Saving the Antiquities of Damietta
July 1st 2001
By Amargi Hiller
(Damietta) The Constant Board of Restoration of Islamic Antiquities decided to start restorations of the Amr Ben Elasy Mosque in Damietta. Restorations will last for 2 years and is expected to cost 2,000,000 LE.
Dr. Gaballah Ali Gaballah stated, 'The mosque was left neglected for 40 years since it was closed down due to its bad condition. Underground water is present throughout the mosque as well as areas in the vicinity of the mosque. The mosque was built at a lower level than the surrounding buildings and this perpetuated the collection of water. The level of water has risen to fill the mosque to an intolerable level. Plants and pests have even grown inside the mosque.'
The Amr Ben Elasy Mosque was closed 40 years ago because of unsafe factors including the collapse of 22 of the 120 pillars of the mosque. The reason it has not been restored is because it was not considered an antiquity until 1984 and even then no actions were to taken to restore it.
The area of the mosque is almost 2,200 meters square. It was built at the beginning of the Islamic Empire.
The mosque consists of a clearing in the middle surrounded by four porticos divided in chambers/halls. The biggest portico is the Kibla (direction of prayer) portico. The mosque walls are made of brick and the ceiling is made from wooden planks. Pillars are made from granite and marble. The mosque has three brown doors all rich with Islamic embellishments. The minaret of the mosque has collapsed and only the base is now remaining. The mosque contained prayer niches, which were designed in a characteristic way at the meeting of the western and southern walls of the mosque.
According to scripts found in the mosque , the mosque underwent renovations in 500 Hijri where the marble pillars were installed. These scripts were most probably written in the Fatimita Kingdom. Mohammed Ali Pasha reinforced the the mosques in his area, which included the Amr Ben Elasy Mosque. Unfortunately, the underground water has collected in the mosque until it deteriorated to the present condition.
The Amr Ben Elasy Mosque was one of the centers built to raise the morals of the Muslim fighters against the Christian crusade in 1155 AD. Adjacent to the mosque are the graves of the martyrs that had died during those wars. In 1170 AD, the mosque was turned into a church when the crusaders captured Damietta. Later, the mosque regained its original religious purpose. However, the mosque was turned once again into a church during the French expeditions.
Other historical monuments are also found in Damietta. The Moeiny Mosque is also one of the oldest mosques in the area. What is particular interesting about this mosque is that it did not only serve as a place for prayer, but it was used as an Islamic school to teach the methods of Islam and different sciences at that time. The Moeiny Mosque was established in 840 Hijri by Moh Ben Mohammed, also known as Moen Eddin. The minbar (high place for preaching) was not added until the Ottoman period.
The Moeiny Mosque consists of a clearing in the middle surrounded by four porticos divided into four chambers. But the center is not open to the sky. It is covered with wooden planks and in the middle hangs an octagonal sunroof called the Shokshieka.
The school was built in the mosque on two floors. Adjacent to the left side of the mosque is the sepulcher of the founder of the mosque which is covered with a plain dome. The walls of the mosque and school are richly embellished with ancient Arabic script. The Moeiny School played a great role in the spread of Islamic awareness amongst people.
Unfortunately this school is in very bad condition. The minaret has collapsed, the walls are leaning, and the everlasting problem of underground water collection. Recently the Supreme Council for Antiquities has established a plan to restore this mosque as well.
Another mosque in Damietta is the Zaweya El-Radwaniya Mosque. There is very little information about who constructed it and when it was constructed except for a marble plate hung on a wall saying that it was renovated by Haj Radwan in 1039 Hijri. The mosque lies on the Nile banks and is 280 meters square in size. The design denotes that it was built during the Mamlouk kingdom. Renovations began on this mosque in 1991.
One of the most important antiquities of Damietta is the Oraby Castle, which was used for defense and weapon storage. The castle is currently not in good condition as its towers are partially collapsed. The main structure is present and miraculously the castle is still standing. The stairs and passages are currently not even safe to walk in.
Oraby Castle was built by the crusaders after they destroyed a village which used to be in its place. Some ancient scripts say that the castle was rectangular in shape. The castle was unfortunately almost completely destroyed during Napoleon's presence. Later during Mohammed Ali Pasha's time, renovations took place to restore the castle. During the time of Kings Fouad and Farouk, the castle once again was neglected. Renovations again took place during the 23 July Revolution. In our modern time, it looks like the castle will once again be restored to its former glory as the Supreme Council of Antiquities implements a new plan of protection and restoration.
Damietta serves as another example of the prolific amount of antiquities in Egypt which have gone through a long history of up and down collapses and re-buildings. Egypt's modern antiquities laws seem to be solid though, which hopefully will ensure that monuments such as those found in Damietta are completely restored and will remain protected and safe for future generations to enjoy. Damietta also serves as an example of ancient antiquities which are rarely known by foreign tourists. Thus the area can offer more sightseeing destinations once all the careful restorations and renovations are completed.