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Wojouh: Bassem Zawdeh

One of the greatest assets of Greater Tripoli is its very own people. Whether in Tripoli or abroad, Greater Tripolitans have continued to excel and innovate. As a result, Tripolicy has decided to launch a series called Project Wojouh to shed light on some notable figures and rising stars.

Images of Taynal Mosque & Zawdeh's Islamic Design Analysis

Bassem Zawdeh has a BS in Architecture and is currently working on his MS in Restoration of Buildings and Historical Sites at the Lebanese University. He is an Islamic Art designer who engages in arabesque and calligraphy work. Bassem is in the process of authoring a book about Islamic art in Tripoli and documenting the many gems scattered around the city. He is also the founder of Lost in Tripoli.

Bassem spoke with Tripolicy's Raafat Yamak about his latest major work, and reflections on the future of Islamic art in Tripoli.

Raafat Yamak: Mr. Zawdeh, we appreciate your time and willingness to speak to Tripolicy and shed light on some of the work you have been doing.

Bassem Zawdeh: No problem, thank you for having me. I am very fond of the work Tripolicy is doing and appreciate the importance it has for Tripoli.

RY: Thank you. I wanted to start off by asking you about one of Tripoli's most recent historic highlight, namely the unveiling of the tilework of the Emir Seifeddine Taynal Mosque. Who spearheaded this project and can you tell our readers a little about it regarding how it all started?

BZ: Great. First, the primary recognition and praise needs to go to the Chief Engineer, Hazem Aysh, of the Islamic Awqaf who has always given Tripoli's historical artifacts special attention. His work in the city is of extreme value. I was chosen by Architect Aysh to be the team leader.

RY: Very interesting. How exactly did you two come to work on the Taynal Mosque project?

BZ: In 2018, the flooring of the Taynal Mosque was accidently revealed and multiple people witnessed the magnificence of the artistic design of the tiling. Word spread and it came to Mr. Aysh's attention that there are no architectural drawings of Taynal's flooring. As a result, after many months of back-and-forth, we finally got the approval from the Mosque's administration to remove all the carpet for 3-4 days so a team of architects and architectural students, led by Mr. Aysh and I, can draw the artistic flooring design of Taynal Mosque.

RY: As the team lead, you were responsible for assembling your team. How did you go about this process, and to what degree was the excitement of your team members' engagement in a project that has not been done by any architect, as of yet?

BZ: I picked out architects and architecture students who were delving or majoring in historical restoration. Having a passion for the city's history made the comradery and overall vibe between team members an amazing one. The excitement was extraordinary and we were all aware of the responsibility of undertaking such a project.

Surveying Team for the Momentous Taynal Mosque Tiling Design

RY: How were you able to divide the work for the momentous task of drawing an architectural schematic of Taynal's flooring?

BZ: Thanks to the work of Dr. Zakaria Kibrit and Architect AbdelRahman Zantout, who previously worked on Taynal’s plans, and with the help of volunteers from AZM university lead by Dr. Hala Abi Haidar, I was able to take on the task of transferring the physical drawings to AutoCAD and computerize all the sketches. We had some team members deal with Taynal's minbar and Dukka (the mini-balcony at the entrance of the Mosque), others with sectional and elevation drawings, window and door details, among other aspects. We actually went beyond just the flooring and had architectural surveying done on the roofing as well. Our team spent nearly four days working on this and making sure that we got all the necessary measurements.

RY: Honestly, the work you have done is phenomenal, and of huge value to the city.

BZ: Thank you. We received recognition from the Mufti of North Lebanon and the Syndicate of Architects and Engineers who offered a workshop for the team as an award for their hard work. Furthermore, Taynal's minbar is currently undergoing renovation by a team of Tripolitan specialists paid for by a generous funder who has chosen to remain unnamed. Keep in mind, this is one of the oldest minbars and one of two wooden minbars in all of Tripoli. The other one is in the Grand Mansouri Mosque.

RY: Amazing. It's also great to see native Tripolitans working on a Tripolitan landmark.

BZ: Absolutely. There are plenty of architects in Tripoli currently looking for job opportunities. This project created that space for interested architects to exercise their knowledge while contributing to the historical heritage of Tripoli. Remember, the Taynal Mosque is a unique Mamluki-era mosque. It is the only Mamluki complex with five uniquely designed domes. It is a masterpiece.

RY: Are there any other mosques or historical buildings that lack architectural drawings? It still astounds me how Taynal never had this kind of work done before!

BZ: Yeah, tell me about it. There is another project that Architect Hazem is planning to develop located in the Nabi Yushaa area. There is the Nabi Yushaa Mosque that also lacks architectural drawings of its interior. We plan on taking that initiative, God willing.

RY: Beautiful. Are there any other historical buildings in Tripoli with this kind of artistic flooring?

BZ: Yes, to my knowledge, the Qartawiya School (Mamluki-era) and Hammam Al-Jadeed (Ottoman-era). The Mamlukes were known with competing with each other on who can build the most artistic buildings from schools, to mosques, to hammams.

RY: Fascinating. I wanted to -

BZ: Real quick though, I forgot to mention to you a fascinating conclusion that our team reached after completing our Taynal drawings! After completion, the team noticed that the various segments of the mosque were not aligned. The mosque has three major sections. We noticed that the front quadrant of the mosque was built at a later stage. Besides the tiling analysis to back up our conclusions, we noticed that the front section does not align with the middle section in terms of its orientation. As someone heavily invested in Islamic art, symmetry is an absolute must so to have a degree of asymmetry is not by accident but a product of mosque expansion. This indicates that there were three distinct construction phases. Another supporting reason for this conclusion is the inclusion of Roman-era pillars that the Mamlukes salvaged from the Mina (Tripoli's port). When the pillars were installed, the old tiles were removed and placed in another area of the mosque indicating that the pillars came after the construction of the first section of the Taynal Mosque.

RY: I'm truly amazed by this incredible discovery and it truly shows the many hidden secrets the Taynal Mosque has. Amazing. I wanted to ask you a final question regarding your book, which is a work in progress. Can you briefly summarize the aim of your book?

BZ: Certainly. My book aims at saving the Islamic designs of hundreds of buildings all over Tripoli. I have managed to document and draw multiple designs on computer softwares. This is something that I feel like I must do in order to prevent the designs disappearing off the walls of Tripoli due to environmental-induced weathering. Keep in mind, if no one saves them, or sketches them, and they disappear, then that is a part of Tripoli that is gone forever.

RY: I know you don't enjoy too much praise, but you are truly one of the many heroes of the city. Thank you so much for all you do. It has been a pleasure conducting this interview with you and I truly hope that more Tripolitans learn to love and respect their history and the historical remnants left behind by our forefathers.

BZ: It has been an honor. Thank you and looking forward to continuing working with you and Tripolicy.

*Below is the architectural schematic of the Emir Seifeddine Taynal Mosque's flooring conducted by Mr. Hazem Aysh and Bassem Zawdeh's team.

Tiling Plan of Taynal Mosque

About the Author:

R. Mahmoud Yamak is a petroleum engineer currently residing in Houston, TX. He is a commentator on Arab and Middle Eastern affairs who has previously written for the Daily Sabah, The New Arab, Muftah Magazine, among others.

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