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Cairo's Historic Cemetery of al-Suyuti Conflicting Claims.

Ottoman Period

The Ottomans entered Egypt in 932/1517 and with the execution of the Mamluk sultan Tuman Bay came the demise of the Mamluk empire and the transformation of Egypt into an Ottoman province. It is said that the advent of the Ottomans had been prophesied by one of the religious figures buried in one of the hawshs of Kharij Bab al-Qarafa, Shaykh Muhammad al-Maghribi who died in 911/1505. His student Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti was also buried in his jiwar, in Hawsh Qusun - or in another account in Hawsh al-Barizi (Al-Shu’aybi, Kitab ; Al-Sha’rani Tabaqat; al-Ghazzi Kawakib; Al-Manawi Kawakib) - when he died shortly after him in the same year. Al-Suyuti was a prolific scholar who wrote a large number of books that ranged from religious commentary to an account of the wonders of the city of Cairo (al-Suyuti, Husn al-Muhadara). Both graves became popular shrines but it was al-Suyuti who proved to have more staying power. His shrine rose in status to the extent that the whole area came to be known after him. The name Kharij Bab al-Qarafa sunk into oblivion in the Ottoman period to be replaced by the new name of Sayyidi  Jalal al-Suyuti.

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The three ziyara books dating from the Mamluk period (Ibn al-Nasikh, Misbah; Ibn al-Zayyat, Murshid; al-Sakhawi, Tuhfat) all paint a picture of al-Suyuti cemetery that concentrates on the sites of cultic importance and ignores the monumental turbas of the Mamluks. Yet it is clear - even in these sources - that this area’s shrines were of minor importance both from a cultic and a monumental perspective. This changed gradually with the burial of religious figures, many employed by the waqfs of the mamluk turbas, in the turba hawshs. The most important of these burials was Sayyidi Jalal. LINK TO SUYUTI

Therefore our study zone grew in cultic status during the Ottoman period thanks to the burgeoning popularity of the Sayyidi Jalal shrine, yet what was built was mostly on a modest scale. In 941/1534, an Ottoman soldier, Nawruz Kihkya al-Jawishiyya transformed one of the buildings annexed to the turba  of Sudun into a funerary structure that is called a maqsura in the inscription running along its internal walls. On an even smaller scale, Mustafa Agha Jaliq built a canopy type structure typical of the Ottoman period over his family tomb in 1078/1667. We have no description of the shrines of al-Suyuti or al-Maghribi but we can assume they too were on a comparative scale. LINK TO JALIQ

Most of the monumental developments and transformations, however, were happening on the other side of the wall overlooking the square of Qaramaydan, which in some contemporary sources is also called al-Maydan al-Akhdar.

In 983/1575 the Ottoman governor Masih Pasha ordered the construction of a mosque and sabil kuttab south of al-Maydan al-Akhdar with a rab’ opposite on the other side of the maydan close to the mosque of al-Ghuri. The mosque and sabil-kuttab were adjacent to the takiyya of Nur al-Din al-Qarafi, a Qarafa shaykh revered by Masih. The complex was endowed unconditionally to the shaykh and his offspring and it contained a residence for Nur al-Din who was declared the nazir of the waqf and his son Shihab al-Din the imam. Although the buildings, which employed around 100 people, gave their back to the cemetery, they were primarily for the service of its residence to the extent that priority was given to the cemetery residents in the establishment’s wazifas. LINK TO MASIH

Although the governor post tended to be short-lived, many of the governors sponsored charitable and religious buildings and quite a few of them focused their efforts in al-Maydan al-Akhdar and Qaramaydan, and more further north closer to Maydan al-Rumayla, with the result that the area continued to function as the city’s foremost public space.

In 1032, Mustafa Pasha revitalised the maydan, resuming the game of qabaq and encouraging trade. He also built a small zawiya and a sabil and hawd in al-Rumayla. Isma’il Pasha added a takiyya in Qaramaydan (r. 1107-9/1695-7) and a kushk closer to ‘Arab Yasar. Then in 1113/1701, Hajj Muhammad Pasha built a small mosque with a Khalwati takiyya at the foot of the Citadel east of Qaramaydan with a dar diyafa for sufis closer to ‘Arab Yasar. He also restored the Ghuri developments there, notably a qa’a and a bustan. He also ordered the construction of the Amir Akhur residence there with a mastaba for the mahmal and another for archery practice and a hammam. The location of the mahmal mastaba continued to be the place where the mahmal procession stopped well into the 20th century.

The mid 18th century brought with it another famous builder, ‘Abd al-Rahman Katkhudha, head of the Qazdughli Mamluk faction and de facto ruler of Egypt. He built extensively all over Cairo, mostly restoring shrines and extending them or building sabil-kuttabs. The area north of our study zone was no exception. In 1170/1756-7, he constructed a mosque over the minor shrine of ‘A’isha al-Nabawiyya (said to be of ahl al-bayt) which lay west of al-Ghuri mosque facing Bab al-Qarafa. He also ordered the construction of a hawd and sahrij outside Bab al-Qarafa.

With the exception of a few full-blown complexes like that of Masih Pasha or that built by Muhammad Pasha in the southern section of the cemetery over the shrine of ‘Uqba, most Ottoman structures were of a modest scale. Canopies over graves were popular and the more ambitious builders walled their graves and included the odd gallery (riwaq) or sabil-kuttab. One imagines that the effect of the disintegration of the waqf (which started in the late Mamluk period) was exacerbated in the Ottoman period. Wazifa monies were divided up over a number of beneficiaries with the result that not one man was responsible for the duties of upkeep or religious activities. Buildings became rundown and abandoned and re-appropriated for other purposes.

This was not a problem specific to the cemetery and the Cairo the French entered in 1798 was a contradictory mix of magnificence and dilapidation. The French recorded the cemetery but not as extensively as they did the rest of the city, although our study zone, because it lay at the city-cemetery fringe was better documented than the southern sections.  Plate 26 in volume I of the Etat Moderne plates includes our area. It shows a triangle shaped maydan called ‘Arab al-Yasar, - probably al-Maydan al-Akhdar - from which 6 streets branch. The two main streets are oriented northwards and westwards, the first heading laid out parallel to the oblong space of Qaramyadan and headed to Maydan al-Rumayla at the foot of the Citadel, and the second connecting to a second smaller maydan north of Bab al-Qarafa. Of the 4 minor streets, one goes up the slope of the Citadel mount into the neighbourhood of ‘Arab Yasar, the second and third branch off eastwards into the desert, one (currently Bawwabat al-Jabal Street) of them skirting the eastern borders of our study zone  and the fourth heads southward into the study zone. The latter is probably one of two small alleys (zuqaq) described in the Masih waqfiyya, one between the mosque and the takiyya and the other east of the complex leading into the cemetery. The rest of the map shows the double domed structure of al-Sultaniyya and the courtyard mosque of Qusun which has since disappeared. Both are not very accurately placed or oriented.

The area is also divided into four areas with four different renders. The first, immediately south of Maydan al-Akhdar is given the same densely hatched indication as the city and in it the Masihiyya Complex, Hawd ‘Abd al-Rahman Katkhudha and the mosque of al-Ghuri are indicated. The second, around al-Sultaniyya and Qusun looks like an open tract of land with nothing but these two structures and what seems to be a minaret. We know, of course, that this was not true and that there were burials and shrines there, most notably that of al-Suyuti. The third, to the east looks like mounds of desert. The fourth, to the west takes on the render of the cemetery, and in it, probably west of current al-Qarafa al-Kubra Street, is a block given the densely hatched city render. This could be the area of Sudun, al-Sawabi and Nawruz (Rayhan).

The French took a series of defensive measures around the city walls and around the Citadel. These measures became even more destructive after the uprising of 1800, when any building with a potential vantage point for attacking the Citadel was demolished and some street and city gates were blocked. Some of the forts introduced by the French around the city walls were installed in existing buildings. According to al-Jabarti, measures related to our area included blocking Bab al-Qarafa, the fortification of the southern walls and blocking the arches of the aqueduct. The gates of Qaramaydan were blocked on both the Rumayla and ‘Arab Yasar sides. Furthermore, the ridge of the Citadel mount on the Qarafa side was made steeper and the domes and madfans close to it were blown up using gunpowder. Finally, al-Jabarti mentions a Nasiri Jami’ outside Bab al-Qarafa, which according to him, was converted into a fortress and its domes and minaret were demolished. This mosque is also mentioned in the waqfiyya of Masih Pasha and Makar has argued that it is Sultaniyya. Yet we know that one of the domes of Sultaniyya is original while the other one was still extant at the time (Al-Jabarti, ‘Ajai’ib; Makar 1972). It may be that the mosque al-Jabarti is referring to is that of Qusun and that these demolitions accelerated its demise.

Much is made of the damage these acts may have inflicted on the city, although by all indications it was fairly minimal. The attempts of the French to modernise the city by introducing wider streets to accommodated carriages (viz. Al-Shari’ al-Jadid, now al-Muski Street) and of more relevance, their futile attempts to ban inter-city cemeteries, were not fated to make clear mark on the city because of their short-lived occupation of Egypt. It was left to Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha - an Albanian soldier with the Ottoman army that would re-conquer Egypt with British help and later governor then semi-autonomous ruler - to do the job of modernising Egypt properly.


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