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Saving the Cairo treasure-house
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 10 - 2013

Cairo is a treasure-house of Islamic architecture, containing many distinguished Ayoubid, Mamluk, Ottoman and Fatimid period edifices. However, due to urban expansion during the past century, some of the city's monuments have been neglected or have even disappeared.
Subterranean water, the misuse of surrounding areas by the inhabitants, the deterioration of walls and threats from air pollution, weak drainage systems, high levels of humidity and decaying foundations have all taken their toll. The 1992 Cairo earthquake also damaged many of the city's monuments, causing walls to crack or decorative elements to fall off façades.
In response to challenges of this sort in 2000 the government launched a huge restoration campaign called the Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project (HCRP) that aimed at protecting, conserving and preserving the city's monuments. Since the project started, more than 216 Islamic monuments have been restored, reopening their doors to worshippers and visitors alike.
Among the latest of the monuments to receive the restoration treatment are the Shagaret Al-Dorr Dome in the Al-Khalifa area of Cairo and the Fatma Al-Shaqraa Mosque in the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar area.
The Shagaret Al-Dorr Dome marks the westernmost edge of the great Southern Cemetery, and it takes the form of a small mausoleum with three keel-arched entrances. The qibla wall facing Mecca has a prayer niche, and the dome of the building still bears some of its original ornamentation, including fluted lozenges and medallions and keel-arched niches with fluted hoods. The qibla niches are composed of two rows of small carved niches, their spandrels being finely carved with floral motifs. The whole is framed with an inscription band in naskh script on an ornate background.
The wooden frieze running along the walls with the carved inscriptions and arabesques may be dated to the Fatimid era and therefore must have belonged to an earlier building.
“The dome is a very important Islamic period monument because it is not only the last building constructed in the Ayoubid period, but it also belongs to the only woman who ever ruled Egypt during the Islamic period,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, the minister of state for antiquities.
Ibrahim said that the restoration work on the dome had started in collaboration with the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) within the framework of a larger project to rehabilitate the Al-Khalifa area and its monuments.
Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, director of the HCRP, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the restoration work included the restoration of all the dome's reliefs and engravings as well as of its stucco ornamentation. Cracks would be restored and walls consolidated. “A new lighting system is to be installed, as well as information panels in order to provide visitors with information on the history of this major monument,” he said.
The dome was also restored during the 1930s, and Abdel-Aziz said that at that time 17 metres of the open court had been sacrificed to enlarge the nearby street.
Shagaret Al-Dorr was an originally Armenian slave who seduced the last Ayoubid sultan, Al-Saleh Nagmeddin Ayoub, and became his wife. She played an important political role and when her husband died she concealed his death in order to avoid turmoil in the army that was defending Egypt against the Seventh Crusade led by King Louis IX of France. However, news of the sultan's death nevertheless spread, and the Crusaders advanced towards Cairo, attacking the Egyptian camp at Gideila, 3km from Mansoura in the Delta.
Turanshak, Nagmeddin's son, was then enthroned as Egypt's new sultan, and with the help of his father's favourite Mamluk, Baybars, the Crusaders were defeated in the Delta town of Faraskur and Louis IX was captured.
Following these events, the other mamluks, unhappy with Turanshak as the country's new sultan, assassinated him at Faraskour in 1250 with the help of Shagaret Al-Dorr, and she herself took power, becoming the sultana of the Ayoubid state for 80 days as regent for the child prince Al-Ashraf Moussa before marrying Nagmeddin's Mamluk Ezzeddin Aybak and sharing power with him.
Shagaret Al-Dorr killed Aybak when she realised that he intended to take a third wife. In revenge, Aybak's first wife and the mother of his son Ali killed Shagaret Al-Dorr with the help of her servants, beating her to death with wooden clogs. Her corpse was then thrown from a tower in the Salaheddin Citadel and left for jackals and dogs. What was left of her body was then placed in her dome.
To celebrate Shagaret Al-Dorr's death Umm Ali made a dessert of sweetened hot milk with bread for the poor. This dish is very well known today, and it is named “Umm Ali” after the wife of Ezzeddin Aybak, the mother of Ali.
The other building that has received restoration treatment, the Fatma Al-Shaqraa Mosque with its now-famous leaning minaret, is located in the Rabaa area and was built in 1477 CE by Rashideddin Al-Bahaai for Fatma Al-Shaqraa, the wife of the Sultan Qaytbey. During the Ottoman period, the mosque was renovated and renamed the Maraa Mosque, the Women's Mosque, instead.
The mosque has two tombs, one dedicated to Al-Shaqraa and the other one dedicated to an unknown person. Time has taken its toll on the mosque since its last restoration, and before its present rehabilitation cracks had spread in its walls, its masonry had been broken, and water had leaked over its floors. In 1992, the mosque's minaret started to lean some 12cm, and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), now the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), stepped in to consolidate it with wooden and iron scaffolding.
This restoration work then stopped until 2004 when work resumed on the mosque, without, however, treating the problem of the leaning minaret. But the masonry was repaired, the walls consolidated and the cracks restored. The mosque's minaret remains in a dangerous condition, and earlier this month the MSA assigned an archaeological committee to inspect its condition in order to undertake the required procedures for restoration.
Ibrahim explained that according to the report by the committee, the restoration work on the minaret would take almost a year to complete as it needed to be dismantled and re-erected in order to treat its foundations. “All the required architectural and environmental studies and documentation have been completed, and the restoration work is due to start next week,” Ibrahim said.


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