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Egypt honors India Bohras for preserving country's Fatimid mosques

The Dawoodi Bohra community, which originates in India, has been renovating and maintaining Egypt's Fatimid mosques since their arrival in the 1970s.
People visit the Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah Mosque in Cairo, February 27, 2023.

Egypt has always appreciated and praised the Dawoodi Bohra community for its efforts to renovate historic Fatimid mosques in the country. The two peoples have long enjoyed a strong relationship, dating back to the 1970s, when the first Bohras arrived and settled in Egypt. The Dawoodi Bohras originate from India and Pakistan, most of them concentrated in Gujarat state, in western India. A sect of the Ismaili Shiite branch of Islam, they claim direct descent from the Fatimids, who ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171.

On Aug. 8 in Cairo, Sultan Mufaddal Saifuddin, the Indian leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community, joined Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in inaugurating the historic mosque of Sayida Nafisa, Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, after restoration work funded by the community.

A day earlier, Sisi had honored the Bohra sultan with the Nile Sash, one of Egypt’s highest orders, in recognition of the Bohra’s community’s financial support of the restoration of the shrines of Ahl al-Bayt, the family of the Prophet Muhammad, and several Fatimid mosques in Cairo.

Restoration of the Sayida Nafisa mosque began during the COVID-19 pandemic. The exact amount the Bohras contributed to the renovation remains unclear.

The Bohras’ support of the Fatimid monuments in Egypt dates to the 1970s, during the presidency of Anwar al-Sadat (1970–1981), said Gamal Abdel Rahim, a professor of Islamic antiquities at Cairo University and who personally recalls the first Bohras' arrival.

“They came here to Egypt in 1974,” he told Al-Monitor. “I myself was an eyewitness. During that time, Egypt’s infrastructure was heavily damaged as a result of the successive wars waged at the time.” Egypt was involved in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973.

“We, Egyptians, don't have time or money to take care of restoring our own antiquities,” Abdel Rahim lamented. “Bohras came in 1974, a year after the [October 1973] war. They talked with President Sadat about their keenness to restore the Fatimid monuments in Cairo, which had been neglected due to the wars.”

He continued, “They started with Al-Hakim Mosque, which was the most devastated Fatimid monument at that time.”

Construction began on Al-Hakim in 990, under the Fatimid caliph Al-Aziz Billah, whose son, Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah completed the mosque in 1012. At 14,000 square meters, Al-Hakim is the second largest historical mosque in Egypt, with the Ibn Tulun Mosque, at 26,318 square meters, being the largest.

Al-Hakim Mosque stands at the end of Moez Street in Historic Cairo, a kilometer-long pedestrian street named after the fourth Fatimid caliph. The street houses many archaeological and Islamic sites from the Fatimid dynasty (969–1171 AD) and the Muhammad Ali dynasty (1805–1953). UNESCO added the street to its World Heritage List in 1979. 

“At the time [1974], Al-Hakim Mosque was in very dire condition. It was used through the centuries as a stable, a museum and an elementary school for the denizens of the area,” Abdel Rahim said.

“I witnessed the time when Bohras came in large numbers, working with their equipment in cleaning and restoring Al-Hakim Mosque,” he recalled. “They fixed the broken parts and cleaned the courtyard, all the while retaining its primary purpose and functionality as a mosque.”

Abdel Rahim added that Al-Hakim Mosque has undergone several modern renovations, including in the 1980s, at which time the work was carried out by Egyptians, but funded by Bohras. In February, it was publicly revealed that the Bohras had contributed 85 million Egyptian pounds ($2.75 million) to support another round of renovations launched in 2017.

On June 25, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveled to Cairo for the first official visit by an Indian premier in more than two decades. Having met with President Sisi, he also paid a visit to Al-Hakim Mosque, where a number of Bohras living in Egypt received him.

Indian media described Modi’s visit to the mosque as “significant.” The Times of India quoted Indian Ambassador to Cairo Ajit Gupte, as saying, “Prime Minister Modi has a very close attachment to the Bohra community, who have also been in Gujarat for many years, and it will be an occasion for him to again visit a very important religious site for the Bohra community.”

The newspaper also reported that Modi had long-standing ties with the Bohra community even before he became premier in 2014, as he had served as Gujarat's chief minister between 2001 and 2014.

According to the Indian embassy in Cairo, there about 600 Dawoodi Bohras live in Egypt.

Abdel Rahim, a member of the permanent committee for Islamic antiquities at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said that although the Fatimids originated in present-day Tunisia, Egypt has the lion’s share of Fatimid monuments.

“Fatimids ruled Egypt for about two centuries,” he said. “They built many mosques, gates, and walls — in addition to their contribution to the arts.”

Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo dedicates three halls to Fatimid arts, according to Abdel Rahim.

“Fatimids were not only clever in architecture, but also in arts, such as ceramics, metals, textile and wooden works,” he said. “We consider their art as some of the most beautiful in Egypt. They are an important part of Islamic Egyptian history.”

The Bohra's most recent contribution to Cairo was supporting the restoration of Al-Aqmar Mosque at a cost of 14 million Egyptian pounds ($453,080). Work began in October 2020, and the mosque was inaugurated last week.

Abu Bakr Abdullah, manager of the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish antiquities sector at the SCA, told Al-Monitor that the Fatimid caliph Al-Amer bi-Ahkam Allah established Al-Aqmar Mosque in 1125.

“It is regarded as one of the beautiful examples of Fatimid-era mosques and the oldest remaining small mosque, covering an area of only 500 square meters,” he said. One of the mosque's most distinguishing features is its facade, which is the oldest stone facade among the country's mosques.

According to Abdullah, Al-Aqmar underwent many renovations, including in 1396, by the Mamluk amir Yalbugha al-Salimi, when he added a minaret and a pulpit. In the 19th century, during the Ottoman era, it was restored by Sulayman Agha al-Silahdar, one of Muhammad Ali Pasha's princes.

Al-Aqmar underwent another Bohras-funded restoration in the 1990s under the supervision of the Egyptian government. Abdullah noted that the Bohra community cooperates with the SCA to renovate Fatimid buildings registered with the council, which number 29 across Egypt.

The Bohra community works with the Endowments Ministry on buildings that are not registered as antiquities with the SCA. These include the Ahl al-Bayt mosques, among them the Al Hussein Mosque, which was inaugurated by Sisi and Sultan Saifuddin in April last year. Al-Huseein was a grandson of Prophet Muhammad.

Bohras are currently working to renovate the Mosque of Sayeda Zeinab, which will be completed next year.

“They not only fund the places but are also responsible for its maintenance,” Abdullah said.

In addition to the Bohras' work having the immediate effect of preserving historical buildings, Abdullah thinks their renovation work on the Fatimid monuments will greatly increase religious tourism to Egypt.

Al-Monitor tried to contact representatives from the media-shy Bohra community, but to no avail.

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