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Not Only with the Pyramids
Elisa Pierandrei

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

Bab Zuwayla, 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 Development (USAID).

ARCE project 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.

Traditional Egyptian stone masons were hired to repair and replace stones in order to incorporate traditional trade expertise.

Theo 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.

The neighbourhood 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”.

After the 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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About Elisa Pierandrei
Elisa Pierandrei - Click to Enlarge

Elisa 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// . (More about the writer.)

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