Sonbol’s sacred Cairo

Gamal Nkrumah was enthralled by the exhibition of internationally acclaimed photographer Sherif Sonbol’s exhibition “Cairo: The crossroads of faith”


Prince Taz Palace, constructed in 1352 AD on the occasion of the marriage of the Mamluk Emir Taz to the daughter of Sultan Al-Nasir Mohamed, was the perfect setting for Sherif Sonbol’s exquisite photographic exhibition Cairo: The Crossroads of Faith. I was struck by Sonbol’s ingenious attention to detail. He looks at the most tangible common denominators: synagogue, church and mosque in Sonbol’s Cairo look remarkably alike. To begin with, they all have the majestically straight spine of an ancient Egyptian temple. It is as if the architects executed unison patterns.

It bears thinking about in an age of religious intolerance and confessional strife. Stucco mihrab facades and wooden openwork screens, floral patterns of domes and stained glass, perhaps only benches and icons distinguish churches from mosques in Cairo. So it is heartening and revealing of a continuum not only of the core substance of monotheistic faiths, but also of the appurtenances of architectural features of the houses of worship of the three monotheistic religions with the ghost of the ancient Egyptian temple hovering above, or hiding behind the scenes.

Yet, over the millenniums, architects reinvented the genre. The genius of Sonbol is to spot the similarities and make them abundantly clear. He confides to me that without Khaled Galal, the head of the Cultural Development Fund of the Ministry of Culture. “He suggested the idea of the exhibition in the first place, and marketed the concept to the Minister of Culture Saber Arab. I owe the success of the exhibition to them and I was ecstatic,” Sonbol elucidates.

Diplomats galore graced the opening of Sonbol’s exhibition. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan to Egypt Toshiro Suzuki attended, and so did the Czech Ambassador Pavel Kafka, as did Al-Ahram Chairman Ahmed Sayed Al-Naggar.

The most poignant feature of Sonbol’s most recent exhibition is capturing the shared history of the three monotheistic religions from an architectural perspective. The onus is on the authentic Egyptian specificity. The Ben Ezra Synagogue is one of the most renowned in Cairo. Sonbol zoomed in on the interior, as opposed to the exterior, views. The mastaba, an ancient Egyptian architectural design, the bima or orator’s podium used for reading the Torah during services, and the haykal or Ark of the Covenant, are stunningly projected. As in antiquity the bima is set in stone, or rather marble.

Sonbol’s photograph enjoins the viewer to trace the inner worlds of the ancients and display the richness thereof. The land for the synagogue was purchased in 882 AD by one Abraham ibn Ezra of Jerusalem. Ben Ezra Synagogue is fabled for the geniza, or store room, that was found in the 19th century to contain a treasure of abandoned Hebrew secular and sacred manuscripts. The collection, known as the Cairo Geniza, is one of the most superlative medieval Jewish Egyptian collections.

According to tradition, the synagogue was built on the site where the baby Moses was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter. The mastaba in Ben Ezra Synagogue is believed to be the place where Moses prayed for God to intercede with the Pharaoh on behalf of his people.

Sonbol stresses the intensity of the visible emotional architectural features of several key historic Cairene mosques. Ibn Tulun Mosque, for instance, is a unique relic amalgamating architectural features of both Sunni and Shia Islam in a most fascinating fashion. The mosque was commissioned by Ahmed ibn Tulun the Abbasid governor of Egypt from 868–884 AD.

This enchanting grand ceremonial mosque was intended as the focal point of Ibn Ţūlūn’s capital Al-Qattai, a city that was razed in the early 10th century AD, and the Ibn Tulun Mosque was the only architectural structure that survived from Al-Qattai. A peculiar architectural feature of Ibn Tulun Mosque is its minaret with a helical outer staircase unique in Cairo and reminiscent of the Samarra Minaret still standing in contemporary Iraq.

This particular mosque was restored in 1177 AD under orders of the Fatimid Shia wazir Badr Al-Jamali, who left a second inscription slab on the mosque which features a Shia version of the shahada, the declaration of faith in Islam “There is no god but God, Mohamed is the messenger of God” on the facade, but unique in predominantly Sunni Egypt includes “Ali [the Prophet Mohamed’s son-in-law] is the vice-regent of God” etched on the facade. Ali, of course, is venerated by Shia Muslims.

The stained glass and floral patterns of the dome of Abu Al-Dahab are similarly astounding. “Only once a year, and for one hour does the sun rays shine through the dome. I waited patiently for several weeks to capture the wonder,” Sonbol assures me.

Sonbol, as an accomplished photographer is essentially a communicator of ideas. Incidentally, certain scenes in the James Bond classic The Spy Who Loved Me were filmed at the Mosque of Ibn Tulun. The Rifai Mosque is equally impressive. Sonbol spotted a particularly unique curiosity. It contains a chapel, actually a tomb of the French wife of the Khedive Ismail, whose mother, Khushyar Hanim, commissioned the construction of one of the most magnificent mosques in Cairo.

The Hanging Church, which has 110 invaluable Coptic Christian icons, is perhaps the most outstanding and celebrated Coptic Christian church in Cairo built in Basilican style with central nave and aisles. The entrance portal to the church has, if one overlooks the crosses, an unmistakably Islamic architectural feel. The central altar room, or ambon, is almost identical to the minbar, Muslim pulpits of a mosque.

Sonbol is intriguingly literate in what previous voices from the distant past wished to convey. Over the altar screen of the Hanging Church lies a long row of seven large icons, the central one of which is Christ seated on the Throne. On one side, the icons of the Virgin Mary, Archangel Gabriel and Saint Peter are lined up. On the other, icons of Saint John the Baptist, Archangel Michael and Saint Paul, captured by Sonbol.

The photographs of this particular exhibition demonstrate how Sonbol is keen to transmit his curiosity, and this comes across in the comely Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George in Cairo that dates back to the 10th century. He ignores the much photographed facade and instead focuses on the Sleeping Mary, so called. The passage in undercroft, s curious cavern-like catacomb, that leads to a well, believed to be a source of miraculous healing water, that once quenched the thirst of the Holy Family during their sojourn in Egypt.


Categories: Africa, Egypt

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