From the late ninth century well into the 15th, mosques built as prestige projects were the most spectacular buildings in Cairo. Locals, pilgrims on their way to Makkah and even Christian pilgrims were all entranced when visiting the great Cairo mosques.
Mosque of Ibn Tulun with its 220 piers of fired brick brace arches in two courses around three of the mosques interior walls.
The mosque also demonstrates one of the first comprehensive applications of the pointed arch, some 250 years before its use became common in Europe.
Entering through immensely tall bronze doors, many inlaid with silver and gold, visitors passed into silent, imposing courtyards, then entered darkened sanctuaries lit by dozens of softly glowing glass lamps. Suspended from high ceilings on chains invisible in the darkness, the enameled and gilded lamps would have appeared to float in space, providing a soft, even light conducive to prayer, meditation and awe.
Whether luxurious or humble, all of Cairo’s medieval mosques served as places of meeting and of worship. But some did more. In the early Islamic city, a congregational mosque, ormasjid jami‘, endowed by its founders and well-kept by a staff of sextons, was designed to accommodate all the local inhabitants for Friday prayers. Open to all, this large building also became the locus of public education, and here all the sciences of the day were taught. The congregational mosque also played an important social role, for it sheltered the homeless and served as a meeting place for the discussion of matters affecting the community.
Ibn Tulun was the first ruler in the Islamic era to give back to Egypt a sense of its past importance.
In Egypt, the first congregational mosque was built about AD 641 by the conqueror ‘Amr ibn al-‘As in his new town of Fustat, now at the southern end of modern Cairo. The second is today the earliest mosque still standing; it was finished in 879 by Ahmad ibn Tulun for the palace-city of al-Qata’i‘.
Originally from the Central Asian caravan entrepôt of Bukhara, Ahmad ibn Tulun’s father rose in the service of the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. Ibn Tulun was educated in Tarsus, in Anatolia, and then appointed in 868 by the caliph to govern his Egyptian domains. Two years later this ambitious young man set himself up as an independent ruler intent on rivaling the regional power of his former Abbasid master.
In doing so, Ibn Tulun was the first ruler of the Islamic era to give Egypt a sense of its past importance. Just beyond the old capital of Fustat, al-Qata’i‘ became renowned as one of the wonders of the age. Set amid splendid gardens were palaces, barracks, a hospital, a huge maydan(public square)—where Ibn Tulun and his men played polo—and the mosque, of unprecedented proportions. To finance his grand project, it is said Ibn Tulun used wealth from a sudden discovery of treasure—probably a cache of Pharaonic gold.
Set on a rocky spur, the mosque was built of fired brick and modeled on the great mosques Ibn Tulun had known in the caliph’s palace-city of Samarra, now in Iraq. A person coming to pray across the rock-strewn desert from nearby Fustat entered through two enormous parallel outer walls. The space between them is called the ziada, and was designed to keep out the heat, dust and noise of the profane exterior world. Here the teaching of theology, medicine, astrology and grammar took place. This was also where ablutions were performed before entering into the mosque proper to pray. Set into the walls were 128 finely carved, stucco-grilled windows, which filtered the sunlight through delicate tracery.
Once inside, the visitor was shaded in long aisles formed by a forest of 220 gigantic brick piers topped by pointed, slightly horseshoe-shaped arches, all decorated in the style of Samarra. (Two hundred years hence, such arches would appear for the first time in Europe’s Gothic cathedrals and, later, in the Arab structures of Andalusia.)
Of all the types of monumental public architecture, the sabil, or fountain, was often the most modest in size.
Beyond the courtyard, attached to the inner of the courtyard’s double walls, was a minaret with a spiral staircase on the outside—again in imitation of Samarra.
Over the centuries, additions and restorations by others bore witness to the importance of Ibn Tulun’s mosque. The Fatimids added a magnificent commemorative stele with boldly floral Kufic inscriptions. The Mamluks redecorated the interior of the mihrab, or prayer niche, and the mimbar(pulpit) they added is thought by many to be the most beautiful in the city. They reconstructed the minaret, and they rebuilt in stone the wooden central fountain that had been destroyed by fire at the end of Ibn Tulun’s rule.
Ibn Tulun’s dynasty collapsed in AD 886, and al-Qata’i‘ was razed. All that remained was the mosque. Over the next 1100 years, it withstood fire, flood and earthquake, and it is now surrounded by the city named by Ibn Tulun’s successors al-Qahira, “the vanquisher”—Cairo.
The first mosque built by the Fatimids in al-Qahira was al-Azhar, “the most resplendent” or “the most blooming,” founded in AD 972. It quickly took precedence over all other mosques, and for more than a thousand years, students have gathered around its columns seeking knowledge from famous scholars, making it one of the oldest universities in the world.
The Al-Aqmar mosque, with its intricately carved entrance, was built in 1125 as a private worship space for the caliph and his entourage. Opposite The high architectural styles developed in Cairo under Mamluk rule endured beyond the dynasty's fall in the early 16th century: As late as 1744, the prolific architectural patron 'Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda used signature Mamluk black-and- white stone ablaq patterns in this public fountain, or sabil.
With their conquest of Egypt, the Fatimids also claimed the Islamic caliphate, and other large mosques were built: That of al-Hakim, outside the walls of al-Qahira, was nearly as large as Ibn Tulun’s, and the stylistic resemblance can be seen. In addition to these feats of grandeur, smaller, exquisitely built prayer places were springing up everywhere, such as the mosque of al-Aqmar, whose name means “moon-lit.” It was intended as a palace chapel for the private use of the caliph and his entourage, and as a culminating point for grand Fatimid processions.
Following the fall of the Fatimid dynasty with Salah al-Din’s (Saladin’s) conquest of Egypt in 1171, there came with the new ruler a new religious institution, the madrasa, which was equivalent to a private college. This Salah al-Din introduced to reeducate the population in the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence—Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanafi and Hanbali, named after the religious leaders who founded them. Whereas the mosques were open to all, the madrasas received only limited numbers of students. Gone now were the vast enclosures built to hold all the inhabitants of the city. The layout of the madrasa was centered around a much smaller courtyard, which was often surrounded on four sides by deep alcoves (iwans), one for each of the schools of jurisprudence.
The interior of one of the two domes of the khankah, or religious hostel, of Sultan Farag ibn Barquq echoes the herringbone pattern that fully covers its exterior. In addition to worship space, the khankah included kitchens, living quarters, baths, bakeries, grain mills and markets.
About this time another institution, the khankah, was also introduced by Salah al-Din. First founded within the city walls, khankahs—meeting places of religious brotherhoods—soon flourished in the remoteness of the surrounding deserts, where the nobility had plenty of space to build lavishly.
At first madrasas and khankahs, even when provided with minarets, were not places of public worship. But by the Mamluk era, which began in 1250, they gradually came to be fused with the congregational mosques. Within the city, large madrasa-mosque complexes were built, complete with lodgings, lecture rooms, libraries, schools for orphans and practical services such as flour mills or a cistern with a waterwheel (sakia) to convey running water to the surrounding district.
The largest and most luxurious of these complexes was that of Sultan Hasan.
Five hundred years passed between Ibn Tulun’s construction of his mosque in the desert and the time when Sultan Hasan ibn Qala’un set out to build at the foot of Salah al-Din’s 12th-century citadel. Sultan Hasan’s grandfather, Mansur Qala’un, had already set the pace for building great mosques in 1284 with his madrasa and hospital in the heart of Cairo. Sultan Hasan’s father, Nasir Muhammad, who reigned for nearly 50 years, built an even vaster edifice within the walls of the citadel, capable of holding 5000 worshipers. It was during Nasir Muhammad’s long reign that it became the fashion for even minor nobility to build ever more splendid mosques, palaces and public drinking fountains (sabils).
Though he was born into an age of architectural splendor, Sultan Hasan’s years were strewn with intrigue and disaster. He only reached the throne after succeeding his seven brothers, each of whom briefly occupied it before being either murdered or deposed. First elected at the age of 11, then at 16 overthrown by one of his brothers and committed to the citadel’s infamous dungeon, he languished for three years before being released and made sultan again in 1354.
Sultan Hasan’s restoration coincided with a disaster: Bubonic plague, “the black death,” arrived in Cairo in the autumn of 1348. Within two years, 200,000 died in Cairo alone, and large parts of the city, the historian Maqrizi tells us, were depopulated.
Sultan Hasan, however, survived, and just as Ibn Tulun, in his day, had came into sudden wealth and used it to build grandly, Sultan Hasan, too, found himself suddenly in possession of enormous wealth from the estates of plague victims. He decided to use part of the money to build another great mosque. He is said to have asked for “something impressive,” as indeed he might well do if he were to stand a chance of surpassing his father’s and his grandfather’s colossal accomplishments.
A century of Mamluk rule culminated in the mosque-madrasa complex of Sultan Hasan.
Plans were developed for a vast mosque-madrasa complex with dormitories and accommodation for 500 teachers and students. A khankah which was to have been built in a second stage was never completed. Compared to Ibn Tulun’s sprawling and essentially horizontal desert grandeur of fired brick five hundred years before, Sultan Hasan’s madrasa-mosque was built out of huge blocks of stone in soaring vertical splendor.
Of unprecedented scale in the Islamic world, Sultan Hasan’s mosque became the culmination of all the architectural power developed throughout a century of Mamluk rule. An impressive flight of steps leads to an entrance portal of tremendous height, its peak decorated with amuqarnas ceiling of stalactites. A narrow, lofty, gradually ascending passageway follows, which emerges suddenly out of darkness into the blinding sunlight of a courtyard paved in patterned marble. The Egyptian architect Hasan Fathy described the experience: “Immediately, your eyes are drawn upward into the blue sky. And as you lower your head, ‘peace’ with Allah’s blessing of contentment descends upon you.”
And as you lower your head, your gaze spreads across the patterned mosaic-paved courtyard, unprecedented in the city. Soaring up from this expanse, four enormous vaultediwans, or halls, shelter the four schools of Sunni Islamic teaching. The eastern iwan is the mosque’s sanctuary and the only one where the decoration begun by the Sultan was completed, with a splendid Kufic inscription, marble paneling on the qibla wall (the one indicating the direction of Makkah) and a dazzling, multi-colored marble mihrab. In Sultan Hasan’s day a multitude of the famous Mamluk enameled glass lamps, suspended on fine chains, glowed in the immensity of the mosque’s interior space.
Of the three mosques he, his father and his grandfather gave to Cairo, Sultan Hasan’s is undoubtedly the most impressive.
The complex of Sultan Hasan is entered through a narrow, high- ceilinged passageway decorated with carved panels and lit by lamps that today are electrified replicas of the originals.
The mosque was meant to have four high minarets, though today there are only two: One collapsed, killing some 400 orphans; the fourth was never built. In the sultan’s time, the mosque’s call to prayer was announced by a chorus of 60 muezzins working in two shifts who intoned from the door of the mosque, the courtyard, inside the sanctuary, from the roof and from the high balconies of what were then the city’s two tallest minarets. Unlike the bare mosque of today, in the 14th-century mosque rich carpets lay across the marble floors, while huge brass candlesticks illuminated the open pages of immense royal Qur’ans resting on carved wooden lecterns inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl. Nearby were silver water bowls and censers.
The courtyard is paved in elaborately patterned marble mar¬quetry. Opposite: Contemporary with many European Gothic cathedrals, the faqade of the complex leads inside to four /'wans, or arched rooms, each 30 meters (96') high, the tallest in Cairo.
Alas, in 1361, just before the completion of his mosque, Sultan Hasan lost his throne, and possibly his head, in another palace coup. No one is quite sure what happened. Some say he escaped; others say he was tortured and that he died in the citadel’s dungeon. We know for certain he does not rest in the rich mausoleum he built for himself at the back of the mosque’s sanctuary.
Inside the mosque-madrasa complex of Sultan Hasan, doors in the courtyard walls lead to the four quarters of the madrasa (Islamic school), one for each of the four schools of thought of Sunni legal practice. Each had teaching rooms and residential quarters. They are no longer in use.
The three Qala’uns—grandfather, father and son—gave to Cairo three most impressive mosques. Of them, Sultan Hasan’s is undoubtedly the most splendid. Nothing has ever surpassed it since. Six centuries after its completion, in the early 19th century, the architect Louis Sullivan was influenced by it in his design of New York’s first skyscrapers. In the late 1970’s, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) decreed Sultan Hasan’s great mosque a World Heritage Site. Sultan Hasan did, at least, get his heart’s desire: “Something impressive.”
Mosque of Ali mad ibn Tulun, interior of the maqsura, 9th century. Gypsum and ash pillars accentuate the domed mihrab. The mosque, inspired by the great mosque of Samarra in the patron’s homeland, accommodated a burgeoning population of troops. The decaying ornament in the arch’s soffit no longer exists.
Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun, arcade and interior windows, 9th century. Prostrating men provide scale and accentuat the arcade’s massiveness. Arches vary Irttle; they rest on brick pillars with a rectangular plan. Unobstructed interior windows and laced exterior windows form interesting contrasts, capturing the movement of air and light.
Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun, details, 9th century. Prisse contrasts the interior arched spandrels with the decorated arches of the courtyard, which display a broad frieze of stucco rosettes. Stucco- work frames the windows distributed around the whole building. According to Prisse. these helped disburse fragrances of ambergris into the congregation.
Al-Azhar mosque, main courtyard, 10th-18th centuries.Students congregate around columns, highlighting the mosque’s function. Prisse’s focus on the structure as one adjusted and renovated through various epochs provides insight into the evolution of Cairo and the position of theological, scholarly activity in the cityscape.
Tala’i Abu Reziq mosque, elevation and details, 12th century. Little beyond Posse’s details, elevation, and plan have survived except “the planks [on which Imam Husayn's body was bathed] embedded above the middle arch of the maqsura [traditionally engraved and ornamented], which have never borne inscriptions.”
Bab al-Azab, main gate of the Citadel, 18th century. Radwan Katkhuda’s 18th-century addition to the Citadel provided a stage for the decisive event orchestrated under the pretense of a feast in 1811. Muhammad Ali Pasha invited all the Mamlukes (elite slave- soldiers) in Egypt to the fortress and had them massacred.
Entrance to the palace of Sultan Baybars, 13th century. Prisse intended to convey the nature of princely dwellings in this period when peace was fragile and the state apparatus vulnerable to sedition. The palace’s position between the citadel and the city provided a strategic buffer.
Al-Zahir mosque, plan, elevation, & details, 13th century. Although the mosque was already in ruins by the time of Napoleon’s expedition, Prisse, inspired by the remnants, proposed layout schemes and parallels the fine decoration with that of its contemporary, Granada’s Alhambra.
Tekiyat al-Shaykh Hasan Sadaqa, 16th century. Sultan Selim added the 16th-century tekiya to a 14th-century mosque to house Mawali Sufis. The structure’s silhouette is delineated by the dome, which nests on a cubical base, The large circular interior was used by whirling dervishes.
Baybarsiya mosque, minaret, 14th century. The mosque, patronized by a former slave of Qalawaun, is the oldest standing khanqa in Cairo. Its minaret once towered over suirounding structures. The complex’s waqf document has survived and offers insights into the daily life of 14th-century Sufis.
Mosque of Sultan Hasan, porta!, 14 th century. The mosque’s portal is remarkable as an architectural system. The artist has explored it as a functioning independent feature and as part of the building. Columns framing inset arches support intricate cascading muqarnas that seemingly support a fluted half- dome.
Door of a house on Sha’arawi Street, 14th century. Popular tradition makes this door part of a qadi’s house. Ornament was used to forge a spandrel¬like structure; this architectonic device is traced by knots. Domestic architecture provides insight into popular designs similar to heraldic symbols in impenal architecture.
Mosque of Muhammad ihn Qalawaun, view of the minaret, 14th century. Muqamas adorning the mosque’s minaret elevate it into the cityscape. The minaret positions the complex on a main avenue of medieval Cairo. Recessed panels, traced by a knotted motif and false columns, distinguish the octagonal trunk
Mosque of Muhammad ibn Qalawaun, details of the minaret, 14th century. The plate captures intricate details of the minaret: laced, carved- stucco arabesques and calligraphic inscriptions that draw connections with designs visible in the interior, specifically around the mihrab.
Mausoleum of Sultan Qalawaun, 14th century. The mausoleum’s symmetrical floor designs and intricate woodwork ground the gaze, while the floor and square pillars, like a swath of light, draw the eyes upward. The octagonal drum, composed of two pairs of piers alternating with two pairs of columns, reflects a debt to the Dome of the Rock,
Mausoleum complex of Sultan Barquq, door to the tomb, 14th century. The northern mausoleum, intended for Barquq and his son Faraj, is entered through wooden lattice screens, in front of which sits an intncately carved Quran stand. Carved wood is set against austene
Religious-funerary complex of Qaitbay, 15th century. At this point Cairo architectural programs were guided by interest in fundamental Mamluke architectural forms. Balance was conferred on an angular, seemingly asymmetrical complex by details such as the intncate carvings on the minaret and dome.
Mosque of Qaitbay, elevation of one side, 15th century. Symmetry is not found in the mosque layout but in the overall impact of its decoration. A lofty portal adorned with polychrome dadoes, columned recesses, and intricate stucco carving, frames the door that leads to the tomb. A continuous band of calligraphy integrates the designs.
Mosque ofQaitbay, elevation of the mihrab side, 15th century. The massive horseshoe arch framing the mihrab suggests an unlikely airiness in this medium- sized mosque. The qibla wall is austere, placing emphasis on its calligraphy.
Mosque of Qaitbay, ensemble & details of the minaret, 15th century. The elegantly carved minaret of Qaitbay’s complex displays an aesthetic more concerned with cylindrical movements than most Mamluke minarets, which relied more heavily on cubical base forms. Columns, used to further elevate the structure, add lightness to its form.
Sabil Qaitbay, near Rumayleh, part s of the facade, 15th century. This sabil on Saliba Street dates to 1479. A trilobed arch surmounts the portal and an unusual medallion design surmounts the iron-grated front windows that characterize sabils. A band of calligraphy, indicated in both details, hints at the building’s design program.
Minarets ofTurab al-lmam mosque, 15th century, and Qalmi mosque, 16th century. This comparative examination of the minaret of Turab al-lmam mosque and the minaret of the Qalmi mosque reveals that both were based on an octagonal plan and both had similar muqamas designs.
Minarets of Qanibay al-Rammah at Nasiriya mosque, 15th century & al-Burdayni mosque, 17th century. Contrasting minarets, cubical and cylindrical— both have tnlobed arches, muqarnas, and alternating vertical and horizontal voussoirs. The Nasiriya minaret exploits alternating voussoir designs featured in the portal frame, whereas the al-Burdayni mosque displays intricate carvings.
Mosque and mausoleum of Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri, 16th century. This view highlights the mausoleum’s dome and mosque’s minaret, which crown the mercantile area below. The double- bulbed minaret, not part of the original structure, was inspired by minarets from the mosques of Qanibay al-Rammah as well as al-Ghuri at al- Azhar.
Mausoleum of Emir Tar abay al-Sharifi, 16th century. This depiction alludes to a larger complex. The artist has articulated the dome’s double-leaf cresting, three arched panels surmounted by windows in the form of three oculi, and the shoulder that decorates the transition zone.
Mausoleum of Emir Mahmud Janum, 16th century. Prisse focused on this tomb because to his mind the adjoining mosque bore no distinguishing features, whereas the tomb abided wholeheartedly with prevailing Mamluke conventions. Bichrome masonry work integrated the tomb with the whole complex.
Dome and minaret of Khayr-Bek, 16th century. Prisse discusses this essentially Mamkike design as an anomaly. Although Emir Khayr-Bek betrayed Sultan al-Ghuri and cooperated with the Ottomans, for which he was favored with the governorship of Egypt, opportunism did not Override his aesthetic sensibilities,
Mosque of Sinan Pasha, elevation & plan, 16th century. Prisse’s elevations and plan of the mosque of Sinan Pasha convey the Ottoman impact on Egyptian architecture. He dendes self-conscious designs that boast magnificence, highlighting the structure’s squatness and the lack of relationship between prayer hall and sahn.
Bayt al-Emir,courtyard, 17th century. Prisse, intngued by social history, has captured the heart of Bayt al-Emtr— the courtyard. He examines degrees of privacy through emphasis on several key features: the central grid window, evocative of a sabil facade; the arch-lined hall above: and the mashrabiya coverings.
Bayt al-Emir, outer door to the harem, 17th century. As pointed out by Prisse, harem entrances, although elegantly adorned by carved geometnc designs and muqamas, are quite modest so as not to invite strangers into this private space, This depiction includes a guard, presumably a eunuch to protect the inhabitants.
Mosque of Shaykh al-Burdayni, elevation, details, & plan, 17th century.
Funerary mosque near Kiman al-Jiyushi, 18th century. This mosque shows how various edifices were grouped around tombs. The facade shows a small room where travelers and passers-by could stay or rest Next to the tomb, crowned by a pyramidal dome, is a sabil-kuttab—a school and cistern.
Tombojan emir in the Qarafa cemetery, 18th century. This tomb in the southern cemetery (Qarafa) is defined by its elegant columns and light dome which effects airiness and modesty. The canopied dome is typical of tombs that from the Mamluke period onward could be purchased ready-designed.
Sabil Ahmad Husayn Marjush, 18th century. Typical of its genre and time, this sabil adheres to Prisse’s formulaic model for sabil layout. The sabil, an institution integral to the community as a source of water, juts into the street, revealing its presence to the passerby.
Zamyat Abd al-Rahman Katfchuda, 18th century. In 1729. Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda built a zawiya— housing for Sufis—on two levels above a few shops. This was but one of his contributions to Cairo’s cityscape. Prisse draws parallels between its decoration and that of European Renaissance styles.
Door of the bath Hammam al-Talat, 18th century. This delightful rendition of the door to Hammam al- Talat located in the medieval Jewish quarter reveals an original approach to design. A stone chain, chiseled out of limestone, seems to have included a hook-like fixture for a hanging lamp.
Bayt al-Shalabi, courtyard, 18th century. With Prisse’s focus on details at multiple depths. The complexities of domesticity emerge. Private and public space are explored wrth social constructs that position people in the building: male servants busy themselves on the ground, a female servant looks on from above, while cloistered ladies are presumably hidden behind the mashrabiya.
Domes: Although Prisse attributes stylistic significance to domes, he treats them randomly and not as reflective of transfers and adaptations of building technology. These four designs, though essentially linear, embody dense, fleshy arabesques typical of later Mamluke domes.
Stone as opposed to brick is the underlying theme in this set of domes. The central dome displays an interpretation of functional brick ribs into architectonic stone ones. Further developments, particularly zigzagged designs, lighten solid stone ribs with changes of direction at vertical joints, (9) Sultan Barsbay, Khanqa mausoleum (1432): (10) Emir Qunqmas (1506); (I I) Emirlnal al-Yusufi (1392-93); (12) Emir Ganibak at the madrasa (1426-27); and (13) Khanqa of Faraj ibn Barquq (141 I).
Columns & pillars, ensemble & details. Columns and pillars serve a universal function but bear vaned ornamentation. Often removed from one building to be used in another, they could be a key medium for transmitting designs, an attractive idea when materials like marble were not available locally.
Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun, ornamental details, 9th century. Three distinct patterns taken from Samarra are combined and mixed, providing schemes of ornament that frame arches and decorate soffits. Central are pointed leaves, some of which blossom into a trefoil, and short thick undulated stems which converge at the top.
Fragments of the dome’s exterior ornamentation
Bayt al-Emir, crowning of the bath door, 17th century. Despite its decay, in Prisse’s time this exhibited remnants of two different illuminated designs. The vine leaves emerging from the vase appear to have been gilded. Elsewhere the leaves were pale green, vine branches dark green, and grapes blue.
All illustrations by E. Prisse d’Avennes. E. Prisse d’Avennes (1807- 79), a colossal figure in Egyptian studies, is also the author of Atlas of Egyptian Art, the Oriental Album as well as dozens of articles and reports on a variety of subjects.