900-Year-Old Gate Opens the Door to Cairo’s Architectural History
The fortified gate went up 900 years ago, and travelers soon began wedging human teeth and other items in cracks for good luck. Some left handwritten notes, scrawled in an illegible, mystical script, for a saint long dead.
The offerings were found during a five-year restoration of Cairo’s oldest gate, Bab Zuweila, in the lively and historic neighborhood known as Islamic Cairo.
Now some of those artifacts are being displayed in cases near the gate, and others can be seen on a door section that was too damaged to be restored and returned to its original place.
The U.S.-financed work on the gate was part of a project to restore some of Cairo’s architectural antiquities. The city is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of heritage sites like Bab Zuweila, but the cost of such time-consuming and specialized work is beyond Egypt’s means.
The gate and adjoining circular stone towers were built in 1092 during the rule of the Fatamids, before the Crusades. Designed to defend the city from Turkish armies, the metal-shrouded doors hadn’t been moved in 500 years until the restoration began in 1998. Refuse lay three feet deep around the gate.
The name “Zuweila” comes from a North African Berber tribe that settled in the old southern quarter of Egypt, and “Bab” means gate.
“This is one of the oldest monuments in Cairo. It’s one of the oldest surviving monuments of its kind altogether of this type of medieval military architecture,” said Jaroslaw Dobrowolski, technical director at the American Research Center in Egypt, which led the restoration.
“You have a lot of castles, city walls and city gates resulting from the Crusader wars, but this was before. That makes it unique.”
Artifacts found beneath the gate, including medieval Chinese coffee cups with Arabic inscriptions and Ottoman pipes, give a flavor of Cairo’s history as a crossroads that has witnessed many changes of power over the centuries.
Muslim conquerors built 260-foot minarets where the gate’s adjoining towers had stood.
A nearby mosque, prayer house, school and public drinking fountain are also part of the Egyptian Antiquities Project.
“It is one of the very few places in the world, really, where you have had constant, nonstop activities, 24 hours a day, for the past thousand years. Right here where we stand. It has never been deserted!” Dobrowolski says.
Above the 65-foot-high doors, slits were left in the stone archway so soldiers could tip pots of boiling oil onto enemy troops.
It didn’t matter when the Ottoman Turks captured Cairo in 1517, some 424 years after the gate was built. By then, the city had grown beyond the gate and it was useless as a defense.
People have left good-luck charms in the gate since it was built. A careful look finds humble offerings, such as a strand of hair and a piece of yarn.
“You can see here how the teeth were found in the plating of the door, but some of these amulets are fairly modern,” Dobrowolski says, pointing to an incomprehensible note in ballpoint on a piece of paper.
“It’s a magical text, but in disjointed letters. Nobody writes like this; it’s not real Arabic,” he says.
During the restoration, local stonemasons hand-picked materials from Egyptian quarries to replace missing sections of wall. Modern cleaning technology enabled the removal of centuries of grime. The U.S. Agency for International Development paid the entire $7.8 million budget for the restoration.
The agency, which also finances humanitarian development projects, is looking for donors to continue working in the neighborhood, says Seif Alla Hassanein, an environment and antiquities specialist for USAID.
“This has generated momentum and other donors are getting interested in completing other projects,” Hassanein says.
Bab Zuweila overlooks a decrepit courtyard where craftsmen toiled nearly a millennium ago. It is strewn with trash now, and old stone arches protrude from the jumble of makeshift houses. It’s the sort of site Dobrowolski says would be a suitably challenging next project.