The Monumental Inscriptions of Historic Cairo
Background and Acknowledgements
The initial aim of this project was to photograph, transcribe and translate the unpublished inscriptions in pre-1800 monuments in Cairo. In addition it was hoped to record those inscriptions, published or not, most in danger of disappearing because of their fragile state of conservation. First of all, it may be asked, why the cut-off point of 1800? The main reason for this was the realization that the anticipated budget and projected time for the project would simply have become too great if, for instance, the inscriptions of 19th century monuments were added to it. The period also coincided with the demise of direct Ottoman rule.
The inspiration for the project came from the parlous state of many of Cairo’s monuments at the time. Cairo has the richest legacy of pre-modern monuments of any city in the Islamic world. Over four hundred are listed as worthy of protection by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, ranging from the eighth to the nineteenth century, and from simple mosques to complexes which are among the world’s architectural masterpieces. Unfortunately, by the 1990s some of these monuments were in a rapidly deteriorating state. Even before the damage caused by the earthquake of October 12, 1992, the situation had become critical because of the rising water table.
I accordingly drew up a proposal for a grant from the USAID-funded Egyptian Antiquities Program of the American Research Center in Egypt, which, together with a very generous contribution from the American University in Cairo, permitted work to start in 1997. This was very much a collaborative project, with myself and an assistant director (initially Tarek Sweilam, then for much of the project Lobna Sherif) supported by AUC students working until the photography and data input was finished in 2004. The unfortunate gap between then and now was due to the incompatibility of upgraded computer operating systems with the necessity of Arabic and English together in the same database fields of our original software; this necessitated migrating the database to new software.
In the years since the project began some monuments have been subject to extensive restoration. The treatment of the inscriptions on the monuments has ranged from careful cleaning, enabling them to be seen much more clearly, to complete restoration of formerly missing parts and touching up of the older segments to make them look like new. The latter approach makes us thankful that we were able to record what was there before the interventions, although in the other cases, especially with regard to inscriptions on wood, both scaffolding, which has allowed drawing on a one-to-one basis, and cleaning have permitted readings where none was possible before.
The names of those contributors who by their dedication of time and expertise made major contributions to the project are as follows: Noha Abou-Khatwa, Amal al-Emari, Hosam el-Din Isma’il, Shereen El-Mitainy, Dina Montasser, Lobna Sherif, Tarek Swelim, Abd al-Rahman Abd al-Tawab and Ahmad Wahby. Others helped in ways large and small, from database coding, recording in the field, reading and translating inscriptions to inputting then from published sources into the database, and to scanning negatives. They included Iman Abdulfattah, Dalia Ali Abdel-Ghany, Amira Abd Elhadi, Balsam Saleh, May Abd al-Razik, Dina Bakhoum, Simone Bass, Kelsey Bostwick, Maria Isabel Cruz, Sherine El Ezabi, Ahmed Hassaballah, Sarah Horton, Maysa Ingram, May Kaddah, Salma Kassem, Raafat Kelany, Dina el Khachab, Soha Khater, Omar Kishk, Maha Maamoun, Shereen El-Miteiny, Heba Mostafa, Loay Omran, Seif El-Rashidi, Rowaida Saad el-Din, Alia al-Sabah, Lucy Seton-Watson, Sharif Sadek, Mark Sedgwick and Hanan Shams.
At ARCE the late Robert K. Vincent was always supportive of the project, as were others involved in its stetting up, expecially Jaroslaw Dobrowolski. We had the full support of the SCA, particularly Abd el-Khaleq Mukhtar and Adel Abd al-Sittar in the central Maktab al-Taftish, and of the other local inspectorate offices in our fieldwork, including El Said Helmy Izzat. Buildings that had been locked for years occasionally even had the padlocks prised off before begin sealed again after our visit. Although we were able to visit almost all of the monuments, a few (mostly water dispensaries), whose entrances were completely bricked up, resisted even our and the SCA’s best efforts to gain access.
The team at Cultnat have been vital in migrating the original software to a different platform. The initial invitation came from Fathy Saleh and Hind Mostafa. Manal Elsemary and Wafaa al-Kassas worked on the database transfers, and Marwah Essam, and again Balsam Saleh, on coordination. Doaa Hatem, Donia Gamal, and Aya Mostafa worked on database revision. More recently, Niveen Eid has been in charge of the project at Cultnat and has energetically pushed it to its conclusion, aided by Aymen Solyman, Sayed Darwish and the current director Mohamed Farouk. The design and development teams were led by Mohamed Ismael and Karim Omar. The website software development team there included Hala Refaat and Hoda Abd El-Wahed. The website interface design team there included Tamer El-desouky, Yasmin Ibrahim and Mai Salah and system administrator Mohamed Aly.