By Caroline Williams
Photography by Sherif Sonbol

Sharia al-Mu`izz li-Din Allah, or the Qasaba, is the great artery of Fatimid Cairo. Its importance as a ceremonial way lasted for almost nine hundred years, and the variety of monuments still clustered along its length show that it was a favourite building site for those who held power.

The sabil of Khusrau Pasha

Two monuments from the Ottoman period (1517-1798) occupy prime positions on Sharia al-Mu`izz. They indicate the power and prestige of their patrons while also conveying a story of architectural continuity and new economic circumstances.

In 1517, the last effective Mameluke Sultan, Qansuh al-Ghuri, lost his life and his empire to the Turkish Sultan, Selim the Grim, in a battle outside Aleppo, Syria. For the next 281 years Egypt existed as a province of the Ottoman Empire, to be exploited and abused, and ruled by an Ottoman viceroy or pasha, whose tenure in office was often no longer than three years. The revenue collected in Egypt flowed to the court in Istanbul and Egyptian builders could no longer afford to undertake monumental building projects. These new economic circumstances found concrete expression in two monuments from the Ottoman period, both still standing just south and north of the Bayn al-Qasrayn area: the Sabil-kuttab of Khusrau Pasha and the Sabil-kuttab of Abdel Rahman Katkhuda.

As a building type the sabil-kuttab harks back to the freestanding fountain-school of the Mameluke period. This combination of purposes – a dispensary for free water and free elementary education – is unique to Cairo, with one of the first examples erected by Sultan Qaytbay (1479) in Sharia Saliba. In the Ottoman period, the sabil-kuttab became the most frequently built commemorative foundation, probably because it was the most economical for a patron, and because it dispensed the two mercies most highly praised by the Prophet Muhammad: water for the thirsty and religious instruction for the young.

The size and decoration of sabil-kuttabs varied, but their structure and operations remained basically the same. Water carriers drew water from the Nile, filling cowhides and goatskins, which were subsequently loaded onto camels and donkeys to be brought into town. The water was then poured through openings into an underground cistern, and drawn up for distribution at ground level. Metal cups, chained to each window, were provided for passersby to drink from.

Sabil Abdel Rahman Katkhuda’s Ottoman Influences: These floral forms were brought by the Mongols from China, and became particularly popular in Turkish art in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The first of our sabils was no different. The Sabil-Kuttab of Khusrau Pasha (1535) is a small monument, protruding like a turret abandoned by its castle, beside the wall of the mausoleum of al-Salih Ayyub. Although its builder, Khusrau Pasha, only governed Egypt for two years (from 1534 to 1536), its structure, nevertheless, stamps the Bayn al-Qasrayn with the mark of a new ruling authority, and with the reality that it was through architecture and its placement that the patron expressed power and immortality. This early Ottoman structure also highlights continuities in Cairene architecture; it is located on the main ceremonial ground of the Fatimid palace area, and both its plan and decoration are appropriated from the Mameluke repertoire.

Second floor interiors from the Sabil of Abdul Rahman Katkhuda

Our second sabil-kuttab, built 200 years later, expresses these same continuities. It projects most visibly from the slim point of land that separates the main street into two branches, and thus dominates the vista looking south onto the Bayn al-Qasrayn area. Its patron was Abdel Rahman Katkhuda, an emir and senior officer of the powerful Mameluke Qazdughli family noted for his high style of living and his liberal patronage of the arts. As a passionate enthusiast of architecture – the historian al-Jabarti referred to him as ‘the Great Benefactor and the Prince of Renovators’ – he restored and built more than thirty-three monuments around the city, most notably the sabil-kuttab in front of the Mosque of  Shaykh Ali al-Mutahhar, further south at the intersection between Sharia al-Mu`izz and Sharia al-Musky. He also added to the Mosque of al-Azhar.

Many elements evident in the architecture are based on Mameluke precedent: the joggled voussoirs around the arch of the window; the polychrome mosaic patterns in the spandrels around the arches; the engaged corner columns; and the stalactite cornice. But there are Ottoman influences too, innovative in eighteenth-century Cairo, such as the simulated joggling pattern of the stone façade, and the realistic flowers – peonies, asters and chrysanthemums – in the carved area between the arches. These floral forms were brought by the Mongols from China, and became particularly popular in Turkish art in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

An eighteenth-century tiled wall painting inside Sabil Abdel Rahman Katkhuda depicting a map of Mecca.

The interior of the sabil is faced with tiles imported from Syria. The cobalt and turquoise design is formed by a serrated leaf, called saz, which is characteristic of patterns in Ottoman Iznik ceramics. On the eastern wall there is a representation of the Mosque at Mecca, while just below, the tiles of the missing panel once depicted a mihrab; both representations serve to underline the religious nature of the foundation. Viewing the sabil’s ceiling, the ubiquity of geometric star patterns and the ingenuity with which the decorators cover specific surfaces is a continuous fascination of Islamic ornament. Recent restoration has highlighted one of the delights of this late Ottoman decoration: recognizable flower forms, such as jasmine, narcissus, convulvus, and pomegranate, occupy the arms of the stars. These are specimens chosen for their sweet smells and for their climbing, arbor-like natures, and as such they constitute a veritable overhead garden.

The Sabil-kuttab of Abdel Rahman Katkhuda is one of the largest and most handsome monuments of its type built in the Ottoman period. These were indeed elegant drinking fountains,  but elegance alone cannot withstand the march of progress. When water began to be piped into the district, the need for sabils vanished. Today, Abdel Rahman Katkhuda’s sabil-kuttab has been transformed into an exhibition room; its well may be dry and its students no more, but its architecture still flows with energy, verve and life, filling all who see it with inspiration – a necessity for the soul, just as water is for the body.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 4, 2013

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