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  • EQI and 4DHeritage

The Ateeq Mosque: A holistic approach to conservation

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

In the last blog we explored the importance of heritage stewardship and education in this era of Coronavirus, as well as the importance of innovation to ensure the most efficient and effective use of resources, which more than ever before need to be used imaginatively and frugally in order to sustain existing projects and invest in new ones. The conservation programme that is being carried out in the Siwa Oasis illustrates what can be done to respond to the holistic challenges of heritage stewardship and development, and one example from this programme is the restoration of the Ateeq mosque. It also illustrates many of the themes in the V&A's Culture in crisis webinar supported by DCMS and the British Council, held on the 6th August. Environmental Quality International (EQI) in collaboration with LSN's www.4dhertiage has developed an immersive experience which can be used with students of history, conservation, heritage studies and development. 

The Atteeq mosque case study

This case study will be available at the Earth Architecture Centre which will be launched on completion of the “Revival of the Shali Fortress in the Siwa Oasis” project funded by the EU. The centre will showcase mud building, how it has shaped society and how it can best be conserved. A library will include teaching material such as the immersive experience of the Ateeq mosque, documentation of its restoration, as well as a library and photographic archive on Siwa and the subject of mud architecture.

About the restoration of the Ateeq mosque

How might the Ateeq case study with its rich heritage  and progressive ideas for community based conservation be translated into a learning experience that might be relevant to school and university students; as well as conservation practitioners? 

The immersive experience of the Ateeq mosque shows how this might be done.

The picture below is an aerial view of the restored mosque.

To explore the mosque please click on the following link

The immersive experience

There are seven scenes within the experience illustrate the different perspectives of a holistic approach to heritage stewardship.

  1. Economic

The first scene shows the alley way that approaches the mosque which provides a space for stall holders to sell souvenirs and traditional Siwan handicrafts. These crafts are important because they represent both Siwan culture and tradition. Since they are linked to the use of local materials and preserve traditional knowledge they also are inherently sustainable.

For visitors to Siwa, these crafts provide a tangible element to the experience of the place and community, and enabling visitors to contribute to a broader economy. Examples include lamps made from salt rock “tissint”,carpets and baskets made from palm-fronds. The largest baskets are ‘tghara’ which are used for storing bread; smaller ones such as the “tarkamt” are used for serving sweets. Pottery is fired in the bread ovens to create cooking and storage pots and oil lamps.

2. Hospitality and sustainable tourism

At the end of the alley way is the Albabenshal Heritage Lodge located just outside the ruins of the 13th century citadel in the centre of Siwa. The Albabenshal lodge is seen by EQI as more than a hotel, but as a sustainable heritage lodge where visitors can feel immersed in the traditional designs and materials that have been developed and used in Siwa over the centuries. The architecture of the lodge is modelled after the original structures that once filled the great fortress. Its 14 Rooms and three levels connected through a network of alleyways and terraces give a sense of the original architecture and its restoration has ensured that traditional skills live on.

An even better example of vernacular architecture is the Adrère Amellal Ecolodge.

The buildings are all made with local materials: using “kershef” – a traditional mixture of sun-dried rock salt, clay and straw –  for the walls, with sandstone for the bath­rooms, palm trunks for ceilings, and palm fronds for chairs and hand-woven fabrics for coverings.

3. People and faith

Restoring the buildings and alleyways in parts of the citadel has also improved access to the mosque, enabling it to be used more safely by its community. These deep alleyways made from local material, “kershef”, are not only aesthetic, but also very practical in the high temperatures experienced in Siwa. The material provides insulation from the heat and the shaded paths and doorways provide cool places for people to meet.

4. People and faith - Inside the mosque

The Imam has been at this mosque for over 40 years. With his failing eyesight, the restoration of both access to the Mosque and the Mosque itself has meant that he has been able to safely continue his custodianship of the Mosque and continue to serve his community.

5. Topology of the oasis

The view from the minaret provides a magnificent view of the oasis, and the mountains and desert beyond it; a view that provides a geographical context. Siwa is an urban oasis in Egypt in the Western Desert, lying50 km (30 mi) east of the Libyan border. It is situatedbetween the Qattara Depression and the Great Sand Sea Desert which millions of years ago was actually beneath the sea. Evidence of this is seen in the fossils and coral like structures in the mountains. Siwa is the eastern most point in the Great Sand Sea.

This view also shows the challenges of encroachment, and the desire with modernizing living conditions as cost effectively as possible. From this view you can see new buildings composed of multiple stories as opposed to just two stories, and widespread use of bricks and concrete. 

The National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH) was set up in Egypt with the aim of applying aesthetic values to the exterior image of buildings, in urban areas and monumental spaces, cities and villages across Egypt. NOUH is of particular significance as far as Siwa is concerned because of the challenge the community faces in finding a balance between cheap building that can be quickly constructed to provide additional housing and cleaner living conditions, but at a cost to the aesthetics of the town, traditional skills and the cost to the environment.

6. Social impact of the restoration

Whereas the primary objective of this restoration project was protecting, safeguarding, and restoring one of Egypt’s richest surviving earth architectural heritage sites; it was always recognised that success would be dependent on an holistic approach to ensure the sustainable development of the oasis. This meant that within the timeframe of the project there needed to be clear socio-economic benefits and one of these was the development of a maternal and child health care (MCHC) clinic, directly linked to the conservation work.

Healthcare services in the oasis are limited and of a lower quality than elsewhere in Egypt. This impacts maternal and child health in particular, with the closest decent hospital located 300 km north of Siwa, in Marsa Matrouh city. Of the total population in Siwa (35000), it is estimated that there are around 5000 women in the reproductive age group. To address the unmet healthcare needs of this group, and to accelerate advances toward other desired social and economic outcomes of the project, the MCHC was established in the buffer zone of the ancient Shali Fortress. The MCHC will serve women and children, both often vulnerable and often marginalized groups.

The core of the MCHC consists of a health clinic that will provide a broad spectrum of community-based and facility-based preventative and curative healthcare services for women, infants and children. A local NGO has been identified to assume the operational responsibilities of the MCHC. The services delivery programme of the MCHC also includes a set of complementary educational, cultural, and recreational activities, to maximise the benefits derived from the transformative power of improved maternal and child health for families and communities.

The MCHC is built on a 250 m² plot directly adjacent to Al Moqqabil Mosque. This plot was deemed most appropriate by the community for this purpose. The establishment of the MCHC in the proposed location in the centre of Siwa makes it easier for women and children to benefit from its services. The MCHC’s location directly adjacent to Al Moqqabil Mosque, one of only two mosques in Siwa open to women, will make it even easier for women to access its services. Women who see the MCHC right in the heart of Shali, where the revival activities are taking place, will be encouraged to learn more about its activities, thereby increasing their chances to engage. Incorporating the MCHC as an integral part of the Shali upgrading activity emphasises that the women of Siwa are as worthy as men to benefit from the action, and that they are also regarded as equally important contributors to the community’s development. It enables the Shali Revival Initiative to tackle the tripartite challenge of maternal and child healthcare, family planning, and the engagement of women in development.

7. Water

Another key factor in socio-economic development is access to clean water and sanitation. This scene shows where the traditional well was accessed. Improved welfare requires much more clean water than has been traditionally available and with that become the challenges of sanitation and drainage. Drainage is clearly a real challenge in adobe sites, and the expertise developed by EQI may well be relevant to many other sites around the world.


Summary – a case study of holistic heritage stewardship

In conclusion, the outbreak of Coronavirus has put a further strain on the heritage sector. For heritage stewardship to be sustained at this time of crisis, it needs to work for all the stakeholders serving different aspects of the community illustrated in the Ateeq mosque immersive tour. 

What are the outcomes from a holistic approach to heritage stewardship that this case study illustrates? The restoration of the Ateeq mosque needs to be seen within the broader context of the Shali citadel project and the Sustainable Development Goals. These come together in  three strands:

  1. Preserving of Siwa’s unique architectural heritage in a way that brings it alive and directly benefits and engages the local community, preserving local knowledge and skills as well as creating jobs

  2. Ensuring that within the span of the project there are real improvements that can be seen,  the quality of life and work of the local community, such as improving the health of women and children. 

  3. Elevating Siwa’s position as an internationally acclaimed eco-tourism destination enriches the experiences of travellers visiting the site thereby bringing revenue and jobs to the community.

Bringing these strands together helps to ensure there are immediate tangible benefits to the community, encouraging local engagement and helping to ensure a sustained impact on the preservation and of Siwa’s tangible heritage.

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