Not Only with
Cairo March 2001 -
Sharia Khayamiyya is narrow and dark. The small shops that line
the street resemble caves dug in the ruins of an ancient fortress. A
pale light dimly illuminates the works of tailors sitting on the
entrances. And then, at the end of the street, suddenly a powerful shaft of
light warms one’s face and open one’s eyes to the wonderful scene
offered by the two minarets of Bab Zuwayla, the southern gate of the Fatimid
City of Cairo.
It was named after
the al-Zawila, a Berber tribe whose Fatimid soldiers, were quartered nearby.
It is very similar in design to the other gates of ancient Cairo, but
perhaps has a somewhat richer tradition.
In December 2000,
a team directed by Nairy Hampikian from the American Research Centre
finished its restoration work of one of its minarets. This month ARCE
team is working again, this time to return the entire structure back
to its ancient beauty
sometimes called al-Mitwalli after El Kutb al-Mitwalli by some local
inhabitants, was built in 1092 to defend the southern limits of the Fatimid
City of Cairo. Here, the annual pilgrimage departed for Mecca. Here also,
many an Amir was hanged until Sultan Salim hung the last of the Mamluks. Yet
originally, musicians played every night from the top of the gate.
Five years ago,
The Supreme Council of Antiquities, together with the Cairo Governorate and
the Ministry of Waqf, undertook a long term restoration project that
includes all monuments located in el-Muez Le Din Allah street and Fatimid
Cairo. Three years later the Supreme Council of Antiquities approved a
restoration work project designed for Bab Zuweila by the American Research
Centre (ARCE) and sponsored by the United States Agency for International
director Robert K. Vincent left the direction of the work to Architect Nairy
Hampikian, in charge of recruiting experts in restoration work.
Egyptians, such as
assistant supervisor May al-Abrashi and non-Egyptians, such as stone
conservationist Theo Gayer-Anderson and fine art conservationist
Monica Cyran, stonemasons Dany Ray and Johannes Walz and Irene Bierman
for the studies of the historical elements, provided their expertise in
carrying out the project.
In terms of the
restoration itself, ARCE utilised the new JOS system which cleans dirt
from stone without damage at a speed of 6 meters per day.
Egyptian stone masons were hired to repair and replace stones in order to
incorporate traditional trade expertise.
Gayer-Anderson, consultant on the conservation technique at Bab Zuweila,
Theo Gayer-Anderson, explained how difficult it was to realize interventions
on the monuments: “At the beginning, Naily and I used to spend much of our
time talking about and “with” the building in order to understand which
kind of interventions were needed”. In the end their decision was to
maintain the current structure of the building, without replacing any
damaged or added part. “Any change in the original structure that occurred
in the past has to be maintained. It is part of the story of the building
that we have no right to distort”, said Gayer-Anderson.
The team also took
a comprehensive view in dealing with monuments in their surroundings.
“You have to be analytic. There is to be a conversation between you and
the reality here, the Suq up there where you can buy from, the history of
the building, the ability of the people who can work with you, the financial
limitations” Hampikian said.
agrees with Hampikian’s words. A restored building means more tourists
coming to visit the area and to buy souvenirs. Mohammed, one of the
shopkeepers located in the area, welcomed the restoration: “Once the
building was very dirty. Look, now it is completely renovated. That means
that more tourists are going to come, to visit the place, to stop to take
pictures and have a look at our shops”.
completion of the project the view from Bab Zuwayla will present a panoramic
overlook of the City of Cairo, with interpretative maps and photos.
These will give the visitors an understanding of the complex nature of the
city and its numerous stories.
The Bab Zuwayla
restoration project is part of a wider project designed by the Supreme
Council of Antiquities of Egypt following the Cairo earthquake of
October 1992. An international conference of art historians, engineers, and
architects, held in Cairo in June 1993, was the immediate result of such a
tragic event. The aim was to discuss general and specific problems related
to the preservation and conservation of Islamic monuments in Egypt, with
particular attention to the area knows Islamic Cairo.
Today, thanks to the conference, many international teams work in the area.
There is an attempt to return what time and pollution destroyed or hid to
Cairo’s inhabitants, and visitors. Dr. Fanfoni, director of the Italian
team, said: “There is so much to do here. When I first started to restore
the Mevlevi Complex of Cairo, I believed I had to restore an old
theatre. But soon after, we discovered that it was built on a Koranic
school, a sama’khana once utilized by the Mevlevi dervishes for their
religious practices. Today, now that we have finished restoring the whole
complex, people come to visit the school more than the theatre!”
Islamic Cairo is the Medieval area of Cairo, where mosques, shops and
apartment buildings create the greatest density of people in the country –
and probably in the Middle East. This is still the Cairo of the fourteen or
fifteen centuries, when donkeys and camels transported people and
goods throughout its maze like streets . It is still very easy to get lost
in this area.
Visitors should be
aware of the efforts made by Egyptian and International Institutions to
revive the hidden ancient architectures of Islamic Cairo. Actually,
Pharaohs’ pyramids are only one stone among those that make up the
Egyptian diamond collection of ancient beauties.
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Pieranderi is a travel-added Italian journalist based in Cairo, Egypt. After pursuing a career in translation and linguistics - she speaks fluent Arabic, English and Spanish - Elisa decided to challenge herself and develop her writing skills with a Masters in “Journalism and Mass Communication” at the American University in Cairo.
At the moment Elisa is freelancing for a few local newspapers by writing stories on art, history and travel in the Middle East. Elisa has recently published for the monthly magazine Egypt and Middle East Life and the weekly newspapers Middle East Times and Cairo Times.
Please visit her personal web page a leave your comments: http//digilander.iol.it/middleastoday/index.htm .
(More about the writer.)
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