Al-Tunbagha Al-Maridani Mosque restored

Nevine El-Aref , Wednesday 6 Oct 2021

The eastern section of the 14th-century Al-Tunbagha Al-Maridani Mosque in Historic Cairo was inaugurated last week after restoration, reports Nevine El-Aref

Al-Maridani Mosque
Al-Maridani Mosque

Late last week, Bab Zuweila Street in the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district of Historic Cairo was buzzing with government officials and foreign ambassadors to Cairo, all of whom had gathered to celebrate the opening of the eastern section of the 14th-century Al-Tunbagha Al-Maridani Mosque.

After three years of restoration work, the first phase of the mosque restoration project has been completed, and its eastern side, including the prayer hall, has regained its original allure. It was officially inaugurated by Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany, Minister of Religious Endowments Mokhtar Gomaa, and Cairo Governor Khaled Abdel-Aal at the ceremony last week.

The mosque was built in the style of the congregational mosques of the time and has a court surrounded by four aisles. The deepest and largest of these is the one in the direction of prayer. In the centre of the nave, there is an octagonal fountain clad in marble. The facade of the northern aisle is also clad in marble inscribed with the date of construction.

The rest of the prayer-direction wall is covered with a fine marble panel inlaid with mother of pearl. The mosque has three entrances and a dome supported by eight granite pillars. It houses an interior garden with trees. Its mashrabiya (turned wood) screens and wooden ceiling are spectacular, as are its stained-glass windows.

The mosque was built in 1340 CE by the emir Al-Tunbagha Al-Maridani under the patronage of the Mameluke Sultan Al-Nasir Mohamed. It is one of the most striking examples of Bahri Mameluke architecture in Historic Cairo, but it has sat untouched for more than a century since it was restored by the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe (Arab Heritage Conservation Committee) between 1895 and 1905.

Before the recent restoration, the mosque was suffering from several problems. There was a high level of humidity and accumulated salts on its walls due to the leakage of water from nearby streets. Its location in a busy residential area had added to its deterioration due to neglect by some of the area’s inhabitants.

The prayer hall (iwan al-qibla) was the most damaged part of the omsque and needed to be completely rehabilitated. Cracks had spread over the walls and its woodwork and marble were in a bad condition.

The story of the recent restoration project began in 2016, when a French expert examined the condition of the osmque in a step towards drawing up a plan for its restoration. In 2018, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) with funding from the European Union. The restoration project began.

The mosque’s restoration was one of three components of a project entitled “Creating Access to Cairo’s Islamic Cultural Heritage”. The EU grant under which the project was funded paid for activities such as the conservation work, the creation of a visitor path through the district, and the provision of accompanying physical and socio-economic tourist infrastructure that will allow visitors to appreciate the outstanding Mameluke monuments in this area.

It also helped in the development of local products and services related to the expected increase in cultural tourism in response to the larger numbers of visitors to the area. The financial returns of these are expected to bring benefits to the entire district.

As part of the project, the AKTC developed products and services for the tourism sector. Mezalla, a locally registered and managed development organisation, passed on technical and managerial capabilities to the local population, both to develop local crafts for the tourist market and to provide marketing skills and training in tourism-related services.

The EU aim in funding the project was to preserve and celebrate Cairo’s rich Islamic cultural heritage, as well as to promote cultural tourism as a stimulus for local socio-economic development.

 

RESTORATION: Sherif Erian, CEO of Aga Khan Cultural Services-Egypt, said that although an estimated 70 per cent of the mosque has now been restored, the full conservation of the monument will require 12 more months of work and additional funding.  

What has been completed include initial architectural surveys focused not only on the principal structural components of the mosque, but also on its fittings and decorations, such as the historic doors and painted wooden ceilings and stucco carvings, he said.

Preparatory work began with a thorough architectural survey and photographic documentation of the building, followed by a detailed analysis and assessment of its condition and state of conservation. Erian said that the assessment had included a review of structural issues, as well as the state of decorative features, whose outstanding aesthetic qualities had started to come to light after having been hidden for decades under layers of dust and grime.

An essential component of the project was to ensure the full rehabilitation of the building’s envelope to guarantee its durability over time. This included the replacement of defective water insulation with a new bitumen-based insulation membrane covering the entire roof surface of 2,000 square metres.

Hisham Samir, assistant to the minister of tourism and antiquities for engineering affairs, said that the damage and deterioration on the exterior envelope of the mosque, such as cracking, partial settlement, material loss and deterioration, were carefully mapped and eventually fixed, including the replacement of individual stone units, particularly at the base of the walls, to ensure the building’s overall stability.

Osama Talaat, head of the Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the ministry, added that the stonework of the exterior façades had been subjected to gentle cleaning using poultice and hand tools, which had revealed the façade’s original decorative pattern of alternating bands of red and yellow stone.

Fine conservation work was also carried out to preserve the important decorative elements found inside the mosque and its prayer hall, he said. Manual cleaning and labour-intensive conservation techniques were applied to the bicoloured stone surfaces of the interior courtyard, as well as the polychrome marble mosaics and marble panels found on the qibla wall and mihrab niche.