Offering free drinking water to the public as charity from a sabil has been known throughout the Middle East ever since the early days of Islam. In Mamluk and Ottoman Cairo, the sabils were combined with elementary schools in a single architectural unit, the sabil-kuttab. There were more than three hundreds of them in Cairo by the end of the 18th century, and with their fairly uniform style, they were among the hallmarks of the city’s architectural landscape. About seventy still survive. In 1820, Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha built a sabil at a prominent location on the main thoroughfare of mediaeval Cairo. This building owed nothing to the centuries-old tradition established in the city. It introduced a new style drawing its inspiration directly from Istanbul, the imperial capital. It constituted a powerful political statement expressed in architectural terms, proclaiming the suzerainty of Muhammad ‘Ali’s family as the new ruling dynasty in Egypt.
Biography / Bibliography
Agnieszka Dobrowolska is a conservation architect who has worked for fifteen years on numerous archaeological and conservation sites in Egypt, directing a number of architectural conservation projects in the country, many of them in Cairo. She has also designed museum displays and exhibitions in Egypt and in Bahrain. She is the author of The Building Crafts of Cairo: A Living Tradition (AUC Press 2005), Muhammad ‘Ali Pahsha and His Sabil (with Khaled Fahmy; AUC Press 2004), and Heliopolis: Rebirth of the City of the Sun (with Jaroslaw Dobrowolski, AUC Press 2006).
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