Egyptian architect, academic and Barakat Trust Fellow, Omniya Abdel Barr, has been shortlisted for Tamayouz’s Women in Architecture and Construction Award’s Rising Star category. Here she discusses the importance of Egypt’s Mamluk architecture and how she’s documenting Cairo’s cultural heritage.
Q&A with Omniya Abdel Barr
Egyptian academic and researcher Omniya Abdel Barr has long contributed to spreading awareness about Egypt’s cultural heritage. Here she shares insight on her efforts to stop the looting and auctioning of valuable heritage pieces and why design inspired by Mamluk architecture can be applied today.
What sparked your passion and interest in Egypt’s cultural heritage and Mamluk architecture?
Growing up, my father used to take me to museums and archaeological sites. These very early visits sparked my interest in history, and I started reading every book I could find on Egypt’s past. I was impressed with the massive scale of the ancient temples in Upper Egypt and I was particularly fond of the spiral minaret of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo. At first, I wanted to become an archaeologist, but I also enjoyed drawing, so when it was time to choose a topic to study, I picked architecture.
My passion for history drew me back to the past and I went to study conservation. After all, being an architect is not just about creating something new; it is also about understanding and protecting Egypt’s architectural heritage.
When I was preparing my master’s thesis, I was introduced to a hidden gem in Cairo – a small Mamluk mosque built by one of the amirs of Sultan Qaytbay. This was my first encounter with Mamluk architecture, and I was immediately captivated. I spent months surveying and drawing this monument. Every single detail sketched was an excitement.
Afterwards, I was lucky to be invited to join the conservation team of the restoration project of Bayt al-Razzaz, one of the few courtyard houses that has survived in Historic Cairo from the late Mamluk period.
My daily encounter with the medieval city was an enriching experience. I started visiting more Mamluk monuments and seeing the city from another dimension – the living one. I felt the strength of this architecture: simple yet very complex, strong and balanced yet very dynamic and subtle. Working on it has been a passion ever since.
Why do you think it’s important to preserve this heritage and spread awareness of it?
Since the 2011 uprising, looting has been pandemic in Egypt. It has affected Ancient Egyptian, Coptic, Islamic and contemporary sites altogether. Museums were damaged and the rate of illegal digs and constructions has been on the rise, threatening the integrity and survival of historic sites. In a country like Egypt, that has a long and rich history, the focus is mainly directed to the ancient heritage, but the increasing risks and destruction affect all of Egypt’s heritage.
The medieval city of Cairo with its multi-layered urban fabric and hundreds of listed monuments is as important as the Pyramids of Giza. Its singularity and distinctive identity derive from the ambitious building projects undertaken by the Mamluks. Indeed, their reign ended centuries ago, but their mark on the city’s architecture is still very present.
Today, the medieval city is at risk. Even though it was listed as a world heritage site 40 years ago, no clear vision or management strategies have been implemented. The city is neglected, its monuments are vulnerable, and its urban fabric is disfigured and destroyed. I try to act in whichever capacities I am given, as I fear that we are losing Cairo’s architectural heritage at a very high rate.
Raising awareness is vital to shed more light on the alarming state that has been reached and create a clear understanding of its importance for both decision-makers and the communities holding it together.
Tell us about your recent work as a Barakat Trust Fellow.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London acquired 3,747 photographs from K.A.C Creswell that date back to the 1920s and 30s, which showcase Islamic architecture in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Tunisia and Turkey. I am currently cataloguing the collection, which is available online and searchable in Arabic and English.
Since November 2018 and with support from the Barakat Trust, I have widened the scope and created the ‘Digitising the K.A.C Creswell International Collections’ to enhance access to Creswell archives in four other international collections: the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Fine Arts Library at Harvard University, The Berenson Library at the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence and the Rare Books Library at the American University in Cairo. We are investigating the possible creation of a searchable, digital resource of Creswell’s entire work to allow a complete collection to be available online, enabling more extensive use of this material, as his work remains very important and indispensable for anyone working in the field of Islamic architecture.
I am also trying to get necessary permissions to digitise his monumental multi-volumes works ‘Early Muslim Architecture’ and ‘Muslim Architecture of Egypt’, along with other surviving original unpublished architectural drawings. In addition, I am combining this documentation with important new research on his library and other personal material present in the archives in preparation for a publication.
You’ve also protected Egyptian art from being auctioned and looted – can you explain how you got involved in this effort, and how you managed to succeed?Since 2012, I started documenting missing architectural elements from Historic Cairo’s monuments, such as mosque lamps, wooden fragments from doors and minbars, ceramic tiles or bronze plaques and door knockers. Clearly there was a demand on the art market, and in 2015, five Mamluk mosque lamps appeared at the shops of art dealers in London and the UAE.
I was contacted through our circle of professionals in Islamic art, and after checking the catalogue of the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, we realised that three of these pieces were listed as part of the collection. So I informed the Ministry of Antiquities and shared the photographs with them. They concluded that the mosque lamps were probably stolen during a transfer in 2007 to another museum. The art dealers were contacted, the sale was stopped, and the mosque lamps were repatriated to Egypt.
Then, last spring, I noticed seven fragments from a Mamluk minbar at an auction house in Paris. I wrote to the auction house and informed them that they originate from a minbar looted in 2008. They replied that they were acquired in 2011 from Bonhams. So, I contacted the Ministry of Antiquities, who informed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Egyptian ambassador in Paris asked the auction house to withdraw the fragments from the sale.
There are two big sales of Islamic art every year in April and in October. I browse the catalogues and when I feel that something is suspicious, I research. It is important to provide accurate information and images to be able to stop a sale. Therefore, documenting our heritage with accurate drawings and high-resolution photographs is necessary. My role is to highlight a theft, provide the needed research and inform the authorities. Then, the repatriation is carried out by the Egyptian State.
What are you hoping to achieve through your research?
I try to build awareness on Egypt’s heritage within and beyond the country’s borders and I hope that my research shows that Egyptian cultural heritage is not just about Ancient Egypt – other phases of our history, which are less known and less visible, are equally important.
I am also particularly interested in bringing about a modern image in design that is rooted in heritage. My research on Mamluk architecture has revealed a wealth of ideas and creative designs that can be readapted and acquired in modern times, and I am currently looking for architectural and product design projects in which such ideas can be implemented.
I started a new addition to my work with the ‘Rescuing the Mamluk Minbars of Cairo’, which focusses on working closely with neighbouring communities and raising awareness, as well as collaborating with craftsmen, designers, architects and more to inspire their work using the Mamluk minbars’ heritage.
It is exciting to link this cultural heritage with new quality designs. This revives the love for Egyptian Mamluk art and architecture and creates new lines of products in the market that can develop new design trends. I also focus a lot of my work on documentation, which makes it possible to stop the looting and further auctioning of valuable heritage pieces, which further supports my life mission of cultural preservation.
What do you hope others gain from your work?
I hope that my work shows the urgent need to support and encourage the civil society involved with cultural heritage in Egypt and the region. Through the projects I set up and develop, I try to reach local communities as I strongly believe they play a vital role in rescuing and preserving heritage. We provide jobs and transfer knowledge, and this creates a sense of pride and ownership which reflects on the successes and sustainability of our projects. I also hope our projects create a generation of young professionals in architecture and conservation capable of documenting their heritage, restoring it and bringing it back to life.
I often work with different professionals who have not focused on heritage previously and/or are integrating heritage within their work without enough knowledge. I work with them on capacity building, skills development and heritage inspirations, as well as to create a body of knowledge that interests them and speaks their language. This regenerates a whole new line of thought in all sorts of different designs, not just in architecture but also in fashion, home accessories, jewellery and more.
Through my work and experience it has been proven that the impact on the community and on preservation was higher, when old and modern designs have been integrated. This opens new lines of businesses and creates new market demands
What can we expect from your work in the next few years?
Lately I have been exploring Egypt’s traditional crafts, such as the ones related to architectural conservation as well as other crafts, such as carpets, jewellery and tent making. Most of these crafts are struggling and the craftsmen are challenged to sustain quality and production. When I travel, I search for local crafts and their workshops as I am trying to understand how others are preserving their traditional know-how and transferring it to future generations.
Egypt has been a land of experiments and innovations, and today, the wealth of this knowledge is slipping away, so I hope I can play a role in preserving some of this traditional know-how. One example is traditional woodwork, which I’m concentrating on, and the making of enamelled glass – a lost craft in Egypt.
I am also exploring the idea of creating a residencies programme dedicated to traditional crafts in Historic Cairo. My dream is to provide a space for designers and craftsmen to network and collaborate on projects connected to Cairo’s heritage while linking their work to local and international markets. I am also keen to keep documenting Mamluk architecture in Cairo. After the minbars, I am planning to work on doors, and restore three monumental bronze doors which were heavily looted in the past few years.
In addition, I have three books in the pipeline. The first is due out next year and is on the Mamluk minbars of Cairo. The second is the biography of K.A.C Creswell, which I am co-authoring with the Curator of Photography at AUC. Then, in parallel, I will be working on my delayed third book which, is my PhD research on construction sites in the Mamluk sultanate.
Our Meet the Finalists series is a compilation of interviews with those who have been shortlisted for our awards. Omniya Abdel Barr is a finalist for Tamayouz’s award for women in architecture and construction, which awards female architects from the Middle East and North Africa.