Discovering the wonder of Egypt’s Islamic architecture
Discovering the wonder of Egypt’s Islamic architecture
Cairo, known as “the mother of the world,” has one of the largest concentrations of Islamic architectural treasures. And Islamic art is one of the best means of understanding the heart of Islam. Islamic art is essentially derived from “Tawhid,” or divine unity. Calligraphy, the writing of the word of God, and Qur’anic psalmody, the chanting of it, stand at the top of the hierarchy of arts and architecture, with mosques coming immediately after.
The American University in Cairo Press has recently published “The Mosques of Egypt,” a magnificent celebration of Egypt’s rich Islamic architectural heritage. The reader is given a guided tour of the country’s most historic mosques, mausoleums, madrasas (religious schools), mihrabs (niches in the wall of a mosque indicating the direction of the prayer toward Makkah) and minarets.
This overview, spanning 1,200 years, highlights the rich sequence of Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk, Ottoman and modern styles. The author, Bernard O’Kane, one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of Islamic art and architecture, also took the majority of the stunning color photographs which illustrate the book.
The Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo was begun in 876 and finished in 879. Ahmad Ibn Tulun was sent to Egypt by the caliph in Baghdad to serve as the governor of Fustat but, after two years, he set up his own ruling dynasty. The mosque of Ibn Tulun was inspired by the great mosque in the city of Samarra in Iraq where Ibn Tulun grew up. However the horseshoe-shaped arches of the minaret are similar to features of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain. When you catch the first glimpse of the Ibn Tulun Mosque, you are struck by its solemn majesty, with its massive crenellated brick walls emerging from the bedrock and interspersed with huge doorways.
“Despite its varied history, the mosque still retains the basic form it had under Ibn Tulun. It is a tribute to the aesthetics of its time that it may still be considered one of the world’s greatest architectural masterpieces,” writes O’Kane.
Cairo’s oldest mosque
The oldest mosque in Cairo is the Mosque of Amr ibn Al-As. Less than 10 years after the passing away of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the new religion of Islam came to Egypt in 639 with the army of Amr ibn Al-As. The victorious general established his capital at Fustat, south of modern Cairo. In the center of Fustat, Amr ibn Al-As built a mosque in his name. The Mosque of Amr, as it became known, was the first mosque in Egypt and the first on the African continent. The building has undergone many changes; it was restored in 2002 and, apart from some reused columns, it has little work older than the nineteenth century.
“Although the sense of antiquity has now gone from the building, there is still pleasure to be had in the vistas that open before the visitor in the rows of arcades stretching in every direction,” writes O’Kane.
The Mosque of Amr is thus a memorial to early Islam, the Arab conquest, and the beginning of a new era in the history of Egypt. It is unique among the early mosques of Cairo because it is still very popular, and people pray there in large numbers on Fridays.
Most of the mosques, madrasas and minarets featured in the book, are in Cairo. The late filmmaker John Feeney expressed perfectly the awesome feeling which overwhelms you when you are in Old Cairo: “Nowhere in the Muslim world can you find such a profusion of domes and minarets as in Cairo. Rising from the haze of crowded, crumbling streets in the old, chaotic, yet picturesque medieval parts of the city, they dominate the city’s skyline. Minarets indeed are Cairo’s joy and ornament and the source of Cairenes’ favorite nickname… the city of a thousand minarets,” he wrote.
O’Kane has included some stunning examples of Islamic architecture in lesser known towns such as Esna. This town south of Luxor, mostly known for its Ptolemaic temple, has a beautiful minaret.
A Kufic inscription on a tablet on the qibla wall informs us that an eminent Fatimid official, Abu Mansur Sartakin, built the minaret of the mosque in 1081. This minaret has a square base built of brick inserted with layers of wood and interspersed with pointed-arched windows. The cylindrical upper story is plastered and surrounded by a wooden balcony. The domed pavilion at the summit has an unusual hexagonal shape.
Another beautiful minaret is found in Asyut at the El-Mujahidin Mosque. It has four levels and it is one the few Islamic monuments outside Cairo which the famous 19th century Scottish artist, David Roberts, included in his lithographs of Egypt from the 1840s.
One of the most interesting mosques featured in the book is the Congregational Mosque in New Gourna, a village built by Hassan Fathy, one of Egypt’s most famous modern architects. The mosque was one of the first buildings to be constructed between 1945 and 1948 and has been very well taken care of since its construction. Because of its position facing the only highway that leads from the Nile embankment to the Valley of the Kings and Queens nearly 5 km away, the elevation was carefully designed to symbolize the spiritual values inherent in the mosque. To explain his architectural concept, Hassan Fathy wrote that in Makkah, “the mosque is not an isolated microcosm complete in itself. It is a clean and quiet place for prayers under the sky. If the worshippers were to be protected from the elements under a roof, this roof should not cut them off from the holiness of the sky… The dome as seen looking upwards from inside expresses the sky.”
Originally, the mosque was designed to be at the center of the village but nowadays the mosque is completely isolated, surrounded by the space which should have been occupied by the houses. The plan shows Fathy’s indiscriminate use of symmetry and asymmetry, a nod to the pattern of streets in medieval Cairo. Hassan Fathy also conveyed the awesome beauty of old Cairo when he wrote: “I am surrounded by five mosques, thanks be to God, with their domes and minarets, and so I say I am living in a skyspace, not a landscape. These minarets make you think that the very air around you has been given artistic expression and so the environment in which I am living makes me feel very comfortable both physically and physiologically.”
The rapid expansion of Islam encouraged a unique absorption and integration of cultural forms and traditions and this book highlights the extraordinary variety of Egypt’s mosques from the birth of Islam to the present day. O’Kane takes us on a guided tour from Alexandria to Aswan via the Nile Delta, Upper Egypt and the Red Sea to admire lesser known historic and modern mosques which rival those in Cairo.