The Jewish architect who saved Cairo’s Islamic buildings

The secret history of the Jewish man who labored to save the cultural heritage of Cairo.

The façade of Al-Aqmar Mosque, built in 1125, after renovation by Herz (photo credit: GUNDULA MADELEINE TEGTMEYER)
The façade of Al-Aqmar Mosque, built in 1125, after renovation by Herz
Cairo IS a treasure house of Islamic architecture.
Egypt’s capital contains the greatest, most concentrated and varied collection of mosques and monuments in the Islamic world. In the late 19th century, many were doomed, but thanks to the dedicated commitment and creative effort of a Jewish man named Max Herz Pasha, a gifted architect and conservator, many significant Islamic architectural gems were renovated and preserved.
Who was this remarkable man who rescued hundreds of Islamic buildings in Cairo and Egypt? Herz was a Hungarian architect who came to Egypt in 1880 and stayed until 1914.
Herz’s start in life wasn’t easy. He was born on May 19, 1856 as Herz Miksa in Ottlaka, Habsburg Empire (today Graniceri, Romania) into a Jewish family of limited means. His father made a living from agriculture, and the family was constantly short of money.
Herz was determined not to step into his father´s shoes but to follow his true passion: architecture. After finishing his primary and secondary schooling in Temesvár, he studied architecture, first in Budapest under Alajos Hauszman, and then under Carl König and Heinrich von Ferstel in Vienna, who played a vital role in building late 19th century Vienna.
After completing his studies, a wealthy family invited Herz in 1880 to accompany them on a long journey through Italy to Egypt. This journey marked a turning point in his life.
Once in Cairo, he was fascinated, wandering for hours in the lively metropolis, getting to know its people and exploring the rich heritage of Islamic monuments throughout the history of the different ruling Arab dynasties.
Inspired but also worried about the partially deteriorated state of many architectural jewels, Herz began studying Islamic periods in Cairo and their architecturally significant features.
By fluke, he made the acquaintance of Julius Franz, later Franz Pasha (1831-1915), chief architect of the Egyptian viceroy and responsible for the technical section of the Waqf (Ministry of Religious Endowment).
Completely unexpectedly, Franz offered Herz a job, which he immediately accepted, and, in 1881, he joined the Technical Bureau of the Waqf, which marked the beginning of his new career.
Six years later, in 1887, Herz inherited the seat of the retiring Franz Pasha, eventually becoming known as Max Herz Pasha. In 1890, he was made the primary architect of the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l`Art Arabe, founded by Khedive Tawfiq.
As soon as he assumed the office of chief architect, a post which was expressly created for him, he directed the restoration and conservation of monuments of Arab-Islamic and Coptic architecture all over Egypt, primarily in Cairo, for about 25 years (from 1890 until the end of 1914).
During this time, Herz sucessfully reconstructed and saved a great number of Islamic monuments and buildings, drawing on a profound and comprehensive knowledge of the history of Arab-Islamic periods and dynasties and their significant architectural features. The following is a short history of what he learned.
Al-Azhar mosque, founded by the Fatimid conqueror Gwahar al-Siqilli in 970. Herz opened the walled-up arcades encircling the courtyard Credit: GUNDULA MADELEINE TEGTMEYER Al-Azhar mosque, founded by the Fatimid conqueror Gwahar al-Siqilli in 970. Herz opened the walled-up arcades encircling the courtyard Credit: GUNDULA MADELEINE TEGTMEYER
BY THE time the Mamluks rose to power in Egypt in 1250, their predecessors had already changed the city of Cairo in major ways. During the Fatimid period (969- 1171), the city had been divided between the princely al-Qahira, residence of the Fatimid elite, the founders of Al-Azhar mosque, and the overpopulated Fustat, where the commoners lived. In building a new imperial capital, the Fatimids continued a long-established tradition: ever since the Muslims conquered Egypt in 641, every successive Islamic dynasty had dissociated itself from the previous capital Fustat (meaning tent in Arabic), the first Muslim capital, was founded in 641 when Egypt fell under Muslim rule under the leadership of Amr Ibn al-As, and the city grew around the mosque he constructed. It remained the capital during the Umayyad caliphate (under Damascus) until 750, when the Abbassid governor (from Baghdad) Salih Ibn Ali founded the city of Al-Askar (meaning the camp in Arabic, because the soldiers first had their quarters there, to its northeast).
A third city, al-Qatai (meaning the fiefs in Arabic) was founded by Ahmad Ibn Tulun in 870, after he won independence from the Abbassids. Once again, Fustat was set apart from its predecessors, which as a group came to be referred to by the name Misr, meaning Egypt.
THE 10TH century witnessed a shift of power in the Islamic world. The Abbassid caliphate of Sunni tradition was declining in Baghdad. In the West, a young and dynamic dynasty of Shi’ite rite was rising, the Fatimids of Kairuan in Tunisia.
On August, 5, 969, the Fatimid army, under the command of General Gohar, entered Fustat. After a prayer in the name of the Shi’ite caliph, Al-Muizz, the construction of a new capital, Al-Qahira, as Cairo was called in Arabic, began immediately.
The Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, who visited Egypt in 1170, estimated that there were about 7,000 Jews in Mizraim (Egypt) at the time and described them in his travel log as very rich. In fact, the Jews of Fustat unquestionably experienced their most prosperous period in Egypt under Fatimid rule.
In the following years, Cairo underwent major alterations that disrupted its spatial structure, the most significant of which took place during the Ayyubid period (1171- 1250). Salah ad-Din (better known as Saladin) initiated the building of the Citadel, the town’s landmark, and called for a defense system for the fragmented city as well as the establishment of a base for the orthodox Sunni revival.
Under the Ayyubids (Saladin’s dynasty), Cairo expanded beyond the limits of its walls. By the middle of the 13th century, when the Mamluks rose to power, the city had been claimed by the public and institutions that served them.
Cairo became a political, commercial and intellectual capital, described by Ibn Khaldun, the great Arab historian, as “the metropolis of the universe, the garden of the world.”
Under Mamluk rule, Cairo became a melting pot of people, ruled by military lords who were former slaves.
The building of the complex of Sultan Al-Mansur Qalawun, located in the heart of the Fatimid city along Al-Muizz Street, constitutes a turning point in the development of Mamluk architecture. Since it embodies many of the urban spatial notions that were later to become typical of Mamluk Cairene architecture, the Qalawun complex established a precedent for the buildings that followed.
Almost nothing of the original bimaristan (meaning hospital in Persian) remains as documented by Pascal Coste between 1813 and 1825. Reconstructed under Herz’s supervision, the building had a cross-axial, four-iwan (rectangular) shape organized around an open courtyard.
Herz strived to stay loyal to the design elements of the original architect, Husayn Fahmi, but since the blueprints did not exist, Herz had to rely on his own expertise and creativity. The reconstruction and eventual completion of the royal mosque Al-Rifai represented a great personal and professional success for Herz.
As a holder of the honorary title of a bey (lord) in 1912, Herz became entitled to be called pasha, often referred to as “Your Excellency” in modern Egyptian, closer to the word “sir” in English.
Herz practiced “stylistic purity,” which meant that the architectural elements of a given period were well known due to the existence of numerous structures from that time, and therefore, the analogical reconstruction of structures whose original shape was unknown was seen as permissible.
Examples of this approach are the fountain at Sultan Al-Barquq mosque and Al-Rifai mosque. Herz designed the minaret and the dome.
Herz was regarded as the foremost authority on “neo-Mamluk style,” an architectural expression of burgeoning nationalism, although he had not personally invented “the Arab style” in which he erected the Villa Zogheb.
The tobacco manufacturer Nestor Gianaclis decided to remodel his stately home in the neo-Mamluk style and entrusted the task to Herz in 1898. The palace was acquired by the newly founded American University in Cairo in 1919 and still stands as one of the university’s central buildings in Tahrir Square.
Another significant contribution of Herz was the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. In 1893, Egypt participated in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Herz also designed the famous “Cairo Street.”
In 1895, Herz married an Italian woman named Lina Colorni. The couple had a son, who died suddenly at the age of 17, and three daughters.
Herz called Egypt his second home but maintained close connections with Hungary and Hungarian institutions throughout his life. He visited his native country several times and kept his Hungarian citizenship until his death.
He published articles in Hungarian journals, and one of his major written works – a history of Islamic art – was printed in Hungarian. Franz Joseph, the emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, presented two honorary orders to Herz in recognition of his excellent work, and in 1912 the Hungarian government began procedures to declare him a Hungarian nobleman – a process that was halted by World War I.
Following the outbreak of the war, Egypt – officially an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire, but under British military occupation since 1882 – declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in August 1914. Herz was given a choice: either to forfeit his Hungarian citizenship or leave Eygypt.
An ardent Hungarian patriot, Herz chose the latter and left Egypt with a heavy heart.
He left all his possessions and friends behind and moved with his family to his wife’s relatives in Milan, Italy.
In order to receive his pension, Herz had to stay in a neutral country. Consequently, he moved to Zurich, Switzerland, after Italy declared war on its ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (aka the Dual Monarchy) in May 1915.
Herz never recovered from the sudden death of his son in 1914. An optimist throughout his life, his son’s death sent him into a deep depression, and he contracted a gastric illness.
Herz died on the operating table on May 5, 1919, in Zurich. He was buried, at his own request, in a grave he had designed for his beloved son in a Milan cemetery known as Cimitero Monumentale. His wife, who died in 1949, was laid to rest beside them.
Hundreds of reconstructed and preserved Islamic mouments in Cairo and across Egypt are enduring stony witnesses of Herz’s genius and dedication to saving architectural jewels for future generations.