Sabil (Water Dispensary) and Kuttab (Qur’anic School) of Sultan Qaytbay
The Sabil and Kuttab of Sultan Qaytbay is located at the beginning of al-Saliba Street in the Citadel Square, Cairo, Egypt
Hegira 884 / AD 1479
Sultan al-Ashraf Abu al-Nasr Qaytbay (r. AH 872–901 / AD 1468–96).
The sabil (a water dispensary) is constructed out of stone and is distinguished by the opulence of its southern and western facade. The elevated and narrow entrance located on the southern face, is crowned with a tri-lobed arch and decorated with stone and polychrome-marble designs. It is similar to the entrance of Ashrafiyya Madrasa in Jerusalem. To the left of the entrance, just above the grill, there is a large, square decorative panel in polychrome marble and stone. The panel is divided into nine sections and arranged in three rows, consisting of carved vegetal and geometric designs. These decorations are not common in Mamluk buildings and are reminiscent of those seen in illuminated manuscripts. This design brings to mind one on the cover of the manuscript by al-Busairi entitled, al-Kawakib al-Duriya fi Madh khayr al-Bariya [The Shining Stars in Praise of the Most Blessed of Creation], popularly known by the name of 'al-Burda'. This manuscript, which is preserved in Dublin, Ireland, suggests that decorative designs were transferred with no restriction from one art form or medium to the other. It also indicates that the decorative designs were drawn on paper first of all as a template, and then adapted to various mediums, whether metal, stone, marble or wood.
The sabil is made up of three stories. The first level is deep below ground and constitutes the water cistern built out of solid rock. A marble lid covered the mouth of the cistern which was then filled annually after being cleaned and purified. The second level is located at ground level, and consists of a room overlooking the street by way of an iron grill through which water was handed out to passers by, while allowing sufficient ventilation to air-cool the water. The water-dispensing room contains a marble panel, over which the water flows to be gathered in a trough below the window, thus the water is further air-cooled. The third level of the fountain-house consists of the kuttab, added in the Ottoman period, which taught orphaned children to memorise the Qur'an.
This building is considered one of the most prominent of Sultan Qaytbay's monuments in Cairo. In addition to its façade, which contains beautifully lavish decoration, this is the first example of a free-standing sabil-kuttab in Egypt. Sultan Qaytbay built another sabil in Jerusalem which is topped by a dome. In Cairo, sabils became increasingly popular and were prolific during the Ottoman period. Today, there are approximately 100 sabils in the City of Cairo.
Sabils are spread all over Cairo to provide free drinking water for inhabitants, passers-by and travellers. Such buildings were charitable institutions that sultans, amirs and the wealthy vied to build. They were commonly situated in the corner of a mosque or an architectural complex. This sabil built by Qaytbay is considered to be the first freestanding construction of this type. Above the sabil is a kuttab to teach orphans the rudiments of Islam, the Arabic language and memorising the Qur'an.
The building was dated based on an inscription flanking the entrance, which bears the name of the patron, Sultan al-Ashraf Abu al-Nasr Qaytbay, and his titles as well as the date of construction.
Behrens-Abouseif, D., Islamic Architecture in Cairo, Leiden, 1989.
Mostafa, Saleh Lamei, “The Cairene Sabils: Form and Meaning”, Muqarnas, 6, pp.33–42.
Pasha, H., Mawsu'at al-'Emara wa al-Athar wa al-Funun al-Islamiya [Encyclopedia of Architecture, Archaeology and Islamic Arts]. Cairo, 1999.
Tarek Torky "Sabil (Water Dispensary) and Kuttab (Qur’anic School) of Sultan Qaytbay" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2019. 2019. http://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;eg;Mon01;14;en
Prepared by: Tarek TorkyTarek Torky
Tarek Abdel Aziz Torky holds a BA in Islamic and Coptic Antiquities from Cairo University (1982). He is currently Head of the Statistics Department at the Information Centre of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and reporter of the committee set up to prepare for the celebrations of the centennial of the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. As Expo Curator for the Discover Islamic Art project in Egypt he prepared the database information for the Egyptian monuments included in the project and participated in formulating the dynastic and cross-dynastic exhibitions. He has participated in the first phase of the Islamic Art in the Mediterranean project as product manager and prepared the texts and photos for the catalogue Mamluk Art: the Splendour and Magic of the Sultans (MWNF, 2001). In 2002 he obtained a scholarship for Med. Master on new technologies for valorisation and management of Mediterranean Cultural Heritage in Ravello, Salerno.
Copyedited by: Majd Musa
Translation by: Amal Sachedina (from the Arabic).
Translation copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: ET 14
Islamic Dynasties / Period
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