Discovering the wonder of Egypt’s Islamic architecture

Updated 27 January 2017

Discovering the wonder of Egypt’s Islamic architecture

Someone once asked Titus Burckhardt, the famous European expert on Islamic art and architecture, how to understand Islamic art. Burckhardt — who, more than any other Westerner, understood the art’s meaning and spiritual significance — answered: “Go and see the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo.”
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.

King Abdul Aziz Public Library showcases Arab, Islamic heritage

Updated 20 April 2019

King Abdul Aziz Public Library showcases Arab, Islamic heritage

  • The library has 8,571 books and more than 5,000 manuscripts, documents, coins and rare maps
  • The library has an archive of photographs, one of the rarest collections in the world

RIYADH: King Abdulaziz Public Library provides a key index of Saudi culture, presenting the world with a rich legacy of cultural, historical and literary diversity.

On World Heritage Day, April 18, the library highlighted its efforts in preserving cultural heritage, which makes it one of the most important libraries in the Arab and Islamic world. It possesses a variety of heritage treasures in manuscripts, documents, rare books, coins and photographs. The library has 8,571 books and more than 5,000 manuscripts, documents, coins and rare maps.

The library has established a knowledge-based space to produce large collections of specialized books on the history of the Kingdom and in the Arab and Islamic worlds while continuing to use its knowledge system in line with Vision 2030 and the cultural strategy of the Ministry of Culture.

The library’s special holdings consist of manuscripts, rare books, rare documents, rare maps, rare photographs and coins. These form an integrated picture and are characterized by rare historical scenes that stimulate research.

The library established the Manuscripts Department in 1988 to contribute to the preservation of Arab and Islamic heritage and make it available to researchers and investigators. The department has more than (4,400) original manuscripts in addition to more than (700) photocopies and microfilms, including the charts of the Institute of History of Arabic and Islamic Sciences at the University of Frankfurt. More than 3,500 manuscripts have been indexed and filed in the computer system.

The library in Riyadh, the pioneer in publishing heritage, has digitized all of its manuscripts — more than two million of them — and stored them on CDs.

The library contains a collection of rare books of ancient and rare European editions, consisting of 78 books on the biography of the Prophet Muhammad. The collection also includes 113 translated books in ancient European languages of the Holy Qur’an, as well as 55 books on Qur’anic studies and 54 books on Islamic sources. This collection represents the beginnings of European interest in the Holy Qur’an and its studies. The library acquired a collection of Arabic editions printed in Europe in 1592-1593. These editions are part of the library’s interest in the original Arab and Islamic heritage. They include rare books such as The Canon of Medicine by Avicenna, Rhetoric Mysteries by Abd Al-Qahir Al-Jurjani, a commentary on the “Isagoge” by Abu l-Faraj at-Tayyib, The Perfect Guide to the Sciences of the Qur’an by Jalal Al-Din Al Suyuti, as well as 8,271 rare Arabic indexed books.

The library hosts a number of private collections, including that of the American orientalist George Rantz. This collection has many books, manuscripts, maps and rare documents, containing books in Arabic and 3,265 books in foreign languages. It also has the collection of Hamza Boubakeur, dean of the Islamic Institute and former imam of Paris Mosque. It is an integrated collection with 17,170 titles of 19,821 volumes of periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, documents, newspaper clippings, rare books and books in Arabic, French, English, German and Russian. It includes books on scientific and religious sciences, and tourist literature that describes countries, their heritage, customs and traditions, and is linked to Saudi Arabia, the Arabian Gulf and the Islamic world.

The library has an archive of photographs, one of the rarest collections in the world, with a total of 5,564 single original photographs or collections in albums, taken by the most famous photographers of the East and the Arab world since the beginning of photography in 1740, as well as photographs taken by travelers, sea captains, military personnel, envoys, consuls and politicians who visited the region from the middle of the last century until the beginning of this century. This archive of photographs is one of the most unique in the world.

The library has 365 photographs of the two Holy Mosques with previously unpublished negatives. These photographs were taken by the Egyptian international photographer Ahmad Pasha Helmi, who was commissioned by King Farouk to photograph the two Holy Mosques during the visit of King Abdul Aziz to Makkah and Medina, in addition to a collection of albums depicting the Hijaz railway and other parts of the Kingdom.

Official and non-official documents are important scientific materials in the writing of history. Nations rely on collecting their documents, archiving them and making them available for study. The library in Riyadh has been keen to acquire rare documents and books, especially on the history of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the history of Saudi Arabia, and to allocate a special section for them. These documents include:

George Rantz records: in English, French and Arabic, covering the period from 1930 to 1960.
Documents of the Egyptian and Arab press on the visit of King Abdul Aziz to Egypt.
Documents of the American press about King Saud’s visit to the US.
Documents on oil agreements between the Kingdom and some American companies.
Documents of the British press regarding the war between the British forces and the forces of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman against the forces of the imam of Oman, and the effects of this war on the region and the position of the Saudi state and King Saud of this war.
Abdul Rahman Azzam’s collection of documents (in Arabic and English) covering the period from 1925 to 1960.
Correspondence reflecting the assistance provided by Saudi Arabia to the Mosque of Paris and Makkah pilgrims.
The British collection of documents on King Abdul Aziz Al Saud (English), covering the period from 1800 to 1953. These are photocopies of the original documents and constitute one of the most important sources of the history of the Arabian Peninsula.
Khair Al-Din Al-Zarkali’s collection of documents: (in Arabic) covering the period from 1920 to 1975.
The library also has 700 rare maps, especially of the Arabian Peninsula, dating from 1482. The library has acquired more than 7,600 rare gold, silver and bronze coins, dating back to different Islamic times.

World Heritage Day was proposed by the International Council of Monuments and Sites on April 18, 1982 and approved by UNESCO in 1983 with the aim of promoting awareness of the importance of cultural heritage and protecting it.