As part of a broad initiative to bring Cairo’s Islamic heritage to light, the Altinbugha al-Maridani Mosque, located in Cairo’s historic Darb al-Ahmar district – close to famous souqs and along the principal medieval spine connecting Islamic Cairo’s Citadel to Historic Cairo – has been restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) with funding from the European Union. The Mosque restoration project, which began in December 2018, was completed in June 2021.
The Mosque was built in 1340 CE by Amir Altinbugha al-Maridani under the patronage of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad. It was one of the most striking examples of Bahri Mamluk architecture in Cairo, but it sat untouched for more than a century since it was restored by the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe (1895-1905).
The Mosque’s restoration was one of the three components of a project entitled “Creating Access to Cairo’s Islamic Cultural Heritage”. The European Union grant funded the following activities:
- Implementation of the Maridani Mosque conservation works;
- Creation of visitor routes through the district and the provision of an accompanying physical and socio-economic tourist infrastructure that allows visitors to appreciate the outstanding Mamluk monuments along Cairo’s principal Medieval spine;
- Development of local goods and services related to the expected increase in cultural tourism in response to the gradually larger numbers of visitors to the area and the financial returns these are expected to bring to the entire district.
As part of the project, AKTC developed goods 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 provide marketing skills and training in tourism-related services.
The European Union’s aim by funding the project was to preserve and celebrate Cairo’s rich and tangible Islamic cultural heritage, as well as promote cultural tourism as a major stimulus for local socio-economic development.
It should be noted that although an estimated 70 percent of the Mosque has been restored, the full conservation of the monument will require 12 more months of work and additional funding. What has been completed includes 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, painted wooden ceilings and stucco carvings.
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. The assessment included a review of the structural issues, as well as the state of its decorative features, whose outstanding aesthetic qualities started to come to light after having been hidden for decades under thick layers of dust and grime.
An essential component of the project was to ensure the full rehabilitation of the building’s envelope to guarantee the durability of the monument over time. This included the replacement of the entire roof and defective water insulation with a new bitumen-based insulation membrane covering the entire roof surface of 2,000 square metres. The roof was then covered by a mortar screed sloped to drain rainwater away. In addition, the different kinds of 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, where necessary, the replacement of individual stone units, particularly at the base of the walls to ensure the building’s overall stability.
The stonework of the exterior facades was subjected to gentle cleaning using poultice and hand tools, which 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. 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. The stained gypsum windows were restored by specialists, as were the painted and gilded wooden ceiling surfaces. These called for gentle cleaning, the consolidation of coloured surfaces and the reintegration of missing parts.
The minbar, the wooden pulpit from where prayers are led, was painstakingly reintegrated to the highest standards of woodworking, inlaying, interlocking and finishing work, all done by hand without the use of glue, nails, screws or other fixing devices.
This comprehensive approach called for the recruitment of highly skilled conservators, craftsmen, specialised conservation architects and a consultant engineer, and training of numerous workers. When necessary, international expertise was called in to reinforce the capacities of the local staff. Throughout the conservation process, regular visits by the inspectors of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities provided valuable opportunities to share knowledge and discuss the technical solutions under implementation. The project was also an opportunity to train junior professionals and apprentices in the various crafts needed to restore the Mosque.