Sabils in Islamic Egypt


Public water fountains, or Sabils, established the tradition for social services

The function of the Sabil lies in offering fresh water to passers-by and thirsty animals. Its construction was encouraged by Islam as a form of public service. Therefore, most rulers were insistent on having a Sabil built, bearing their name. The construction of a Sabil then led the way to the construction of many other projects that provided a steady income.

Sabil in Mohamed Ali Mosque, Salaheddin Citadel

Egyptian architects introduced a different and special use of Sabils. The Sabil took on an educational function, where schools were constructed above the Sabil and served as a kuttab, an Islamic school for general education in reading, writing and memorisation of the Quran. This tradition continued from the times of the Mamluk Dynasty, and this makes the Egyptian Sabil unique in comparison to the Sabils built in most other Islamic cities.

Ceilings feature golden-coloured engravings

The Sabil is comprised of two storeys with the first consisting of an engraved well built in the floor that holds either rainwater or water from the River Nile. It is covered with a ceiling made of granite. The second floor is elevated from the ground floor and referred to as the Sabil room, which is used to distribute the water by extracting and then transporting it from the well, which is then replenished by means of channels that flow underneath the granite. A wooden pail tied to a rope would then be lowered into the well to extract the water.

Coloured marble is used to decorate sabils

The walls of the rooms are decorated in coloured marble and the ceilings, made of wood, feature golden-coloured engravings. In front of each window there are shelves made of marble or other materials that are used to hold cups of bronze. Fountains, featuring motifs of plants and animals, carry the water which flows over these images into basins made of granite and alabaster.