Having spent much time walking in the streets or sitting in cafes and mosques, I came to observe the facades of the old buildings, their windows, their gates and the inscriptions engraved on them.
I walk past the green Sheikh Saud Dome that tops the small mosque of that unknown sheikh. People consider it a shrine. Then I pass by a big and beautiful building, the Mustafa Sinan building. I see no one in it, but people say a man lives there alone and never comes out. And there is another building that belongs to Al-Mohandess family.
Old Cairo has many of these abandoned buildings that I call ‘Architecture of Silence’. I gaze at them, trying to imagine the lives that once resonated in them. One such type of building is the Abdel Rahman Katkhoda School on Kasr El-Shouq Street. It still stands there with its rectangular windows, some closed and others open for nearly forty years since the school was closed down to oblivion. I do not know who owns it now, and I shall not be bothered with legal questions. I only want to reminisce the three years I spent in this abandoned building as a child before I was transferred to the Gamaleya Primary School. Primary grade was four years then.
I see my father taking me to Ibrahim Effendi, the school secretary who used to wear a dark jacket over his ‘gallabeya’ and a red fez on his head. I can still see his eyes looking sharply at mine. I remember that moment vividly. It is a fixed image as if engraved in a mural that is buried in a live memory.
This was in 1951. I can still see the faces of the teachers who taught me how to read and who opened for me the universes of knowledge. There I see the bald Mr. Radwan who loved to listen to Om Kulthum. He used to close the classroom door and sing to us her song «Egypt is in my mind and in my soul». I can still here his voice. And there is the scary Sheikh Mustafa with Saadallah Effendi. I do not remember the headmaster or my schoolmates. I only remember a boy with a tall face, but I cannot remember his name.
You could smell the meals being cooked at noon. They used to serve us meat and vegetables as ordered by Dr. Taha Hussein for all schools. It was later turned into a dry meal with boiled eggs, cheese, bread and some dessert. I used to eat all of this in the building that now stands silent before me, looking at me with its broken windows. Am I gazing at the walls or at the moments I spent here that get farther with time? Or am I gazing at all the moments I spent in the streets and alleys of Old Cairo? We never lived in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar, but my father used to take me there to see the shrine of Fatima or to visit relatives.
Now I see an old Ottoman fountain that is run down. And now I pass by Al-Guy Al-Youssefi Mosque on Darb Al-Tabbana Street. Behind me is the Prince Bashtak public bath. It is now closed down, but its façade still carries beautiful decorations. He also owns the big palace on Mo’ez Street in front of the Gameleya School and the Barqouq Mosque. I shall stop at these buildings when I get to Bein Al-Qasrein, my beloved district where I grew up.
The actor Mahmoud Shokoukou used to live close to the Bashtak Bath. He was a carpenter working with his brothers before he became an artist. Without exaggeration, I believe he was no less talented than Charlie Chaplin. He has achieved widespread fame that many would not dream of today. He was the only one for whom people made gypsum statues that they used to exchange for empty bottles or bottles filled with oil or syrup. That sort of barter was popular in Old Cairo. A similar exchange was that of old clothes for household cookware. It was called ‘rag’ deals. Other prominent artists or politicians never had statues made for them. And the vendors used to shout: “Shokoukou for a bottle.”
When I remember all that, I cannot help but wonder why the Sculpture Department of the Faculty of Fine Arts was closed down when making statues was a popular thing? It is the result of the extreme fundamentalist culture that says sculpture is forbidden by Islam. It looks like we are walking backwards.
At a point down the road, the minaret of the Tanbugha Mardini Mosque starts to appear gradually. The eye will always see a minaret or a dome all the way from Rumaila Square to Al-Geish Square, walking Al-Husseineya Street up to the Abbasseya district.
I should slow down, as I am approaching a distinct and unique building that I must look at. There is no mosque in Cairo that looks like the other in terms of its elements or proportions. Perhaps they do in their general features, but each of them is distinct. I should slow down, as walking past a sheikh’s shrine or an ancient monument should be with reverence. One might even ask for permission to walk here.
Whenever I am standing in a place I often wonder what was there years before! Perhaps I should delve back to the Fatimid Dynasty when the Zuweila Gate used to take you to the outside of Cairo from the south, leading to the Fustat area or Old Cairo, as we still call it now.
It was an empty space with some parts used for a cemetery. The first man to build a mosque outside the city was Al-Saleh Tala’ea, whose mosque still stands today. It was renovated under the Historic Cairo Project. I believe it was badly done, as they did not preserve its originality. Its walls that are punctuated with patterns of almost a thousand years old were painted with white plaster. But let me concentrate on the Tanbugha Mardini Mosque that I am now approaching.
The place was developed further after Al-Saleh Tala’ea built his mosque. The Tanbugha Mardini Mosque was built at the time of Sultan Al-Nasser Mohamed bin Qalawoun. His aid, a man called Al-Nashou, forced the people to sell their property cheap to build the mosque on it. The historian Al-Maqrizi wrote that he was unfair to the people.
Al-Nashou was in charge of the Sultan’s property. His full name was Sharaf Al-Din bin Abdel Wahab Al-Nashou. I shall talk about him at length because he caught my attention when I was reading Al-Maqrizi’s book about the Mamluk era. It was he who inspired my character Al-Zainy Barakat. The only one who noticed this was my friend and critic Mohamed Eid. He mentioned this in his study that was published in Al-Thaqafa magazine at the time of Chief Editor Abdel Aziz Dessouky. I will get back to Al-Nashou after I talk about the Mardini Mosque, as he was a unique model for those who like to come close to the ruler. We still have many of those around, which means the Mamluk era is not gone yet. And I can prove it.
Who is Tanbugha Mardini?
He was the Sultan’s sommelier, responsible for anything the Sultan drinks. A sommelier enjoyed the Sultan’s full confidence, just like the ‘Galabi’ (Barber) and the ‘Gashanqir’ who tasted the Sultan’s food sufficiently in advance to make sure it contained no poison.
Tanbugha was not only close to the Sultan, but was also liked by him. The Mamluk system relied on personal liking and not on talent or efficiency. And until today, we still use terms like a minister’s ‘gofer’, which entails the same meaning. Amazing!
Sultan Al-Nasser ordained Tanbugha a prince and let him marry his daughter. When the Sultan died, he was succeeded by his son Al-Mansour Abu Bakr. Tanbugha at the time warned Prince Qusun, a center of power, and told him: “The Sultan will get hold of you.” Notice that he said it verbally and not in writing, as the word at the Mamluk era was as good as the deed. And so Qusun killed Al-Mansour Abu Bakr near the city of Qus. This opened the door for sedition. Prince Qatlobgha came from the Levant, and all the other princes began rioting amidst the absence of a strong ruler and stood against Prince Qusun. All this was contrived by Tanbugha Mardini, who arrested Prince Qatlobgha and took his sword upon his arrival.
Maqrizi wrote: “He became stronger and he heeded not even his mentor Al-Tamartashi, who was saddened by all that but kept it to himself until Al-Saleh Ismail came to power.”
Al-Tamartashi rose to prominence with Al-Saleh Ismail. He became in command. This was a feature of the Mamluk era, whereby things change to the opposite when people change, as it all relied on personal liking. And so Al-Tamartashi sent Tanbugha to Aleppo, where he died in 744 AD.
Maqrizi did not mention how he died. He just said that he was a nice and generous young man with a sound mind and a swinging walk.
I am almost sure that he was poisoned. I also wonder what happened to his wife, the daughter of Sultan Al-Nasser who was the most powerful ruler of Egypt, and who ruled for the longest duration. And here I stand before his wonderful mosque that has things I never saw before.
Its entrance is one of the most beautiful in Cairene architecture. You cannot access it from the road. It is a large cavity with two stone banks on the sides. It is surmounted by decorated stone in white and black. This is the main entrance to the mosque. There is another entrance that leads to the ablution room. And in the courtyard there are trees, which have a special meaning, as you will see them painted on the inner walls.
Prince Tanbugha started building his mosque in 1337 AD after the property of the people in that place was expropriated by Al-Nashou, as I said. It was opened in March of 1340 AD as per Maqrizi, who wrote that the Friday prayer preacher did not get paid that day, nor was he given a present.
It is interesting how sultans and princes resort to looting in order to build mosques to draw them closer to God. Sultan Al-Ghoury did the same, steeling marble columns and panels to build his mosque.
I go back to the Tanbugha Mardini Mosque. It has four enclaves interspersed with corridors that are adorned with an open area. The inscriptions on the marble read:
“In the name of God the Merciful. Mosques are visited by believers in Allah and the Last Day. This mosque was completed in the holy month of Ramadan, 740 AH.”
The six-edged balconies are clear. Between them are minarets in the form of burners, an architecture that I did not see in other mosques. I saw the same structure once in Portugal on the rooftops of buildings, which is a manifestation of Arab-Muslim presence.
What has impressed me most was that wooden fence, an edifice of beauty, precision, miniaturization and symbolism. I wonder how such beauty is neglected. Yet again, I say to myself it is better to keep it this way so that it does not get stolen.
I ask myself: What is the meaning of all this accuracy and diversity in these pieces of wood that are side by side. The fence extends to cover the entire hall. It has openings to pass through to the hall where the columns and the mihrab are, and where the plundered podium once was. At first glance, it looks just like any ordinary fence. But with a closer look, you may decipher the secret meanings hidden in it.
It has nine contiguous sections; each separated from the other by means of a column that I think was brought from older monuments. The columns belong to the ancient Egyptian times. Each section consists of five equal squares.
Let us start from the bottom
The first level consists of wooden panels cut to form a network of diagonal boxes.
The second consists of small straight pillars with equal distances. Each column starts square and ends round. They all have accurate inscriptions.
The third box is repeated in the first box of the second row and so on until the fifth level, a mixture of square and diagonal boxes creating a circular motion in reference to the movement of the earth.
Nothing is stagnant
Everything about this fence moves and then elapses. It is a reference to mankind and all other creatures.
Nothing is eternal
A reference that we are all mortals. Only God is immortal
There it is
I stand at the beginning of the fence. I tend my head. I see the fence extending as if it has no end. I stand between the finite and the infinite.
I step back to see a veil replacing the fence
It is indeed a veil between the inside and the outside, between shadow and light, between the void and fullness. While standing in the courtyard, it obscures the richness of the inside. And when I enter, it obscures the chaos and the noise outside. The fence is not silent. It speaks to me. It has various meanings. That is why I spend much time here. I wander while I am standing, and I stand in my wander. I look above me to see the wooden miniatures turning into decorations. Triangles and circles are flying, others are whispering. They take me to an unreachable place. I cannot concentrate anymore. I am an ardent believer.
All my existence consists of one veil after the other, of one fence after the other. I will enter now. Walking here is unparalleled in any other architecture. I head to the stricken shrine, whose description can be horrific and painful.