A tradition of talents

Aida Nassar
4 Min Read

A conservation architect writes a tribute to craftsmanship

The Building Crafts of Cairo: A Living TraditionBy Agnieszka DobrowolskaThe American University in Cairo Press, 2005

For centuries, Cairo’s traditional craftsmen were instrumental in creating the city that today boasts one of the richest scenes of Islamic architecture around the world. As the historical area of Islamic Cairo undergoes a major refurbishment – an ongoing ambitious project of reconstruction and refurbishment undertaken by the government in the past couple of years – the contributions of its craftsmen are as valuable as ever.

Agnieszka Dobrowolska, a conservation architect who has been working in Cairo since 1992, shares her insights working with these traditional craftsmen in her book “The Building Crafts of Cairo: A Living Tradition .

Dobrowolska’s philosophy behind her work is “never to change the substance of historic buildings , and using the same techniques and materials used in the original construction. As a result, she became acquainted with those practicing traditional crafts in Cairo. Her point of view is that of a conservation architect, “dealing with the craftsmen on a day-to-day basis, making use of their skill for practical purposes.

This is clearly evident in her writing as she discusses the techniques and skills of the traditional crafts. However, her interest for their technical skill is matched by her interest in them as individuals. Dobrowolska relates how they learn traditional skills from the older generations, and how this fits into their modern lives.

Hanfai Mahmud Muhammad is a 37-year old stonemason who was taught his profession by his father. He started working full-time after graduating from secondary school. He commutes to work on his Java motorcycle. Dobrowolska describes his pride in completing a difficult project in the Sam Ibn Nuh Mosque in Islamic Cairo, primarily because he felt how important the mosque was to the surrounding community.

Al-Sukkariya in Bab Zuwayla is home to the city’s “most impressive carpentry workshops. It belongs to the Abu Zeid family who has been practicing their craft for six generations and boasts that they produce only traditional work in traditional Islamic design using traditional methods.

Being able to attribute the talented work to individuals only gives the reader a greater appreciation for the craftsmen. Today, the renovated mosques, madrassas, hammams and fountains of Islamic Cairo are a demonstration of the craftsmen’s skill

Dobrowolska writes, “Anyone willing to take a stroll through the streets of Cairo can find craftspeople busy at their workshops, and see how the centuries-old traditions live on in the city, constantly adapting to the demands of modern times, but always remaining true to their roots.

Agnieszksa Dobrowolska, a conservation architect, has directed several projects in Historic Cairo for the American Research Center, as well as having worked on many archaeological and conservation sites in Egypt. She has recently been working on the conservation of the royal family’s mausoleum in the City of the Dead, a project that is affiliated with the Netherlands Flemish Institute in Cairo. This book is also a result of a project affiliated with the Institute, and is sponsored by the Delegation of the European Commission in Egypt and the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Cairo.

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