish and Qanibay Al-Mohammadi in Historic Cairo

On the 24th September, 2003, the Right Honorable, Farouk Hosni, the Minister of Culture and the Governor of Cairo, Abdel-Rehim Shehata, along with many other top officials, inaugurated the madrassa and mosque of Sarghatmish and Qanibay Al-Mohammadi (Al-Sayeda Zeinab).

These historic Islamic monuments were unveiled after a four-year restoration project initiated to save them from serious damage caused by air-pollution, high ground-water levels and humidity, leakage from the fountain used for ablutions and the outmoded sewage system. The 1992 earthquake that hit Cairo also caused serious damage to these monuments. The encroachment of traders onto the premises of these buildings was also a cause of serious damage over the centuries.

The restoration project was conducted by the SCA and aimed to strengthen the buildings’ foundations and protect them from further damage. Areas of the marble floor of the ablution fountain and elsewhere in the mosque were restored as were Quranic verses on the mosque walls.

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