Stories & impact

Rescuing Cenotaphs in Historic Cairo

  • Date
    December 23, 2022
  • Country
  • Project coordinator
    May al-Ibrashy, Megawra-BEC

For over a decade, we have coordinated and supported locally-led protection of cultural heritage under threat in Egypt. May al-Ibrashy, the founder of Megawra-BEC, has led some of our most important actions in the region since 2019. Megawra-BEC is a partnership between an architectural firm and an NGO dedicated to linking cultural heritage to sustainability and social responsibility. Their Athar Lina Initiative is a program that aims to establish modalities of citizen participation in heritage conservation based on an understanding of the monument as a resource.

We are grounded in this sense of heritage as a resource that people can benefit from and through benefit, they acquire a sense of ownership, and through ownership, they become custodians of their heritage.

May Al-Ibrashy

Last year, our partners at Megawra-BEC encountered a beautiful site on the brink of imminent collapse and water damage. Its unique marble panels and wooden friezes dating back to the 9th century were at risk of being permanently lost. Located in the heart of historic Cairo, the mid-12th-century Yahya al-Shabih Shrine is known for being the largest dome chamber of all Fatimid buildings in Egypt with a span of 7.5 meters. Dating back to the Fatimid period (969 -1171), this building has continued to bear great value for Egyptian society and beyond as a notable place of pilgrimage. Its value lies in its spiritual significance to the Islamic World as the resting place of several descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, most notably, Yahya al-Shabih, known as the prophet's “lookalike” (al-shabih). Revered by Sunni and Shi’a Muslims alike, the site is a testament to an age of tolerance when Shi’a practices were tolerated and accepted in predominantly Sunni Egypt.

When al-Ibrashy and her team entered the site in 2021, they noted dire conditions—vertical and diagonal cracks ran through the shrine’s masonry walls and central cracks through the arches and vaults. Existing sinkholes in the ground were increasing in depth while new ones were beginning to form. The entire building's structure was suffering and as a result, so was its community; Yahya al-Shabih Shrine had been shut down to the public for over ten years leaving Cairo's heritage community severely affected. This building can be seen as a reflection of the nation's identity, transcending economic means, education, gender, age, and faith. But besides the building's former function as a site of religious visitation, helping the building become active again was essential to reviving key communal activities and its respective economic growth. The community that had once spiritually and economically relied on this site came close to an irreversible loss.

For six months, we supported Megawra-BEC in the immediate stabilization of the Yahya al-Shabih Shrine. Our efforts included the installation of shoring in areas where structural integrity was compromised, which ensured the conservation team’s safety during their onsite work. Their security paved the way for structural assessments, soil investigations, and material tests which informed comprehensive conservation plans for the duration of the project. The team also carried out emergency works on the onsite cenotaphs, including tracing all their decorative elements and evacuating those at the highest risk of damage for offsite storage until conditions were stable. We also supported Megawra-BEC in finding additional support for the site’s future full rehabilitation.

The Impact

This project is a significant reflection of our emphasis on the importance of navigating cultural heritage protection efforts with local organizations at the forefront. The impact is clear on several levels: the Yahya al-Shabih Shrine is of major local significance for spiritual reasons, and Megawra-BEC facilitated the engagement and visitation with members of the local community. The engagement was particularly strong with stakeholders who felt most invested due to lineage, proximity, belief, and economic stake, among others. Communities living in the proximity of the site also responded loudly to the protection of the site and aided by providing valuable contextual information about its history and the deterioration and damages it had suffered. Their involvement proved the site’s great value as part of Egyptian society, and within the wider corpus of Islamic thought, helped embody a historic spirit of religious pluralism and tolerance still venerated widely today. The project employed and trained more than 50 stakeholders: three consultants, six mid-career employees, four graduates, 14 workers and artisans, and 25 students. The project’s inclusive approach to safeguarding culture in crisis encouraged visitation to and education around the site. Additionally, the team conducted a complete documentation of the site while applying methodologies for rapid assessment previously developed by Megawra-BEC in the Athar Lina Groundwater Research Project Toolkit*. The Yahya al-Shabih Shrine project has since become a case study in the toolkit.

The project was an opportunity to introduce [people] to their heritage, and to a site that celebrated religious tolerance between different Islamic factions.

May Al-Ibrashy

Another form of impact that is imperative to note about this project is Megawra-BEC’s action in securing funding for the site’s full rehabilitation. While carrying out first aid efforts to stabilize the site, the team also thought of the long run. As an emergency grant mechanism that provides quick and flexible support in immediate response to crises, we believe that follow-up support is ideal. Our support in stabilizing the site consequently facilitated the opportunity and possibility for future full rehabilitation efforts. This project goes to show that with the joint efforts of funders, we can increase the impact of protecting and preserving culture in crisis. For this reason, we look forward to the full rehabilitation efforts that British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund will continue to provide to this site.

Documentary heritage at risk?

*During the CER Network Partnership in 2019, Al-Ibrashy and an interdisciplinary team of local heritage experts at Megawra worked on developing the Athar Lina Groundwater method. The method is a five-step approach in reducing the threat of rising groundwater levels damaging historical buildings and reusing wastewater for other purposes. There is a toolkit for every phase of the method, more on the toolkit and our collaboration coming soon.

We are grateful for the collaboration and contributions to our work with documentary heritage from the Whiting Foundation. Cultural Emergency Response and the Whiting Foundation have been working since 2017 to safeguard documentary heritage that is acutely threatened by recent conflict or disaster.