I find certain art forms — Annunciations for instance — intrinsically pleasing. I like the stillness, the balance between Mary and the Angel, even the subject. This is how Mary found out she was pregnant… no symptoms, no peeing on a stick. She got an Angel announcing to her that she was going to give birth to the Son of God.
In Islamic art and architecture, a favorite form is the sabil-kuttab. In the Islamic world of the Middle Ages, wealthy patrons would endow religious establishments — mosques, madrasas (law schools), hospitals as charitable acts, fulfilling their obligation under Islam, and helping pave their way to heaven. A smaller building, perhaps more affordable than a mosque, was the sabil-kuttab, a dual-functional building which embodies the two great mercies, according to the Prophet Mohamed — water to the thirsty and knowledge to the ignorant. A sabil-kuttab is usually a two-storied edifice, the ground floor serving as a water fountain with the upper level providing a Quranic school for boys.
In Cairo’s medieval city, along Sharia Mu’ezz li-din Allah which runs the length of the Fatimid city from Bab Al-Futuh to Bab Zuwayla, there are a number of these wonderful buildings. Last week we took a walking tour of this area with Tarek Swelim, a superb lecturer to see the newly renovated buildings. As we stood outside the complex of Sultan Qalaoun, we could see number sabil-kuttabs which I will eventually chronicle here. The most impressive, standing at a fork in the road is the Sabil-Kuttab of ‘Abd al Rahman Katkhuda, a building of 1744 AD which expresses both Mamluk and Ottoman vocabularies.