Cairo's Mosques Proudly Display Their One Thousand Minarets
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
Long noted for the Giza Pyramids with their Sphinx and its Museum of Antiquities, Cairo has other equally appealing tourist attributes. It is saturated with Islamic monuments, virtually unknown to the vast majority of visitors from the West. The city’s magnificent historic mosques with their appealing domes and minarets are a world of history and exoticism, waiting to be discovered.
More than the pharaohs’ monuments colourful oriental bazaars and plush hotels, these mosques will, no doubt, one day draw streams of visitors. Still hidden from view to western travellers, they are like underground gems waiting to be mined. Unlike in the neighbouring countries, there still remain a good number of historic mosques in Egypt since the country never suffered the same fate as the Arab lands of the Fertile Crescent where Crusaders and Mongols destroyed most of the old mosques.
For visitors not acquainted with the Islamic face of Cairo, a guide well versed with its mosques and Islamic history is a must. To get an overview of the hundreds of these Muslim houses of worship, the itinerary should include four historic mosques: Ibn Tulun, Al-Azhar, Sultan Hassan and Muhammad Ali, representing the handiwork of the main Islamic dynasties in Egypt. All of these mosques are open to tourists and are worth lingering visits.
After the Arabs occupied Egypt in 641 A.D., a mosque was built in Al- Fustat – a town they established where Cairo now stands. It disappeared for centuries but has recently been reincarnated. However, the only mosque which has continually been in existence since the early centuries of Islam is the one constructed in the 9th century by Ahmad Ibn Tulun, the Abbasid governor of Egypt, after he declared himself independent and established the short-lived Tulunid Dynasty in Egypt.
Erected between 876 and 879 A.D., the mosque is the oldest and largest functioning Islamic building in Egypt. Inspired almost exclusively by Mesopotamian structures, it is a rare example of Abbasid art and architecture in the classical period of Islam.
Covering 2.6 ha (6.5 ac) of land, it provides one of the finest examples of the classical congregation unpaved courtyards. The edging arcades are formed by pointed arches on brick piers. Constructed some two hundred years before similar arches made their appearance in Europe, they are believed to have given birth to the Gothic arch.
Inside a long band of inscriptions on sycamore wood, just below the ceiling, runs around the entire mosque. The frieze contains verses from the Koran and is some 2 km (1.2 mi) long – calculated to be one fifteenth of the whole Holy Book.
One of the most interesting features in the mosque, which has been restored a number of times, is its original minaret. Unique in shape unlike any other, with a spiral-staircase winding up on the outside, it probably was inspired by the Great Mosque of Samara in Iraq – itself inspired by the ziggurats of ancient Babylon. From its top there is a fine view in all directions, especially of the part of the city extending to the Nile and beyond to the pyramids.
After Ibn Tulun’s Dynasty was overthrown in 905 A. D., the next great builders were the Fatimids (969 – 1171) – an illustrious dynasty of North African origin. One of their greatest structures surviving today is the world-renowned Al-Azhar Mosque – the supreme gift the Fatimids gave to the Muslim world.
Founded in 970 by Gawhar, it soon began to play an important role in the religious life of the Muslim world, and this has continued until our times. Also, at a very early stage, it became a centre of high learning. Today, it competes with the Qarawiyin Mosque in Fez, Morocco, as being the oldest university in the world and the leading centre of Islamic education.
In recent years, the subjects taught have been modernized. In addition to the traditional studies, commerce, medicine and science have been added. Today, Al-Azhar and the other nine campuses it administers, cater to over one hundred thousand students.
Through the centuries ruler after ruler expanded the mosque until in our time it has become a great combination of styles – all blending well together. Al-Azhar now consists of four buildings, which form the centrepiece of old, Fatimid Cairo – a part of the city abounding in domes and minarets. However, only the Central Court and a few other minor parts of the mosque go back to the Fatimid era.
The Ayyubid, then the Mamluk dynasties that followed erected many majestic structures. From among these, the most impressive is the Sultan Hassan Mosque/Madrasa, considered by art historians as being among the supreme achievements of Islamic architecture. Besides functioning as a mosque, it once incorporated four madrasas (colleges), each teaching one of the legal rites of Sunni Islam: Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki and Shafi’i.
The foundation of this fantastic structure was laid by the Mamluk Sultan Hassan in 1356 and took seven years to complete. One of the masterpieces of Mamluk architecture, it is a colossal structure, 7,906 sq m (9,446 sq yd). With an interior that is dramatic and impressive, it imbues a feeling of majesty and grandeur.
From the richly decorated vestibule, one passes into a marble-paved courtyard. Like woven rugs, the marble is scattered in panels of intricate design. The magnificent manipulation of voids and solids gives the courtyard a seemingly soaring thrust toward the sky.
Inside, the use of marble panelling, the skill of inlay and the mixture of soft colours contrast strikingly with the dusty plastering of the walls and the deep relief carving of Koranic inscriptions. In front of the prayer room is the tomb of Sultan Hassan surrounded by marble panelling. It is said that he built his mausoleum in this spot in order to have the people pray to him before their words reached God.
The whole mosque diffuses an aura of magnificence and greatness. The richness of the atmosphere gives one a feeling that here Mamluk architecture reached its epitome of splendour.
The last of the great mosque builders, the dynasty of Muhammad Ali (1805
1952), left its mark in Muhammad Ali’s Mosque, built in the 12th century medieval fortress erected by Saladin (Salah El-Din), on the Mokattam hills. Named after its founder, it is an unique example of Turkish imperial mosques and, by virtue of its dominating site, it is one of the most impressive structures in Cairo. Its only drawback is that the outside stones must be continually cleaned or they become soiled and unseemly.
This Cairo signpost is modelled on the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Impressive, especially from a distance, its huge size and location atop the citadel, make it a Cairo landmark – an unparalleled contribution to the city’s skyline. Its grand dome and sky-towering minarets gives the citadel an all-encompassing oriental aura.
Because of its size and type of construction, the interior is breathtaking, showing a wonderful arrangement of mass and space. The ceiling consists of a great central dome, supported by four semi-domes, one on each side, and four smaller domes, one supporting each corner. The result is an atmosphere of architectural loftiness.
From its outside, there is a fascinating view of Cairo with its ‘thousand minarets’ spiralling to the heavens. It is an ideal spot to conclude a tour of a few of the city’s historic mosques. Rich in history, religious struggle, and romance, they are a testimony to Cairo’s rich Islamic heritage.