Friday, November 28, 2008

The Cairene Sabil: Umm Abbas

After seeing the Sultan Hassan mosque, I still had some time to spare before my son came home, so my driver volunteered to drive me around that area. As per him, there were a number of old and beautiful buildings in that area which I could see from the comfort of my car.. Since I had time to spare, I happily agreed. It seemed like a good idea!

Suddenly, my driver very excitedly called out "look Miss Manisha" and I looked around rather fazed for I could only see traffic , and, some dilapidated buildings around me. And then I spotted what had got him so excited. A lovely marble structure with beautiful gold engravings that was juxtaposed against a brown wall. Having read a little about Cairo's monuments and structures, I recognised it as a sabil.


A sabil was a kind of water reservoir built by the rich & famous to provide water to the denizens of Cairo. I believe the origins of the sabils lie in the Quran and the hadith since providing free water for all to drink, something that is highly regarded in the Koran.

Very often, a sabil would have a first floor which would be used as a khutub or a school where the poor could be taught the Koran.

This particular sabil was built by Bambah Qadin - the granddaughter of Abbas I, who ruled Egypt from 1848 to 1854 A.D, and the mother of Abbas II. "Umm" in Arabic means mother so the sabil of the mother of Abbas, hence the name Sabil Umm Abbas!

Located off Saliba Street at the corner of the side alley ‘al-Siufiya’, Saliba Street can be reached from Midan al-Qal’a (Citadel Square), also called Mohammed Ali Square where Sultan Hassan mosque and Rifai mosque stand.


The sabil's facade is really beautiful with Ottoman style decorative panels running around the sabil & inscriptions above the windows. Obviously, the monument has been recently restored, as is obvious by the bright gilded decorations. The colours are too bright for them to be original, but the restorers have done a wonderful job. The facade is adorned by gilded Ottoman inscriptions & decorations standing out against blue and deep red backgrounds to which the marble structure provides a perfect foil.

Umm Abbas's sabil is obviously a labour of care and detailed attention. You don't really need to spend much time, but the structure is gorgeous and definately worth one look! It stands out amidst the stone, dull brown buildings and crowded roads.

I believe, some sabils were open only at certain hours; others remained open day and night. However, during Ramadan, all the sabils were closed. Each sabil was run by a manager or a keeper who made sure that it functioned well.

As per records of the 18th century, there were over 300 sabils in existence, while current records show only around 70 still extant. Now while I have no intentions of seeing all 70, there a few others that I do want to see, like the Bazdar and Maghlawi sabils , and the sabil of Tusun Pasha & that of Katkhuda....

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