Sabils are a prominent, although not exclusive, feature of Ottoman urbanism. Cairo once had over three hundred Sabils and they were pivotal elements in various neighborhoods, they were places to get water a life necessity. The historic core of Cairo is dotted with these buildings, some have been restored, while others have fallen into disrepair as drinking water became available in private homes, and the waqf and patronage system that once maintained these structures no longer exists. Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt (1805-48) built a sabil in a prime location at the heart of Cairo. In 1998 that building was on the verge of collapse but a group of conservers led by architect Agnieszka Dobrowolska carried out a meticulous restoration project that saved the building. The following few paragraphs are an excerpt from a publication co-authored with historian Khaled Fahmy titled Muhammad Ali Pasha and his Sabil: A Guide to the Permanent Exhibition in the Sabil Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha in al-Aqqadin, Cairo.
A sabil is a drinking fountain, charitably endowed to distribute free drinking water to the people. In Cairo, most drinking water was brought from the Nile to be sold on the streets by water carriers, hence sabils were welcome and useful, and many were built in the city. By establishing a sabil, the founder hoped to earn credit toward in the hereafter, but also to signal social status and perpetuate his or her memory. Sabils can be found throughout the Islamic world, for the tradition of offering water to the thirsty is deeply rooted in Islam.
When sabils first appeared in Cairo in the fourteenth century, they were attached to mosques and other religious buildings that were founded by sultans and elite members. Later, wealthy men and women built them as separate structures at prominent locations in the city. Only in Cairo was an elementary school, called a kuttab, included in the same building, above the sabil. These sabil-kuttabs became a standard feature of the city’s landscape. When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, his surveyors counted more than three hundred of them in Cairo.
Cairo’s sabil-kuttabs reflected the architectural styles of the periods when they were built. The early ones are splendid examples of Mamluk style, an architectural tradition so deeply rooted in Cairo that it continued into the Ottoman period. Late eighteenth-century sabil-kuttabs in Cairo are fine examples of an architectural style that combined the Mamluk tradition with elements of Ottoman decoration originating in Istanbul.
Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha broke the centuries-long architectural tradition and inaugurated a completely new style in Cairo by erecting this sabil. He chose a prominent location in a busy commercial area on the main street of the city. He imported white marble and timber from Turkey, and probably craftsmen as well. He chose to erect a building of such grand scale and splendid appearance as to emphasize its founder’s political power. Calligraphic panels on the façade, written in Ottoman Turkish, display poetic verses and the names of Mahmud II, who was the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, of which Egypt was a part, and Muhammad ‘Ali, its governor.
The sabil was built to commemorate Muhammad ‘Ali’s beloved son, Prince Tusun, who had died of bubonic plague three years earlier at the age of 22. The grieving father spared no effort or expense to imprint on Cairo a lasting mark of his family’s presence and importance. It was also a turning point in Cairo’s architecture. The style of the opulent carved-marble decoration on the bowed façade was completely novel. It was an Ottoman interpretation of European baroque, but an interpretation that was very modern at the time, with a strong classical element. Wide, overhanging wooden eaves, richly carved and painted, were also a Turkish motif. In another departure from tradition, there was no kuttab over the sabil, which was instead surmounted by a lead-covered dome, like many buildings in the imperial capital. As if to make the point even more strongly, the dome’s interior was decorated with paintings depicting an imaginary Turkish urban landscape, not at all like the skyline of Cairo. A glittering gilded crescent crowned the building; the main entrance doors were cast in solid bronze. Gold-covered ornate grilles in arched windows were meant to impress those who stepped up to receive a cup of water from a marble basin behind them.
Reflections on antiquity management
Reaching Muhammad Ali’s Sabil is easy, it is a short walk from the famous Bab Zuwayla. The building retains its restored appearance and it is open to the public for a symbolic fee. Inside, the restoration team created an exhibit telling the story of the building and its patron, Muhammad Ali. A classroom on the upper floor from when a Kuttab/school was added to the building’s function, remains with its school desks. Below the cistern that was once filled with water to supply the community is accessible via a small stair. It is a wonderful example of restoration. However, once the dedicated team hands over the keys to the authorities in charge of managing the site, namely the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the building’s fate is in government hands.
The authorities have not learned neither from experience nor from exposure to other contexts, how to keep a monument alive, living, and part of a community. This is a management problem which seems to be the easiest bit since all the difficult work was already done by the restoration team. Sadly, like many historic sites in Egypt that are not of the caliber of pyramids, sites such as the sabil are under-visited, and minimally managed. (meaning unless a disaster takes place no one from the authorities will pay attention to the building’s afterlife once it has been restored).
English and Arabic publication were created and printed by the AUC press and the architect had dedicated a space for their sale by the entrance of the sabil, yet copies are not available and the space is unused. Inside there is a wonderful courtyard and a small cantina that could serve hot and cold drinks, yet the tables are stowed away and the cantina is empty of supplies. In Cairo’s tourism map, despite the sabil’s location on historic Cairo’s main street, it is off the beaten path and few tourists visit. The community, although they welcomed the restoration, are not invited by the authorities to use the space.
The sabil, and others like it dotting Cairo, could be made into pivotal elements in the urban environment, as they once were, with new functions. They can be part of the community and income generating tourist sites. Income generation is essential for restored historic buildings and Muhammad Ali’s sabil has the potential to be economically independent with proper management. Income generated could pay for staff, cover maintenance costs, etc. The unused bookshop and the cafe are missed opportunities.
The problem is greater than this particular example and goes back to the bureaucratic structure controlling antiquities but also the very mindset of the institution. Considering how many historic sabils there are, IMAGINE IF there was an expert on sabils, in charge of Cairo’s sabils. Additionally, each sabil would have its own person in charge. As a team these managers would organize events such as poetry readings, political debate, art and music events aimed at the community. They would also manage various income generating sources such as the sale of books and souvenirs, beverages and snacks (if space is available). Sabil walking tours could be organized so that a group can walk from one sabil to another learning about their distinction, architectural significance, historical significance, etc. Income generated would NOT need to go to the SCA’s purse nor to a centralized government account (which is current policy). Imagine how reworking the way these historic buildings are managed can give them new life, make them relevant to residents and tourists. The potential is there and it is achievable.