A member of the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Monuments Project photographs the blue-tiled walls of Cairo’s Blue Mosque.
In this essay, Hayam Ahmed Mohammed of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities describes her recent work, funded through the J.M. Kaplan Responsive Preservation Initiative, to document, categorize, and digitize thousands of decorative tiles that adorn the stunning monuments of Islamic Cairo. All photos courtesy of the author.
Ceramic tiles are one of the oldest forms of decorative art. Together with architecture, they have been widely used throughout history because of their durability, technical properties, and visual distinctiveness. Indeed, the history of ceramic tiles begins with the oldest civilizations of the ancient Near East. From as early as the fourth millennium B.C.E., the ancient Egyptians used blue tile bricks to decorate their houses, while glazed bricks were also common in Mesopotamia and were even used to decorate the famous Ishtar Gate of Babylon, which featured depictions of lions, bulls, and dragons atop a stunning background of blue-glazed tiles.
By the time of the Ottoman Empire (14th–20th centuries C.E.), decorative ceramic wall tiles had become a distinctive feature of Islamic architecture, and in Ottoman Egypt, in particular, tiles adorned almost every building, covering entire facades, domes, and burial chambers with intricate geometric and floral patterns. In many cases, the tiles were the only distinctive Ottoman feature in buildings that were otherwise Egyptian in style.
Ceramic tiles with intricate vase and floral design adorning Cairo’s Blue Mosque.
Despite their splendor, however, the decorative tiles from Egypt’s Islamic buildings have never been properly documented, categorized, or digitized, with most previous studies concentrating primarily on their mere physical description. Given the threats facing cultural heritage today, it has become increasingly important to properly inventory and document Cairo’s Islamic tiles in case they are ever vandalized, damaged, or lost. To this end, the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Monuments Project was initiated in June 2018, with the support of CAORC’s J.M. Kaplan Responsive Preservation Initiative, to begin a pilot program to quantify, categorize, and digitize the ceramic tiles of Islamic Cairo.
The deteriorated facade of the 16th-century mausoleum of Ibrahim Al-Gulshany, with traces of its beautiful tiled designs still preserved.
For the project, four monuments within Cairo’s historic Al-Darb Al-Ahmar neighborhood were studied: Zawiya of Al-Sheikh Su'ud, the mausoleum of Ibrahim Al-Gulshani, the Blue Mosque, and the Mosque of Alti Barmaq. Among the four monuments, the project studied and documented more than 9,000 ceramic tiles, which were then categorized into nine main types and more than 120 distinctive designs. The categorization process used a simple coding system of numbers and letters to define each tile by location, type, and design. Using the documentation, the project also created more than two dozen digital renderings of recorded tiles and wall faces.
The project team recording the tiles of the Alti Barmaq Mosque in Cairo.
Another goal of the project was to determine exactly where the ceramic tiles from these Ottoman buildings had been manufactured. Our analysis found that the tiles were produced in several different locations, including Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and even as far away as China and the Netherlands, reflecting the global reach and influence of the Ottoman Empire.
Students from local universities and surrounding neighborhoods were invited to learn about the project through open houses and workshops.
Beyond just creating a database of the recorded Islamic tiles, however, one of the project’s biggest achievements was involving the local community in our work. Throughout the project, local students and faculty as well as community organizations and youth groups were invited to participate in the project’s activities and increase their awareness of the importance of heritage preservation.
The J.M. Kaplan-funded Responsive Preservation Initiative (RPI), administered by CAORC, provides critical funding to support urgent preservation, documentation, and site management efforts at cultural heritage sites around the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean.
Learn more about RPI-funded projects at www.caorc.org/rpi-grantees.
About the Author
Hayam Ahmed Mohammed is Director of Archaeological Documentation in the Islamic Antiquities Department of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities. She earned her Ph.D. in Islamic Art and Archeology from Cairo University’s Faculty of Archaeology. She has contributed to and supervised several major heritage documentation projects, including the documentation and registration of portable objects within the Islamic monuments of Cairo.