The historic “City of the Dead” in Cairo’s Islamic quarter has been the scene of a recent celebration by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, the European Union commission to Egypt, and the embassy of the Netherlands in Cairo. The event was held to mark the opening of the fully restored 15th century Hawd, literally basin, of the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, al-Ashraf Qaitbay, who originally built it as a watering place for animals, offering the service to the public free of charge.
The restored building has been turned into a place where artisans practicing traditional crafts can display their products on a rotational basis.
The celebration went under the title “Sultan’s festival” and was attended by James Moran, Head of the EU commission to Egypt; Antiquities Minister Mamdouh al-Damaty; and Raphael Varga, Chargé d’Affaires at the Embassy of the the Netherlands in Cairo. It was held in the area of the Sultan’s mosque/madrasa in the Desert of the Mamluks neighbourhood within the City of the Dead. The local residents participated in the event and mingled with the guests.
Conserving the original
The project was financed by the EU within the framework of its Egypt-Europe Cultural Cooperation programme, and with a contribution from the Netherlands. The work was designed and carried out by the Cairo-based architectural practice ARCHiNOS Architecture in collaboration with the Ministry of State of Antiquities and Heritage and its Historic Cairo Project.
The hawd was originally founded to provide free drinking water for animals and was part of the huge funerary and religious complex that Sultan Qaitbey established in the fine architectural style that marked his reign. The conservators aimed at preserving and protecting the authentic historic material without introducing modern additions. Before any work on the site began, the building was documented by photographs and drawings, and its history studied. Based on this knowledge, the conservation plan was established.
The purpose of the work carried out by ARCHiNOS was to preserve and protect the existing historic material, without making modern imitations of what has been lost. An important objective was to present the authentic material in such a way that it can be understood and appreciated.
Removal of accumulated deposits to mitigate the effects of rising dampness revealed the original stone floor and drinking basin. Conservators cleaned the walls, removing crystallised salts, recent Portland cement coatings, and layers of dust and grime. In places, this exposed remnants of the original decoration, which were re-attached and augmented with minimal retouching to indicate the original colour scheme. A number of different techniques were used to suit specific materials and various types of damage.
Masonry was consolidated and decayed timber replaced. A new roof cover was installed, matching traditional construction techniques with a cover of modern insulating material. In all instances, interventions were only done where necessary, retaining as much original material as possible.
Sultan Qaitbay was a prolific builder whose works include the two citadels which today carry his name in Alexandria and Rosetta, as well as a minaret and dome in al-Azhar mosque.
The hawd is rectangular in shape and has five entrances ornamented with columns and friezes. There is a water fountain and three stone courses which were used as water runways.
Adaptive work aiming at making the building useful for the local community was performed. Artisans practicing traditional crafts, who are numerous in the neighbourhood, can display their wares on a rotational basis in the showcases installed in the hawd.
14 July 2015