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650-Year-Old Cairo Mosque Restored

Developers unveiled the restoration of a 650-year-old mosque in Cairo's old city, part of an effort to revitalize the impoverished district and boost tourism to the country's treasure trove of Islamic sites.

The three-year, $1.4 million project restored the Aslam al-Silahdar Mosque, built in 1344-1345 by Aslam al-Bahai, an amir or nobleman who rose to the position of "silahdar," or "swordbearer" for Sultan al-Nasir Mohammed, one of the most powerful of Egypt's Mamluk rulers.

It is tucked into Cairo's al-Darb al-Ahmar district, a dense warren of narrow, dusty alleyways. Many of its 92,000 inhabitants are among the poorest in Egypt, living on less than $1 a day, according to the Canadian Development Agency, which works in the community.

The neighborhood is also packed with antiquities — an Islamic monument about every 20 yards, ranging from Cairo's early days in the 11th century to more modern times.

The area is "comparable to Rome" in terms of monuments, said Luis Monreal, the general manager of the Agha Khan Trust for Culture, an agency of the Agha Khan Development Network, which directed the renovation of the Aslam Mosque, unveiled on Wednesday.

A handful of American donors contributed to the conservation efforts, including the American Research Center in Egypt with a grant from USAID, and the U.S. Ambassador Fund.

The Aslam Mosque was redone from floor to ceiling. Hanging lamps illuminate Islamic-style archways and smooth stone floors. On the exterior, elegant green and black Arabic calligraphy scrolls around the base of the mosque's prominent dome. A square adjoining the mosque was also renovated.

Many of the mosques, mausoleums and Islamic schools in the district are dilapidated and crumbling after decades of neglect. Until recently, the Egyptian government also did little to encourage tourism to the area, and most foreign visitors ignored the area in favor of pharaonic sites such as the Giza Pyramids.

Dina Bakhoum, conservation programs manager for AKTC's Egypt branch, said al-Darb al-Ahmar has "great potential to become one of Cairo's major attractions."

The agency — funded by the Agha Khan, hereditary leader of the Nizari branch of Shiite Islam — is carrying out a wider urban renewal project in al-Darb al-Ahmar. In recent years, the Egyptian government also has carried out extensive renovations on mosques and sought to increase the amount of tourism to Islamic sites.