Sunday 4 of December, 2022
Download SceneNow app

Journeying through Cairo's Sabils: Between Restoration and Dilapidation

We take our camera and have a (long) stroll in Islamic Cairo to discover the state of its sabils.

Staff Writer

Historically, in Ottoman tradition, sabils were set up by society's more affluent individuals or government officials as charitable kiosks where passersby could rest, wash-up, or just quench their thirst. These water-fountain kiosks reached as far and wide as the empire itself did and were often decorated elaborately, each with the style of its time and place. From Islamic architecture to Ottoman Roccoco. Palestine's sabils, for instance, were distinctively different from those of Istanbul and so were Cairo's from Sarajevo's.

Sabil Abdulla (restored and reopened in 2008)

In his book, Muhammad Ali Pasha and his Sabil, historian Khaled Fahmy writes, "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." 

Sabil Mohamed Ali

Today, many of Cairo's surviving 300 sabils stand as monuments of the country's history of wealth and goodwill. Many have been converted into museums. Many even still have water in their wells. Many well-worth the visit.

Perhaps the most notable of Cairo's sabils are indeed two bearing Mohamed Ali Pasha's name, the man hailed as the founder of modern Egypt. The first we visited, built in 1820 in the memory of the ruler's son Prince Tusun, received funding in the late 90s from USAID, the EU, and the Embassy of the Netherlands for extensive restoration. It's currently open to visitors, yet according to a Cairobserver post in 2011, it could stand to be a more self-sustaining, better income-generating tourist attraction. We found it in Darb Al-Ahmar with fruit vendors and clothing stalls lining its fence, and not a tourist in sight.  

The second Sabil Mohamed Ali we came across was built in 1828, this time in memory of his other son, Ismail Pasha. Located, strategically, on the heavily restored, touristic attraction that is Al Muizz Street. It was no longer a sabil, however. As of 2015, it has been converted into the Egyptian Textile Museum, the first of its kind in the Middle East, according to WataniNet. At the entrance, we obtained a booklet on the detailed renovation process of the sabil and its conversion into a museum, the presumably subsidised cost of which was only LE 3.5. "Probably doesn't even cover the cost of the binding," exclaimed the attendant who sold it to us.

The Egyptian Textile Museum

Cairene sabil-kuttabs have traditionally been built in strategic locations like crossroads, squares, or heavily populated areas to maximise their benefit, a short walk down Al Muizz, we stumbled upon a map of the renovated Darb Al Asfar alleyway which included a tiny, little detail: Sabil Qitas. And what should have been a 30 second walk to see and photograph it, became something of a quest. Where we asked residents of the street and vendors alike for directions and even consulted our trusty phones. No Qitas. After giving up and turning around with our tails between our legs, we spot a tiny white and green sign that read "monument 16." We'd found Sabil Qitas. A quick Google of the sabil revealed that it was built by Prince Qitas in 1630, renovated in 1881, and again in 1908. End of story. 

Sabil Qitas

Sabil on Simary Street

So why is it then that some of the city's sabils are left to fall apart as they act as de facto display windows for street vendors? This is best exemplified in the case of Sabil Bab El Hadid. Designed by Italian architect Ciro Pantanelli and built by Husayn Pasha Fahmi in 1869, whatever is left of the sabil, just off Ramsis Square, still serves the community; as something pretty to look at while they shop for safety equipment and second-hand books at what is now, essentially, a bus stop. Its only functional original intent is its steps, offering city-dwellers some much needed public space at which to rest at under the shade. 

Sabil Bab El Hadid

In contrast, sabils that have received funding thrive in comparison to their dilapidated counterparts. The sabil-kuttab of Qaytbay, for instance, at the foot of the Saladin Citadel, whose restoration was funded by the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation between the years 1996 and 2000, seems to be - as one photographer pointed out - the only sabil-kuttab still serving its intended function. While it is run by the ministry of culture, the three-story building is open to visitors - free of charge - and pretty much functions like your typical government building. Fascinatingly enough, its reservoir is still filled with water, and its top floors are used as a research space for students, with a library of books and computers. A modern version of the original 1479 edifice; a sabil-kuttab

Sabil-Kuttab Qaytbay

That's not always the case, however. A sabil's renovation or restoration doesn't mean their turning into spaces accessible to the public. One such case is the 1759-built sabil-kuttab of Sultan Mustafa III in Sayeda Zainab. After meticulous restoration work that was funded by the Embassy of the Netherlands, the sabil, which now stands lodged between modern Cairo's urban sprawl, is in fact not open to the general public. As we approached the entrance, we were asked for ministerial IDs and turned away. ARCHiNOS Architecture had this to say about the restoration work: "Its exceptionally well-preserved decoration blends together the local tradition of Cairo, the then-fashionable Turkish style from Istanbul, and hundreds of Dutch wall-tiles painted in scenes of everyday life in Holland." 

Sabil Mustafa III

Restoration doesn't ensure a monument's survival or sparing from urban decay. When you look up Sabil Umm Abbas, beautiful images will pop up. But that's not the case today. Built in 1867, the sabil-kuttab isn't open for visitors and, as it stands today, restored nearly a decade ago by the Supreme Council of Antiquities, its beauty is difficult to spot as it's practically a dumping ground in a traffic-heavy Islamic Cairo street. 

Sabil Umm Abbas

Cairo may not still boast its 300 sabils, but it certainly still has a wealth of them standing, and largely unknown. One taxi driver, probably in his mid-60s, even told us about a sabil in Coptic Cairo. And there are dozens like them scattered across the entire country. Mostly in ruins, mostly unmarked, and evidently off the tourist track. These centuries-old buildings may not be worth their restoration cost and may not be a priority, but they should, at the very least, be marked. We came across so many with little or unknown stories, where even the people who live around them were unaware of their names, and, at times, of their existence.

Unmarked Sabils

With so many sabils scattered around Islamic Cairo, and beyond, we're left wondering about their future. Will they continue to fall apart with rusting padlocks on their gates, or is that the fate only reserved for the ones deemed insignificant? 

Photos by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions
Photography by Ahmed Zaher and Amr Medhat