U.S., Egypt protect mausoleum in Historic Cairo

Man retouching painted section of ceiling (Courtesy of Megawra)
Head conservator Mukhtar 'Abd al-'Aziz works on the painted wood interior at al-Imam al-Shafi'i Dome in Cairo. (Courtesy of Megawra)

Aided by the United States, antiquities experts in Egypt have worked hard in recent years to conserve a treasured landmark — the Mausoleum of al-Imam Muhammad al-Shafi’i.

Named for the legal scholar al-Imam Muhammad bin Idris al-Shafi’i, a major figure in Sunni Islam who died in 820 C.E., the mausoleum is located in what’s known as Historic Cairo (an area in Cairo that ranks as a UNESCO World Heritage site). It was built to mark the imam’s grave long after his death and is topped by the oldest and largest wooden dome in Egypt.

Painted wood interior of mosque (Courtesy of Megawra)
The painted wood interior of the Mausoleum of al-Imam Muhammad al-Shafi’i is shown after conservation efforts. (Courtesy of Megawra)

The structure dates mostly to 1211, with funerary elements from 1178 and later additions from the 14th to the 19th centuries.

As the mausoleum came under threat from rising subsurface water, the U.S. Department of State provided a grant from the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation to cover a two-phase conservation project that began in 2016 and ended earlier this year, totaling $1.38 million. (Through the Ambassadors Fund, the State Department has supported 1,000 projects in 133 countries since 2001.)

Reopened in April, the site is “an important symbol of Egypt’s religious history and Islamic architecture that is again accessible to visitors,” said U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Jonathan R. Cohen. “This project is part of our $102 million investment, over the past 25 years, to preserve, restore and protect cultural heritage and religious sites throughout Egypt.”

The work — approved by Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and carried out by a team from the Egyptian architectural firm Megawra — tackled areas damaged by damp and salt from the rising water. Conservationists fixed cracks in the floor, masonry, marble and wood, plus curvature in the ceilings.

Three-photo collage of ceramic mosaic floor before, during and after conservation (Courtesy of Megawra)
A section of ceramic mosaic floor is shown before, during and after the conservation process. (Courtesy of Megawra)

The project included a structural investigation, repair and cleaning of decorative friezes and inscriptions, repair of exterior stucco panels and installation of a lighting system.

An architectural gem — and gathering spot

Apart from its dome, the mausoleum includes decorated wooden elements — coffered ceilings, carved tie beams, paneled doors and a teak wood cenotaph — all dating from the 12th century.

Two photos of wooden cenotaph before and after conservation (Courtesy of Megawra)
The Malika Shamsa cenotaph is shown before and after the conservation process. (Courtesy of Megawra)

Its opulent painted polychrome of vegetal and geometrical motifs and calligraphy, spanning five centuries, offer a glimpse of the decorative traditions of successive eras. And its entrance porch has ornamental details that are the best-preserved of their kind from their respective periods: a terra-cotta mosaic floor dating to the mid-18th century and silver inlay doors dating to the 19th century, framed by a painted marble gateway.

Long a popular destination for tourists and local residents, the mausoleum — surrounded by an equally famous cemetery — is also admired by scholars of Islamic art and architecture.

Interior section of mosque showing woodwork, painted walls and chandelier (Courtesy of Megawra)
The interior of the building is shown after conservation. (Courtesy of Megawra)

In the 1950s, renowned architectural historian K.A.C. Creswell described it in his book Muslim Architecture of Egypt: “On entering one is struck by the size of the interior, as well as its richness and charm.”

The conservation team emphasized the site’s economic and social value by preparing it to attract tourists and host activities for local residents. Such activities, run by nongovernmental organizations and student volunteers, have revived economic activity in the area and demonstrated the importance of cultural heritage to the community.

Entrance showing courtyard walls and gate at mosque (Courtesy of Megawra)
An entrance to the Mausoleum of al-Imam Muhammad al-Shafi’i. (Courtesy of Megawra)

The Mausoleum of al-Imam Muhammad al-Shafi’i is “one of Cairo’s most beautiful buildings and one of its most significant sites of spirituality,” said May al-Ibrashy, who directed the project.