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Volume 38, Number 3May/June 1987

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From Water All that Lives

Written and photographed by John Feeney

In a hot and dusty city, in a hot, dry part of the world, to give water to the thirsty must be counted a supremely charitable act. In medieval Cairo, that charity took the form of sabils.

Always carefully designed and luxuriously decorated little buildings, most of Cairo's sabils have been inherited from the city's Mamluk and Ottoman ages. Behind their ornate marble facades and their mysterious bronze grills, there lies a deep religious significance, for the sabils, endowed by the wealthy, provided free water for all to drink.

Even before God brought forth a spring to a frantic Hagar and her infant Ishmael, precious, cleansing water was a symbol of God's life-giving spirit. The Bible refers to "the water of life," and the Koran overflows with references to the value of water and its abundance in paradise. The Hadith - the collected sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad - include the words:

"When the Prophet was asked what was the most meritorious deed, he answered, 'To give water to drink...'"

That hadith, in lovely calligraphy, decorates a niche on the facade of the second sabil built in Cairo. It was the gift, in 1344, of the rich and powerful Amir Shaykhu, built - probably on the site of an earlier cistern - against a rocky cliff at the foot of Qalat al-Jabal, the Mountain Citadel, overlooking the city.

Situated on what was once a royal road, Shaykhu's sabil was meant to quench the thirst of desert travelers entering the city from Gaza and distant Syria, and to water people and their animals passing between Cairo and the eastern City of the Dead. A drinking trough for animals was part of his sabil, wit! another hadith: "To quench the thirst of animal will be rewarded in heaven."

Today, in Cairo, sabils are almost forgotton antiquities—largely unknown, even to Islamic scholars. Yet no other Muslim city still possesses as many.

The very word sabil, today, is a vague one, and few can explain its exact meaning. For the person who built and endowed a sabil, the word meant a spiritual pathway, a road to travel toward God. Of the many such pathways - alms were another - the word came to refer specifically to the simple act of providing free drinking water.

Cairo's first sabil is attributed to Sultan Nasir al-Din Muhammad, built in 1340 as a memorial to his famous father, the long-reigning Sultan Mansur Sayf al-Din Qala'un. Its ruins remain today outside what was once Qala'un's famous maristan, or hospital - in its day one of the most advanced hospitals in the world, where sleepless patients had stories told to them and the very air was perfumed by courtyards filled with bitter-orange trees, whose scent helped calm the insane.

Sabil building became almost a fashion in Cairo, and for centuries sultans, princes and rich merchants endowed the city with one after another. Many were constructed with a second story housing a kuttab, a small religious school where those too poor to pay for instruction could still be taught reading, writing and the Koran.

In an age when architecture was considered the greatest of Islamic arts, Cairo's rich were accustomed to sparing no expense in building mosques, madrasas (religious colleges) and even their own mausoleums. And they spent just as lavishly on the little water-houses they often attached to those structures, making the sabils, in effect, beautiful architectural reflections of one of Islam's five pillars: voluntary giving to the poor. Where the donors included a kuttab, they were performing at one time the two great acts of mercy most favored by the Prophet himself: giving water to the thirsty and teaching the Koran to the poor, benefactions that be counted in their favor on the judgement.

Halfway along today's bustling Qasaba—Cairo's main, medieval thoroughfare tween the 10th-century entrance gates of Bab Al-Futuh and Bab Zuwayla, is the sabil named after 'Abd al-Rahman Kathkhoda. It has just recently been restored to much of its original splendor by the West German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, and won for the Institute the coveted Aga Khan Award "in recognition of architectural excellence in Islamic culture." From top to bottom, inside and out, every inch of this sabil - its stone facade of fluted columns, its sculptured leaves, fruits and flowers, and its dazzling mosaic pattern - expresses the grandeur of Cairo 700 years ago.

During six of those seven centuries, some 200 sabils were built throughout the city, often on busy street corners and whenever possible on the northeast side of a building, to provide maximum shade and coolness. Today, only about 50 sabils are left - silent and abandoned since piped-in water came to the city.

A little way along from 'Abd al-Rahman Kathkhoda's sabil, at the point where the bustling Qasaba changes its name and becomes Shari' Mu'izz al-Din Ilah, is the sabil-kuttab of Sultan Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri, built in 1503. Of all Cairo's sabils, this one must be both the most nearly intact and the most beautiful, still possessing much of its original plumbing and expressing visually and clearly the religious meaning that infuses the sabil.

Part of a complex that also included an insane asylum, a madrasa and the mausoleum of al-Ghawri himself, the sabil looks much the same as any other from the outside. But in past ages, a thirsty man who approached its bronze grill was treated to a feast for the eyes as well as a cool drink. Inside, above the sabil's door, is written in Kufic lettering:

"Blessings upon the Prophet, his family and his followers.... The Sultan Qansuh al-Ghawri, in the name of God, has ordered the construction of this blessed sabil.... May his victory be complete. In the glorious month of Ramadan, 909 [1503 C.E.]."

There was more than calligraphy to see. Like all good sabils, this one held its bulk supply of fresh Nile water in a cool stone cistern underground. Once raised to the surface, the water flowed out from a small arch-marble niche high in the interior wall. escending, it flowed over a beautiful sloping marble slab inlaid with a dazzling mosaic pattern, reminiscent of the ancient zig-zag hieroglyphic sign for water. The raised edge of the slab is decorated with a frieze of Nile fishes, undulating head to tail, and above the slab is written:

"Admire my beauty: 1 pour forth water in chains of crystal and golden sound."

Ibn Battuta, the renowned 16th-century Arab traveler, described this arrangement with the words, "Water comes down from above on a shadirvan," meaning that the pleasing sight was reminiscent of the flow of Salsabil, the fount of paradise. In more functional terms, the arrangement cooled and aerated the water as it made its way to the fountain spouts in front of the three bronze-grilled windows on the street.

Standing on the sabil's stone steps and gazing though the bronze grill, drinkers who looked still higher could admire the sabil's gilded wooden ceiling, or they could let their eyes wander across the marble mosaic floor, inlaid with a multitude of large 20-pointed stars. Indeed, to pause and drink at al-Ghawri's sabil provided a few moments of happy contemplation of both the blessed wetness of water and the glories of paradise.

The exterior stonework of the sabil has just been cleaned, revealing a soft yellow stone, quarried from the nearby Mokhattam Hills and incised with a maze of intricate Kufic inscriptions. But, unlike 'Abd al-Rahman Kathkhoda's up the street, al-Gawri's is not open to the public. Nonetheless, when it was last inspected 15 years ago, its beauty was apparent even under a thick mantle of dust.

Perhaps al-Ghawri's was an exception, and not all sabils were so lavishly decorated. But they were, quite literally, oases in the city's heat and brightness, and the atmosphere surrounding them must have been a relaxed one. Mingling with the gentle splashing of water as the cisterns were replenished was the murmurous high-pitched chant of boys in the sabil's kuttab, rocking back and forth on their heels, reciting in chorus under the supervision of their faqih, or religious schoolmaster, as they learned the entire Koran by heart. The swaying motion of their bodies, it was said, helped the boys remember.

In medieval days, Cairo was a world trading center and one of the richest cities on earth. Travelers have left us detailed accounts of the city's splendor, of the crowds that thronged the streets day and night and the profusion of lamps hung from the hundreds of minarets. Visiting merchants from Europe and the East traded in the city, and large numbers of pilgrims, coming by special caravan from as far away as Niger and Timbuktu, paused in Cairo to rest before resuming their desert journey to the holy cities of Arabia.

For Cairenes and visitors alike, coolness, shade and water were a constant dream. But water was also the city's daily problem. Centuries of Nile floods had long since moved the course of "The Great Provider" far away, leaving only brackish wells within the walls of the original Fatimid city. The river was too far for individuals to go to draw water.

Yet water was needed daily in vast amounts: for the ablutions of thousands of worshippers in hundreds of city mosques, for over 300 hammams, or public baths, for numerous fruit and vegetable gardens, daily household needs and, not least, for the city's 200 sabils.

Water was also needed for the city's enormous animal population. Every man of means rode about on his donkey, and all of Cairo's enormous trade was hauled in and out of the city by camels or donkey carts.

To cope with this daily demand, ingenious engineering devices were conceived. Near the Isle of Rhoda, seven giant waterwheels lifted up Nile water and poured it into the famous 14th-century aqueduct - built by the same Sultan Nasir al-Din Muhammad who had built the first sabil. The aqueduct brought a continuous flow to the Citadel several miles away—but not nearly enough.

Deep inside the Mountain Citadel was another engineering marvel known as Bir Yusef s Well. A sloping rock-cut roadway led 300 feet into the earth, to where teams of oxen, working at two different underground levels, circled endlessly to raise water to the surface. But this flow too was only a drop in the bucket.

Thus, the main responsibility for waterin the city's two- and four-legged inhabitants fell to an enormous army of camels. Ibn Battu tells us that "there were 12,000 of them, supported by 30,000 cameleers, who went twice daily to the Nile and returned with dripping waterskins." Because the city's twisting medieval streets were too narrow for the swaying camels, laden with bulging water-skins, their bulk deliveries had to be broken down into small quantities, which were carried into the city's byways on foot by a renowned guild of watermen called saqqas. Bearing small, dripping goatskins on their backs, these men made door-to-door deliveries, calling as they went their traditional chant: "From water, all that lives!"

Payment was the flaw in this arrangement. Like any peddlers, the saqqas naturally insisted on payment on delivery - which meant that in the burning summer months the poor and sick of the city could die for lack of water. But thanks to the Prophet's admonition to give water to the thirsty, anyone could go to one of 200 endowed sabils for a free drink.

Some of the sabils were open only at prescribed hours; others remained open day and night, except during the fasting hours of Ramadan, when all the city's sabils were closed. As a special treat on feast days, some of the sabils sweetened their water or flavored it with rose or orange essence - perhaps in imitation of Salsabil itself, whose water, the Koran says, was freshened with ginger. On these days, no doubt, children made beelines for the sabil with the sweetest water.

The manager of a sabil, according to endowment documents, had to be healthy, clean and also polite - "so as not to drive people away." And both he and the watermen who filled the cisterns had to undergo medical examination to make sure they did not harbor disease. The saqqas'- clothes and their goatskins were also carefully regulated, and they could draw water only from select and uncontaminated places. By municipal regulation, it was also the saqqas' job to help fight fires.

The splendor of Cairo's sabils probably reached its height with that of the illustrious Sultan Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qa'it Bay, who ruled from 1468 to 1496. Very large for a sabil, Qa'it Bay's stands alone, unattached to mosque, mausoleum or monastery. Thanks to a recent scrubbing by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, its exterior looks as fresh as the year it was built, in the late 15th century. And what an exterior! Qa'it Bay's architects must have been confident men: the sabil's extensive facade is made up of a profusion of different inlaid marble patterns - waves of water, triangles, squares, circles and stars - that yet work together in harmony. Though the sabil is waterless, its kutab is still in use, and every morning, in a different kind of harmony, children's voices float down over the noise of passing traffic.

The endowment of sabils remained a favorite philanthropic gesture until well into the 19th century. By Ottoman Turkish times, however, sabils were usually built as semicircular pavilions, and their decoration had passed from pure arabesque to something akin to Italian rococo. A fine example of this Ottoman Turkish style is the sabil of Umm Abbas, the mother of Kadawy Abbas, built as late as 1867 and also just recently cleaned. Until polluted air clouds it again, its gilded Ottoman calligraphy, set above each grill, literally glows in the late afternoon sunlight.

Toward the end of the last century, Cairo's need for sabils vanished almost overnight, when running water was piped into many individual homes. Even so, the Prophet's injunction to give water to the thirsty was not forgotten, and many households in old Cairo installed, as part of their new plumbing, small brass drinking spouts in their exterior street walls, where passersby could pause and quench their thirst.

Today, near a bus stop in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, a bank has installed outside its premises an iced-water cistern, with drinking glasses attached, to quench the thirst of Cairenes waiting for a bus. Unfortunately, though, commercial philanthropy does n extend to special flavors on feast days.

And, at the height of summer in modern Cairo, among the crowds flowing along the ancient Qasaba, you can still catch a glimpse of one or two members of the medieval guild of saqqas, still carrying their dripping water-skins. Goodness knows where they are going, or who buys their water these days. But no doubt they still deliver with a prayer on their lips, perhaps even uttering their ancient cry: "Wa ja'alna minal ma'y kulla shayin hay!" - "From water, all that lives!" - and, as always, expecting payment on delivery.

John Feeney, filmmaker, photographer and writer, has explored the old city of Cairo for much of the 25 years he has lived there. He acknowledges with gratitude permission to use information from the unpublished Ph.D. thesis of Sophie Ebeid, presented at the American University in Cairo in 1976.

This article appeared on pages 28-35 of the May/June 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1987 images.