Sabil Umm Abbas in Cairo
by Lara Iskander
This lovely nineteenth century sabil was built by the granddaughter of Abbas I, who ruled Egypt from 1848 to 1854 A.D, and the mother of Abbas II. Sabil Umm Abbas or mother of Abbas is located in quite a remarkable spot off Saliba Street at the corner of the side alley al-Siufiya. Further along the same alley lies the Palace of Amir Taz.
Saliba Street is normally reached from Midan al-Qala (Citadel Square), also called Mohammed Ali Square where Sultan Hassan mosque and Rifai mosque stand. This street is highly recommended for a day walk as it is rich with a flow of very interesting monuments, many of which date back to the Mamluk period apart from the famous Ibn Tulun Mosque. Otherwise, the whole area was mainly developed by Amirs and significant public figures of the fourteenth century and onwards.
The area was long known as Birkat al-Fil meaning elephants pond and parts of it were also the site of Cairos early capital, Al-Qataii, founded by Ahmad Ibn Tulun whose mosque lies in its center.
It was then taken over by Mamluk Amirs, as the zone was favored by many due to its proximity to the seat of power at the Citadel.
This fine Ottoman sabil was built in 1867 A.D. (1284 A.H.) upon the order of the Turkish Princess Bambah Qadin, mother of Khedive Abbas II. She was known to be a beautiful, kind, distinguished lady and a much respected and admired member of the royal family. She was also called Umm al-Mohsenin, which means mother of charity, for she gave away so much of her considerable fortune.
Sabils were very common structures found in many parts of Islamic Cairo and dating back to Mamluk and Ottoman Periods; little buildings, always carefully designed and luxuriously decorated with elaborate marble facades and bronze window grills. The purpose of the building was of great religious significance during the Islamic periods for it was a way of providing free water for all to drink, something highly regarded in the Koran which refers to the value and importance of water and its abundance in paradise.
Cairo's first sabil is attributed to Sultan Nasir al-Din Muhammad, built in 1340 as a memorial to his famous father and it's ruins still remain today.
The second sabil built in Cairo is that of Amir Shaykhu dating back to 1344 and located against a rocky cliff on what was once a royal route, at the foot of the Mountain Citadel, Qalat Al-Gabal.
The purpose of its construction was to quench the thirst of desert travelers and to water people passing between Cairo and the eastern City of the Dead. Another important section of sabils was a drinking trough for animals.
Sabil buildings were almost a fashion in Cairo, and for long periods of time sultans, princes and rich merchants gifted the city with many, often built on busy street corners and whenever possible on the northeast side of a building, to provide maximum shade and coolness.
Umm Abbas obviously spent lavishly on this little structure turning it into an architecturally distinguished building. The rounded sabil shows much influence of Turkish imperial fountains with its historic inscriptions, bronze window grills and elaborately carved wooden hoods.
The sabils faade shows beautiful gilded Ottoman inscriptions set above each window grill and circulating around the whole faade on blue and red backgrounds providing color accents for the white marble faces. The faade is also richly decorated with flowing lines and growing forms of leafy spray and fully blossomed flowers.
Like all others, this one held its supply of fresh water in a cool huge stone cistern underground. Once it rises to the surface, the water flows out from a small arched marble niche high in the interior wall. It then flows over a beautiful sloping marble slab inlaid with dazzling mosaic patterns and pours into side water basins. Many had quite a complex and fascinating underground flowing system.
Some sabils were open only at certain hours; others remained open day and night, except during the fasting hours of Ramadan, when the entire city's sabils were closed. Sabils were all run by a manager or a keeper who made sure that it was functioning well and kept it clean.
Just like the architecture of this sabil, all Ottoman sabils were usually built as semicircular pavilions, and their decoration was more of an Italian rococo style. The entrance leading to the fountain chamber and to the staircase of the upper floor of Sabil Umm Abbas is at the side of the sabil on al-Siufiya Street.
The sabil was recently restored and today, the upper floor rooms are occupied by a community service organization. The best view of this complex is from the western end of the street which is the direction of the Citadel.
Although the original purpose of sabils as a fountain is not valid for Cairo and many have been lost or abandoned since the introduction of the modern water system in Cairo, there remain almost fifty of them in the city, out of possibly as many as two hundred at one point, the largest number for any Islamic city.
Williams, Caroline. 2002. Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.