Qantara Qantara

Gates of Bāb al-Nasr, Bāb al-Futūh, and Bāb al-Zuwayla

  • Name : Gates of Bāb al-Nasr, Bāb al-Futūh, and Bāb al-Zuwayla
  • Place : Cairo, Egypt
  • Construction date/period : Fatimid AD 1087–1092/Ayyūbid restorations AD 1171–1208
  • Construction materials : Stone and brick, carved stone decorations

The three gates of the Fātimid enclosure are equipped with defensive elements that were amongst the most modern of the era: wide, paved glacis in front of the gates, bastion towers with superposed rooms surmounted with shooting terraces, and bent entrances[1]. The gates lead to entry halls with ribbed vaulting or domes on pendentives, transition elements that were used in antiquity in the Mediterranean Basin and the first centuries of Islam, where its use was interrupted for several centuries[2].

The gate of Bāb al-Nasr (Gate of Victory), with its two rectangular towers, is located in the north-east corner of the Fātimid enclosure. The Shiite shahada in Kūfic script[3] that adorns the entrance arch emphasizes the symbolic importance of this defensive architecture. Its façade has motifs of circular and kite-shaped shields. K.A.C. Creswell explored the origins of these shapes and informed us that they existed in the Byzantine world[4], as did the entrelacs motif that adorns the circular medallion crossed with a sword, which is also seen, for example, in the iconostasis of the monastery of Saint-Luke in Phocis. Each tower is furnished with a rapier (definitely not contemporary with the construction).

Bāb al-Nasr is connected to Bāb al-Futūh by walls, on which are inscribed Qur’anic writings. This ‘Gate of Conquest’ with semi-circular towers was a traditional decoration in the Byzantine world, and it can be seen in northern Syrian towns like St Simeon. A moulding runs along the façade and contains a rectangle opened by three slit windows, which surmounts a wide arch in carved stone that can be likened to those of the entrance of the Piccola Cuba in Palermo, dating from the twelfth century[5].

The towers’ internal flanks have arches with voussoirs on coussinets—which were Syrian in origin—that can also be seen in Anatolia in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries[6].

The carved corbels overlook the entry arch; those at the extremities have a motif of a ram’s head: this Zodiac sign associated with the planet Mars (al-Qahir) was in the ascendant at the time of the official foundation of the citadel. This prophylactic design attests to the great popularity for astrological themes in the Muslim world—these can also be seen in inlaid metalwork from the twelfth to thirteenth centuries[7].

The Gate of Bāb Zuwayla, with its semi-circular towers, took its name from a North-African tribe, some of whom joined the Fātimid army. It is located on the south-west corner of the enclosure of Badr al-Jamālī. Its structure was partly modified when Sultan al-Mu’ayyad [8] constructed his mosque, placing his two minarets on the towers of the latter. The area between the towers has been identified by K.A.C. Creswell as being the loggia where the ceremonial orchestra stood, which, in the eastern tradition, announced royal processions and accompanied them with music. Certain elements have links with the Muslim West, like the polylobed arches that embellish the internal flanks of the towers (also seen in Syria) perhaps introduced to Egypt by the Ifriqiyan craftsmen who followed the Fātimids in their conquests.

The architecture and the decorations seem to confirm Maqrīzī’s opinion[9] that attributes the construction of these doors to three Christian friars of Edessa who took refuge in Egypt, fleeing the Seljuk conquests of Anatolia[10]. Badr al-Jamālī’s Armenian origins also had an influence on these gates.

NOTE

[1] Bent entrances were introduced in the Umayyad era (in the caliphal period of Spain they can be seen at Madīnat al-Zahrā’, as well as in domestic architecture), but their use became widespread with the construction works of  al-Zāhir Ghāzī, from 1209. Siege engines could thereby be avoided.

[2] K.A.C. Creswell highlighted their use in Armenia, where numerous examples attest to their diffusion in this geographic area.

[3] The shahada is the Muslim profession of faith; the Shiite version is close to the Sunni one, but it adds the references to ‘Ālī. Kūfic is a very angular script that owes its name to the town of Kūfa in Mesopotamia.

[4] Oblong shields can be seen in Eastern Europe, especially used by the Normans in  the eleventh century, as can be observed on the Bayeux tapestries (held at Bayeux, in a Museum dedicated to this tapestry, which portrays the events of the conquest of England by the Normans in the eleventh century).

[5] Sicily was occupied by the Fatimid dynasty between 909 and 1091, the year of its capture by the Norman counts.

[6] Amongst the most ancient known examples, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, founded by Constantine in the fourth century.

[7] Flat-sided ewer in the Louvre Museum, Paris, hammered copper alloy with inlaid decorations on its body representing the planets with their associated astrological signs (twelfth to thirteenth centuries, Khorasan. OA 5548).

[8] Mamlūk Sultan who reigned from 1412 to 1421.

[9] Fifteenth-century Egyptian historian.

[10] Creswell cites the Armenian, Abū Sālih, who wrote The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt at the beginning of the thirteenth century, in which he describes the tomb of the monk John, who is said to have taken part in the construction of the walls of Cairo and the gates, under the vizierate of Badr al-Jamālī.



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