Sites in the complex of Sultan Qaitbey included in the current project Heritage for the Living in the 'City of the Dead' carried our by ARCHiNOS with European Union funding:
Mausoleum of al-Gulshani (No 100)
Like scores of other Mamluk dignitaries, Qaitbey built an ornate tomb for himself in the ‘City of the Dead’. He was a commander of a hundred Mamluks at that time. When he became Sultan in 1468, Qaibey built a sumptuous funerary complex that many consider the apex of late Mamluk architecture, and incorporated the earlier mausoleum into it. Later, he buried his two early deceased sons there. The earlier building is of merit and interest in its own right. It displays on a smaller scale features then developed to perfection in the Sultan’s tomb. Of special interest is the masterfully carved stone dome that combines geometric and floral decoration in a pattern that repeats five-fold over the octagonal base, giving the whole a particularly vivid, almost fanciful appearance. The building, called al-Gulshani after a shaykh who resided there in the Ottoman period, comprises a domed tomb and a simple prayer hall. Like the directly neighbouring maq‘ad (reception hall), in spite of earlier conservation efforts, it was decaying and in need of conservation by the 2010s, because it was disused.
ARCHiNOS produced full documentation of the structure, including architectural survey, and then between summer 2018 and autumn 2019 carried out full architectural conservation. Because of its location next to the maq‘ad of Sultan Qaitbey, the mausoleum of Gulshani and a courtyard in front of it are used as an extension of the hub for cultural and social development in the MASQ (Maq‘ad of Sultan Qaitbey) hosting exhibitions and creative workshops
Sultan’s Rest House (listed with No 100)
When Sultan Qaitbey erected his funerary complex in the early 1470s, he constructed accommodations where he could stay with his entourage when he visited the cemetery. Of these, the grand reception hall elevated over storerooms (maq‘ad) has been preserved relatively intact and after conservation by ARCHiNOS is now used as a hub for art, culture, and education in the neighbourhood. The other sections of the residential unit located next to the mausoleum of Gulshani fell in disrepair and when the project commenced were a lot filled with ruins covered with thick layers of rubble and garbage.
In 2018, the area has been cleared of rubble and refuse, and many ruined structures provisionally protected structurally. The clearing was done under supervision of the British archaeologist Daniel Jones by a team experienced in excavation work, while the Egyptian authorities commissioned clearing of an adjoining area to the Arab Contractors company. Structural reinforcements will continue, as some ruined structures are in dramatic condition.
It is planned to render the area safe for visitation by structural repairs to the remaining structures, to treat the pieces of architecture that are in need of conservation, to landscape the site as a permanent ruin and provide informational signage. The objective is to open the area as a public space, with the dual purpose: to make it useful for the local community so it does not revert to the status of a garbage dump, and to attract more visitors to the area by improving the overall appeal of the Qaitbey’s complex as a cultural tourism destination.
The ”Sabil” of Qaitbey (No412)
The small building located about 50 metres south of the madrasa and tomb of Sultan Qaitbey is mysterious and baffling. Located close to the southern gate of the complex, it is masterfully built of stone, covered with a flat stone dome, and has an arcade of two stone arches attached to its side. It has been listed in the index of monuments (with No 412) as a sabil, a type of building very popular in Cairo, housing a charity that distributed free drinking water to passers-by. Indeed, the structure features large rectangular windows on the street level, like those from which water in mugs was handed out in all contemporary sabils. However, a study conducted by ARCHiNOS showed decisively that this building has no underground cistern that was a necessary part of a sabil, and no traces of any water conduits or water installations whatsoever. In contrast, an almost identical building in the northern part of the same complex was certainly a sabil and includes a cistern and other typical elements. The original purpose of the structure listed as No 412 remains a mystery. Whatever was distributed from it, it wasn’t water.
As ARCHiNOS project started in February 2018, the building was abandoned and disused, with serious structural deficiencies. The roof over the arcade missing, as was part of the southern wall. In 2018 a full architectural survey has been completed, to record existing conditions and as a basis for designing conservation and adaptive re-use. On-site conservation work is scheduled to start in spring 2019.
It is planned to adapt the building for a basic medical facility, which is much needed in the underserviced neighbourhood. ARCHiNOS is in discussion with both the antiquities authorities and the potential operators of the medical facility about best ways to make the building serve the community again.
The Water-wheel (listed with No 183)
The funerary complexes in the ‘City of the Dead’ in Cairo were not just tombs and places of worship, but also housed considerable numbers of people: Sufis residing in their convents, students, and numerous service personnel. They were provided with various service installations including elaborate sewage disposal and water supply systems. Remnants of a water-wheel and a huge water-storage tank remain to the north of the madrasa and tomb of Sultan Qaitbey. They used to serve the hawd (animal drinking-trough) that is partially preserved as monument No 183, probably the ablution area of the mosque, and possibly other areas too. Originally, these installations were located at the back of a huge communal residential building that once adjoined the mosque to the north. By the end of the 19th century, the building was dilapidated, and was demolished in the 1990 by the Commite de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe. Parts of the stone-built vaulted chambers on the ground floor of that building have been preserved as permanent ruin. The water-wheel and tank area behind are severely dilapidated and in dangerous structural condition.
Full documentation including architectural survey has been produced. It is intended to open the area as a public space to prevent its use for a garbage dump. Its location makes it a natural extension of the square in front of the mosque of Qaitbey and it has the advantage of being free of vehicles. In what was once a back courtyard, the remnants of the water-wheel are a potential tourist attraction. The very large, well-constructed well and the remnants of animal-driven machinery for drawing water from it are an interesting example of mediaeval technology that was carried over unchanged from the ancient times. Opening the area to the public requires restoring structural safety to the remaining walls and making the well and the remnants of the water wheel secure for visitors.
Project funded by the European Union
Location: Qaitbey area within the "City of the Dead", Cairo
Commenced in July 2018 – ongoing
Project Director: Agnieszka Dobrowolska