Off tourist map, centuries-old Egyptian gate suffers neglect
Cairo - There was a time when the area in front of and the alleyways around Bab Zuweila — one of three remaining gates of Islamic Cairo — buzzed with tourists and visitors from every part of the world.
There were numerous souvenir shops and others selling papyrus, photos and history books and there was often more demand than available guided tours.
That, however, is something of the past. The gate stands proudly as it has for the past millennium but the tourists are nowhere to be found. Only local residents and workers can be seen walking the narrow alleyways of the area.
Donkey-drawn carts and fava bean and falafel-selling shops are ubiquitous features of the place. The souvenirs’ shops now offer cheap clothes and knife-sharpening services. Tour guides have deserted the gate and its surroundings.
“Tourists do not come here anymore,” said Abdel Hakim Zaghloul, a gate security guard. “I do not know whether the gate has been officially taken off the tourist map.”
He said there has been a remarkable decrease in the number of tourists in the area in recent years but the area still has a lot to offer.
In this, Zaghloul, who has been guarding the gate for almost 15 years, seems to have a strong argument. The area inside the gate looks like a museum. It boasts a large number of exquisite antiquities, including the Mu’ayyad Mosque, Egypt’s third oldest mosque.
The gate is a classic example of Fatimid architecture. It marks the southern end of the old Fatimid city, much of which has been invaded by modern, much less singular, architecture.
The gate has two beautifully adorned minarets belonging to the mosque. The minarets are open to visitors, offering rare views of the end of Old Cairo.
Cairo was founded in 969 as the royal city of the Fatimid dynasty. In 1092, Badr al-Jamali, a prominent statesman of the Fatimid era, built a second wall around Cairo, with Bab Zuweila as the southern gate.
The minarets above the gate were used to check for enemy troops in the surrounding countryside. From it the sultan would watch the beginning of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The gate was sometimes used for execution purposes. Severed heads of criminals were displayed atop walls in the area. The last time this was done was in 1811 when the heads of Mamluks from the Citadel massacre were mounted on spikes.
Mu’ayyad Mosque is west of the gate. The location of the mosque was used as a dungeon where Sheikh Amir al-Mu’ayyad was imprisoned.
While in prison, Mu’ayyad vowed to destroy the dungeon and build a mosque in its location if he was released. After he was released and became the sultan of Egypt, Mu’ayyad ordered the dungeon razed and built a mosque on the location in 1415.
Bab Zuweila has survived since 1092 by accepting layers added to it or letting go of layers taken from it. Layers added during later periods are usually distinguished from earlier ones, although layers removed tend to leave traces.
The most recent renovation of the gate was in 2001 through an American grant of $1 million. Renovation work ended in 2007, bringing in new layers to the 4-tonne wooden gate.
In 2008, a fire in the area caused major damage but the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities restored the gate to its former condition, according to Talaat Ahmed, a ministry official.
Day after day, however, official interest in the area seems to be fading, he said.
“Now, subterranean water threatens to destroy most area antiquities but nobody cares,” Ahmed added.
Because of this lack of interest, Bab Zuweila residents have to fend for themselves. They raise funds to buy plastic bags to collect trash. They also raise funds to renovate old buildings in the area.
But this seems to be far from enough, at least for knife-sharpening services shop owner Mahmoud Ramadan.
Ramadan, in his late 40s, has lived in the Bab Zuweila neighbourhood since he was a child. He says he and other residents are willing to do anything to save the area from neglect and return it to the tourist map.
“The tourists who do not come here are losing a lot, in fact,” Ramadan said. “This area is a piece of Fatimid Cairo of centuries ago.”