Sultana of Pearls: Preserving the Dome That Honors a Historic Female Ruler
When the only woman to rule Egypt in the Islamic period was considering where she wanted to be buried, she could have chosen from many hallowed locations, including her husband’s mausoleum. Instead, ‘Ismat al-Dawla Shajar al-Durr, Sultana of Egypt for 80 days, selected a location near shrines to notable women descended from the prophet Muhammad.
The result in 1250 was a palatial garden complex that probably included a mosque, minaret, bath and oratory, all surrounding a domed mausoleum that forever honors this legendary woman from Egypt’s past.
Today, seven centuries after the storied Shajar al-Durr created her monument, only the mausoleum remains on bustling al-Khalifa Street in Historic Cairo. But its eight-windowed dome proudly stands restored as part of an innovative revitalization designed to show the neighborhood’s residents how Egypt’s history can become a catalyst for everything from healthier children to workplace collaboration. The work on the mausoleum also demonstrates how the art and science of modern conservation techniques have evolved and adapted to confront the ravages of both time and previous, faulty restorations.
ARCE funded the conservation with added support from the Barakat Trust in the U.K. Three years of delicate, fastidious conservation focused on the square main chamber and its keel-shaped dome with eight windows. Inside, a glass mosaic mihrab (the Mecca-pointing niche) shines as the only remaining example of its kind in Cairo, its central motif a tree of pearls in reference to Shajar al-Durr’s name. Also restored are the painted polychromy, carved stucco and two ornamental friezes, including the one that names Shajar as the monument’s founder, as mother of Khalil and as sultana.
RULER OF 80 DAYS, SULTANA OF A DYNASTY
A former slave, the strong-willed Shajar al-Durr reigned over Egypt for only 80 days after the death of her husband, al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub. As the wife of the last Ayyubid sultan, then sultana, then the wife of the first Mamluk sultan, Shajar al-Durr also was the key to a transition from the Ayyubid to the Mamluk era. She ruled from the May 2, 1250, death of her husband until July, when she married Izz al-Din Aybak and crowned him sultan. She is thought to have been only the second female ruler in Islamic history, after an earlier sultana in India.
Even in a reign of fewer than three months, coins were minted in her name. But intrigue surrounded those months when it was revealed that Shajar al-Durr had kept the sultan’s death a secret because of the French-led Seventh Crusade invasion of Egypt at the time. The clever Shajar al-Durr reportedly used blank papers the dying sultan signed to issue various orders to resist the invaders, and supposedly concealed his death by having his meals brought to the sultan’s always-closed tent.
The ruse worked. The crusaders were repelled, saving Cairo, Egypt and Jerusalem and dispatching the defeated Louis IX back to France. Yet Shajar al-Durr faced other challenges when she finally revealed the sultan’s death. Syrian emirs refused to recognize her reign. Her second marriage was a political solution, although conflicts continued with her new husband and his other wives until she was thought to have arranged his murder in a bath. Immediately imprisoned, the Tree of Pearls reportedly was found naked and beaten to death (supposedly by wooden clogs) outside the Citadel in Cairo, on April 28, 1257.
The former sultana was glorified by the domed mausoleum that dated to the months of her reign and that marks not only the beginning of an era but makes a statement about the wily, determined woman behind it. While it’s unclear whether she is actually buried at the shrine, it was built near monuments to al-Sayyida Nafisa, al-Sayyida Ruqayya, al-Sayyida ‘Atika and al-Sayyida Sukayna, all female religious figures who descended from the prophet. Meanwhile, the Mamluk dynasty she helped found ruled Egypt for the next 300 years until the Ottoman Empire intervened.
The mausoleum came to be known as al-Khalifa only in the Ottoman period, after a reference was added to the dome for Abbasid Caliph Muhammad al-Khalifa. While this second figure cannot be historically authenticated, the name was accepted as a more important burial than Shajar al-Durr to the point that not only the shrine but the whole Cairo street came to bear the name. In fact, two mosques were built near the Shajar al-Durr dome. One, named al-Khalifa, was finished in 1876, renovated decades later, then demolished in the early 20th century. Sultan Husayn Kamil, who ruled from 1914-17, ordered a second mosque near the dome, but construction stopped on this building, which, left half-finished, was used for a time as a community center and clinic but closed in the early 2000s.
This evocative legacy with its inextricable link to the historic street ties into the wider scope of an initiative called Athar Lina (Heritage is Ours). The program connects nearby residents and other stakeholders in conservation and development to transform heritage into a communal resource. If residents see benefits from the history in their midst, they will be more likely to support or join in long-term preservation.
In this way, the conservation of the dome became a nucleus for a wider intervention that includes the rehabilitation of the adjacent mosque into a community center and the conservation of the Fatimid domes opposite Shajar al-Durr with funding from the U.S. Department of State Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation. The Athar Lina project also is implementing social and cultural goals in collaboration with the Built Environment Collective-Megawra that include a heritage education program for neighborhood children and women, participatory research on the street’s waste handling, a project in which local artisans exchange skills with designers and a tourism promotion program. That latter project established an annual festival called Spend the Day in Khalifa, which for five years has joined residents and visitors in a celebration of the street’s past and living heritage. The Athar Lina urban research and rehabilitation program focusing on services, infrastructure and public space received further funding from ARCE in 2016 for a conservation school focusing on groundwater problems in historic settings. In addition to researching and teaching solutions for groundwater and salt damage to historic structures, the school proposes reusing removed groundwater for irrigation, cleaning and fire control.
THREAT TO THE DOME: SALT, TRASH AND HISTORY
The mausoleum’s architecture and decorative features were important reasons it was chosen for conservation. The dome’s chamber is 538 square feet (50 square meters), made of brick walls topped by the keeled dome with tripartite, octagonal windows and two tiers of squinches – architectural features built to transition angled walls to a domed ceiling. The dome squinches and spaces between the windows are decorated with delicately-painted medallions and arabesques that could barely be seen when work began. Among the treasures were the glass mosaic mihrab. At risk from neglect were the painted polychrome on the interior below and between the windows, carved stucco decoration above the mihrab and three doors and the painted wood frieze naming the mausoleum’s honoree.
The poor state of preservation was of special concern. While the dome was structurally sound, work done at the site in the past 20 years created its own risks. Conservation efforts from the 1990s into the early 2000s led to the walls and dome being plastered with thick cement. This attempt to fortify and preserve instead accelerated damage caused by rising, salty dampness from subsurface water, and cement plaster contributed its own alkaline salts as it prevented the release of water through evaporation. The result was salt damage to the masonry and the disintegration of mortar. Further damage was caused by cement splatter on the carved and painted stucco and on the upper frieze. Another restoration, this on the polychrome, removed the original painted decoration on two pieces and replaced it with a poorly-executed replica of white and green modern paint.
The challenges from the recent effort were not only inside the dome. Over time, a garbage collection point developed in front of the shrine – a phenomenon common to many listed monuments on the street because of their “ownerless” status. At the Shajar al-Durr mausoleum, mounds of garbage overflowed into its buffer zone, adding a third kind of salt to those rising from the ground and emitted by the cement.
And so, the site restoration plan outlined trash removal, photography and documentation, followed by restoration of the mausoleum interior and exterior, plus desalinization, crack repair, grouting and replacement of the lower sections of cement plaster with lime plaster. The project also restored the epigraphic and decorative wooden friezes running along the interior wall, the carved stucco and stone tiles throughout. This is in addition to basic external lighting, carpentry work and plasterwork, with sustainable maintenance and local support, provided through the larger Athar Lina Project.
After the first year, from November 2013 to October 2014, exciting but daunting discoveries – including from those previous conservation projects – added to the project’s obstacles:
First, the team found that eight medallions between the dome windows and the decorative polychrome on the squinches of the transitional zone were not covered by the grimy deposits of time. Rather, they had been coated with a layer of plaster, probably in the 19th century. This meant the paint below the plaster had to be consolidated before the plaster itself was removed with scalpels in a meticulous, time-consuming process. The restoration team also had to deal with cement splatter and mechanical damage from other restoration efforts.
The upper inscription frieze also was found to be partially covered in cement instead of grime. Because the painted inscription underneath was loose and the cement had adhered to it, removing the cement splatter was much more complicated than removing the gypsum-based plaster coating the medallions. Ironically, reattaching the paint to the wood also unavoidably added to the adhesive strength of the cement. The scalpel work became even more delicate to remove the cement without damaging the original paint.
Nearby, removal of cement from the stucco took five times as long as cleaning stucco coated only with grime. These observations led the team to realize more time and money would be needed to restore the mausoleum. ARCE awarded a second grant to restore the dome in full.
The team removed the dome’s cement plaster only up to the level threatened with capillary dampness; removal higher up proved too risky because of the impact needed to break the cement. After the plaster was removed, these lower sections were desalted with pulp and lime mortar poultices, then re-grouted.
These wide-ranging investigations of the dome’s challenges led to another decision, this one relating to the mosaic mihrab. The Ministry of Antiquities’ Permanent Committee pointed out the mihrab had been stabilized in the previous restoration project. Closer examination showed that the previous work, while visually unpleasant in places, had left the mihrab well-attached and in good structural condition. The team decided after this consultation to avoid more work on the mihrab and focus on other areas of the mausoleum.
THE ART AND SCIENCE OF CONSERVATION
Anyone interested in archaeology will find lessons in the Shajar al-Durr mausoleum. While not unique in conservation methods, the changing demands of the urban project demonstrate the complexity of restoring centuries-old art and construction.
The project required demanding work on the stucco hoods crowning the mihrab and three entrance doors. First, loose sections of the hoods were reattached, with cavities grouted and cracks filled with gypsum and linen thread. The stucco was cleaned by compressed air, with deposits removed by scalpels or ammonium carbonate compresses. Missing sections of the vegetal decoration were restored only where proof remained of the original design.
One discovery was the painted inscription on a beam used for hanging lamps. These traces of a Naskhi Quranic inscription (7:54) were found under a layer of modern green paint coating the beam in front of the mihrab. Only the face of this beam is decorated. The rear and soffit are plain, as are the other remaining beams. In the case of the Quranic verses running along the borders, the script was restored only where the start and end of the text were found.
To conserve the dome’s painted wood, inscriptions were re-fixed by applying gentle heat over heat-resistant paper. The paint was then consolidated and the wood treated with insecticide. Cavities were filled with sawdust or balsa wood, with a final protective coat of dammar varnish.
As much as any part of the project, the multi-step conservation of the painted polychrome decorating the squinches and the drum of the dome reveals the complexities of modern conservation techniques. After fixing the flaking and loose sections, the polychrome conservation included:
- Consolidation of the surface by spraying Paraloid B72 dissolved in acetone at 5 percent
- Preliminary dry cleaning using soft brushes, then wet cleaning using acetone to make the paint under the 19th-century plaster more visible
- Plaster removal using scalpels
- Plaster repair of the missing substrate using a lime mortar with stone powder aggregate and PVA additive
- Application of a protective dammar resin coating
- Retouching the design in lacunae or in places where traces of the preparation layer are still present using stippling
THE SECRETS OF A LEGEND’S SHRINE
Many conservation projects disclose secrets, and the Shajar al-Durr shrine project did not disappoint. The restoration revealed the dome’s blue-green vegetal and decorative ornamentation in its full glory. While the dome interior is plain, the eight windows piercing the drum alternate with eight medallions in arabesque designs. The medallions feature elegant tendrils of leaves and split palmettes, with tulip-like flowers emanating from them. The exquisite design between the arches and around the windows includes lobed medallions and other medallions of a star pattern flanked by an arabesque pattern within a triangular frame. Nearby, triangular soffits feature a striking six-pointed star pattern. And beneath another thick layer of plaster, the team discovered the interlacing pattern framing the tripartite windows.
Analysis of the plaster shows not only that the decoration was contemporary to the dome, but that the design was changed halfway through its application. The result is similar to the interior of the nearby mausoleum of the ‘Abbasid caliphs (1242), which has architecture comparable to Shajar al-Durr’s mausoleum.
As for the trash heaps, Athar Lina moved the garbage collection point that was directly abutting the building across the street. Authorities have yet to decide on the use of the restored mausoleum. The decision likely will be affected by future relationships between the Shajar al-Durr project and the nearby domes of al-Sayyida Ruqayya, al-Sayyed Ja’fari and al-Sayyida ‘Atika, as well as the government’s plans for the mosque.
One unexpected gratifying result of the project was that the team’s prolonged presence on al-Khalifa Street gave it time to interact with the dome’s neighbors and to experiment with the Athar Lina social, cultural and economic plans. The team also joined with the neighborhood to engage the government for more changes in local development. Ideally, this holistic and participatory approach will result in buildings that continue to be cared for after preservation and in ways that are useful and meaningful to all.