Ask The Expert – May Al-Ibrashy

Ask The Expert – May Al-Ibrashy

01 June 2021

by May Al-Ibrashy

Conservation Architect

The complex of Qasim al-Tayyib and Yahya al-Shabih in Qarafah is large and of considerable historic, religious, and architectural value. It also contains the graves of Amina bint Musa al-Khadim and Zaynab al-Jawhara, the niece and maid of Sayyida Nafisah, although some accounts seem to wrongly place the latter’s grave down the alleyway to the left of Sayyida Nafisah’s. These graves, especially the those of Amina and Zaynab, are almost lost with few knowing about them, while being difficult to find for those wishing to find them. One could argue that this is now the most significant complex still in a state of utter neglect. Are there any plans to work on this or at least draw people’s attention to it. People visit the better marked and better kept Umm Khulthum, but neglect her father, Qasim al-Tayyib, yet would probably like to visit it if they knew — especially as it’s just a handful of steps away! Also, your PhD thesis is a gem and required reading and guidebook for the maqams of Qarafah.

I agree with you that the cluster of Fatimid Mashahid south of al-Imam al-Layth in the southern cemetery of al-Qarafa are in dire need of conservation. Abu’l-Qasim al-Tayyib is in a relatively better condition than Yahya al-Shabih which is at risk of collapse. It seems to suffer from severe differential settlement that has led to movement and cracks in the floors, walls, vaults and domes. Unfortunately, I do not know of any plans to conserve the building, although we, at Athar Lina (, have been considering commissioning a structural study and working on a preliminary documentation of the problem. This is particularly urgent because we are not sure what the effect of the new overpass that has been built immediately south will be. We are also concerned about the heightened rate of groundwater rise in the cemetery, possibly due to the work that has been done recently around Ayn al-Sira Lake in the west and the continued construction of multi-storey residential buildings in the east, north and south, both sources of groundwater. We are currently looking for funding for this study, and in the meantime, raising awareness of these monuments and other hidden gems in al-Qarafa through the website we set up last year to promote the heritage of al-Khalifa ( And thank you for your kind words about my dissertation. It is always gratifying to know someone has found it useful!


How do you choose the projects you work on? what do you find is the best way to ensure community buy in?

Our work in Historic Cairo is within the framework of Athar Lina (, an initiative based in the district of al-Khalifa that conceives of heritage as a driver for development. We work in an integrated participatory manner to transform heritage sites into catalysts for positive change in their neighbourhoods. When we started in al-Khalifa Street area, we chose Shajar al-Durr Mausoleum as our first project based on the recommendations of a 6-month participatory research workshop that included stakeholders from the community, the government and professional circles. Shajar al-Durr was partially chosen because right next to it was an abandoned community centre that in the course of the conservation project we could gain access to and rehabilitate. This community centre became the base of much of the community work we do in the neighbourhood. We also choose buildings that require urgent intervention, as was the case with Ruqayya, Ja’fari and ‘Atika domes which required urgent structural consolidation to mitigate the effect of a large construction project next to them. In other cases, we may strategically decide to conserve a building as a first step – a calling card if you will- to starting work in a new neighbourhood. This was the case in al-Imam al-Shafi’i Conservation Project in al-Qarafa Cemetery and al-Shurafa Mausoleum in al-Hattaba. Of course, it goes without saying that all these buildings needed urgent conservation. We also ground these decisions within a wider strategy based on needs-assessment and strategic plans for our work. The conservation projects complement the other work we do on heritage education, heritage industries and urban regeneration. For example, we recently published our management and conservation plan for al-Khalifa Street Area and our regeneration plan for al-Hattaba,  is currently under consideration by the Egyptian Government for implementation. The community buys into our work because many of them are involved in the decision-making process from the start and they see results on the ground that impact them and their families.