A neglected 19th century gem
Water is a commodity of special importance in the Middle East where the weather can be scorching hot for more than half the year round. Besides quenching thirst and cooling body heat, it is renowned as a gift of momentous proportion; both the Bible and the Qur’an promise compensation from Heaven for offering a thirsty person a cup of cool water.
Hence the importance and popularity of sabil (water fountain) stands, where fresh water flows freely for any passer-by who wishes to drink. The water offered would come from a huge earthenware pot or several smaller pots filled with water and placed on the sidewalk of busy streets along with a number of cups. The porous pots were guaranteed to keep the water cool no matter how hot the weather.
Today they can still be found in the poorer neighbourhoods of present-day Cairo, but with a modern twist; instead of the old earthenware pots there stands an electric water cooler. The attendant cups or mugs invite thirsty passers-by for a cup of cool water.
Water for the poor
A few centuries ago erecting a sabil was a way for a rich person to gain the approval of Allah and help make life a little easier for the working populace. In Islamic Cairo during the Mamluk and Ottoman eras from the 13th to the 18th centuries they were very common structures, the remnants of which still exist in many parts of Islamic Cairo. Much more elaborate than today’s simple stands, they were small kiosks that were architectural gems in their own right. They were beautifully designed and luxuriously decorated with elaborate marble façades and bronze window grills.
Sabil buildings were verging on a fashion in Cairo, and for a long period of time sultans, princes and rich merchants presented the city with many of them, often erecting them on busy street corners and whenever possible on the northeast side of a building to provide maximum shade and coolness.
The Sabil of Umm Muhammad Ali al-Saghir is one of these. It lies in the Downtown Cairo district of Ramses and was built as a charitable gift in 1867 by Ziba Qadin Bint Abdullah, known as Umm [Mother of] Muhammad Ali al-Saghir who was one of the sons of Muhammad Ali Pasha.
Catching the eye
With a brilliant stroke of architecture, Khedive Ismail’s son Prince Muhammad Ali joined Ziba’s sabil to a residential building to give a first impression that it is one building. The building is decorated with verses from the Holy Qur’an in gold paper, among which is: “They will be served a drink of the finest sealed wine.”(Sura al-Mutaffifin 25).
The sabil is decorated with botanical motifs carved on the marble and architectural units, and the marble columns with finest and deluxe decorative crowns; gilded words, colourful backgrounds and calligraphy catching the eye. The architectural designs and decorations of the windows and wood-iron doors are gorgeous and of distinct elegance.
Sadly, like many historic sites in Egypt, Ziba’s sabil has been neglected. One hundred and fifty years after it was built it is in a very poor state and surrounded by dirt and garbage piles. Dozens of electric lines fixed randomly on the walls of the sabil directly above the ornamentation and architectural decorations deface the building. The water of the fountain has dried up.
The area around the sabil is abused by the public to the point of being a spot for men to relieve themselves in the dark. Moreover it is crowded with street vendors who carelessly display their goods.
Watani talked to one of the hawkers, Amm Girgis, who sells old books but is breaching the law by occupying the pavement. But Amm Girgis is defiant about keeping his space. “No one can force me to move from this place,” he told us vehemently.
Question of responsibility
Maged al-Raheb, who heads the Society for the Preservation of Coptic Heritage, says responsibility for the building represents a complicated problem since it is divided between the Ministry of Endowments, the Cairo Governorate and the Ministry of Antiquities. “Even though we did attempt to restore it and use it for some cultural purpose; sadly, following the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011 and the subsequent security breakdown, thugs found their way to the place and abused it,” Mr Raheb says.
Mr Raheb is not without hope, however. “Can we still save this gem of architectural heritage? Is it possible to restore the building so it can be turned into a cultural venue, a school for calligraphy perhaps or an art gallery?”
18 February 2015