Restoration of Cairo’s historic mosques criticised over 'cultural erosion'

Row breaks out after work carried out at Al Hussein, Sayeda Nafisa and Al Aqmar, some of Cairo's oldest Islamic sites

Sayyida Nafisa Mosque, where one of the Prophet Mohammed’s direct descendants is buried. Reuters
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The restoration of some of Egypt’s oldest mosques has drawn sharp criticism from a number of prominent architectural experts over what they call an erosion of heritage.

The mosques of Sayyida Nafisa, which was inaugurated earlier this month by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, and Al Aqmar, which opened for visitors earlier this week, are on prominent Shiite sites that date back to the Fatimid dynasty.

Sayyida Nafisa Mosque is particularly significant because it is where one of the Prophet Mohammed’s direct descendants is buried.

Funded by the Bohra, a denomination of Shiite Islam, the majority of whom reside in India and Pakistan, the restorations were overseen by the Armed Forces Engineering Authority and the Egyptian ministries of Awqaf (religious endowments) and Tourism & Antiquities.

In the case of Sayyida Nafisa Mosque, Omneya Abdel Bar, an archaeological researcher at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, singles out the removal of a silver door through which the mausoleum of the Prophet Mohammed’s great-great-great granddaughter Nafisa bint Al Hasan Al Anwar could be reached, as one way that the mosque’s identity has been altered.

The removal of chandeliers of Turkish origin was also highlighted by Ms Abdel Bar as a distortion of the mosque’s heritage.

Furthermore, two plaques, commemorating separate restorations of the mosque, one under the rule of Abbas Helmy II, the last khedive of Egypt, and another when Anwar Sadat was president, were removed during the latest renovation.

The removal of the plaques was criticised for erasing aspects of Egypt’s history that were woven into the mosque over the centuries.

Spotlights placed along the ceiling of the mosque were criticised by experts including the writer Mahmoud Marzouk, who said: “Lighting systems in archaeological sites must be studied and set up according to scientific principles. It does not make sense to place spotlights in such a way.”

Restoration row

Meanwhile, others drew a sharp distinction between restoration and redevelopment.

According to heritage researcher Hossam Zidan, to restore the mosque would have meant repair any damage and returning it to its previous state. Restorations do not include the addition of new parts that change the original structure’s identity, he argued.

What happened at Sayyida Zeinab Mosque is more akin to redevelopment, Mr Zidan said, pointing out the addition of new decorative inscriptions that are not of a characteristically Egyptian style. He said this essentially distorted the heritage of the mosque.

The criticism comes just over a year after the restoration of Al Hussein Mosque, one of Cairo’s most important Islamic sites and where the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson is buried. That effort was also lambasted over permanent changes to the structure and its grounds that many thought were unnecessary and damaging.

The removal of many large palm trees from the grounds of Al Hussein Mosque to make way for a gift shop and expanded security gates was also criticised by conservationists who argued that the trees had been there to soak up groundwater, which would thereafter seep into the old rock of the heritage sites in the area and damage them.

The removal of green spaces has long been a point of contention in projects in which the Egyptian Armed Forces’ Engineering Authority is involved.

Last year a number of residents of the Nile island of Zamalek staged a protest to decry the removal of a large riverside park to make way for a multi-storey garage project funded by the authority.

New city controversy

Mohamed Aboul Ghar, a prominent political activist, in a scathing Facebook post drew a distinction between the architectural style of new cities built in Egypt under President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, such as the New Administrative Capital and New Alamein, and that of Cairo's old quarters.

"A call to Egyptian leadership, the people of Cairo and Alexandria would like you to relocate to the New Capital and New Alamein and enjoy the glittering marble, the Iconic Tower, and the seaside skyscrapers as you pray in the largest mosque or church," he wrote. "Leave the old Cairo and Alexandria to us so that we may repair what you have ruined."

The National also spoke to Abou Bakr Ahmed, a tourism and antiquities official who oversees restoration in Islamic Cairo.

He said that although the Antiquities Ministry’s involvement with restoration was minimal because sites related to the Prophet Mohammed’s family are under the jurisdiction of the Awqaf Ministry, all changes were made following rigorous efforts to preserve heritage.

The Al Hussein restoration, in addition to the Sayyida Nafisa project, was headed by Jackline Samir, a Coptic architect who has become a controversial figure over the past week following the negative response to the work carried out.

Ms Samir gave a series of television interviews in which she defended her work on Al Hussein and Sayyida Nafisa, saying work was carried out after rigorous studies. Her interviews were met with further criticism.

While her choice to lead the project was hailed by many, including journalist Shenouda Victor Fahmy, as a win for religious harmony in Egypt and a sign that its various religious groups are able to overcome sectarian differences, others questioned her proficiency as an architect.

“I do not mind that a Coptic architect should lead the restoration of a mosque provided she is well-versed in what she is doing. Let us not forget the Coptic architect Al Farghani who built the Ibn Touloun mosque which is still standing 1,100 years after it was built,” said Wael Abbas, a political commentator and journalist in a Facebook post.

However, more conservative commentators rejected the idea of a Coptic restoring such an important Islamic site.

Meanwhile, others argued that because the restoration was funded by the Bohras, preserving Egypt’s identity was not a priority.

Indeed, Ms Abdel Bar said that following the removal of the plaques bearing the names of Abbas Helmy II and Sadat, the only plaque that remains is one bearing the name of the Bohra Sultan.

The restoration of the Al Aqmar, a 900-year-old Fatimid mosque in Islamic Cairo, was also criticised, to a lesser degree perhaps due to it being less prominent than Sayyida Nafisa.

Mr Ahmed defended Al Aqmar’s restoration, which fell under the Antiquities Ministry’s jurisdiction, asserting it was carried out after meticulous planning.

Updated: August 18, 2023, 4:08 AM