11 -17 February 1999
Issue No. 416
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (272 )
"In this instalment of the Diwan series, our chronicler, Dr Yunan Labib Rizk, * takes us on a tour of some of Egypt's most famous mosques built between the Arab conquest in the 17th century and the 19th century. The Amr Ibn Al-'Aas Mosque was the first to be built and it was named after the Arab commander who conquered Egypt. What prompted Al-Ahram to publish frequent reports about mosques was the fact that Sultan Fouad, who ascended the throne during World War I, made a point of saying his Friday noon prayers at different mosques and got his government to issue background papers about them for the benefit of the public."
Illustration by Makram Henein
"Since the day he assumed the throne of his forefathers, His Royal Highness Sultan Fouad has not excluded a single ancient or famous mosque, from his attendance to perform the Friday prayer. Nor has the attention of the sultan been restricted to those mosques in which these prayers are customarily held, for, may God strengthen him in his pursuit, he has also devoted himself to the major mosques of antiquity which have remained abandoned and unused in spite of their great historical importance."
This report appeared in Al-Ahram of 8 May 1918. Although the circumstances of World War I still prevailed, the Sultan was keen to publicise his visits widely. One example, printed in Al-Ahram, was the invitation from the Ministry of Al-Awqaf (religious endowments) to "Ulema, ministers, senior government officials, notables and merchants" to attend the Friday prayers at the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-'Aas: "His Royal Highness intends to perform the Friday prayers on 7 Sha'ban 1336 (17 May 1918) at the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-'Aas, as this spacious mosque has a special place in the hearts of the Muslim subjects of this nation for it was the first mosque to be established in Egypt which was in the year 21 H. (641 AD). You are invited to attend."
Naturally, the royal visits featured all the customary display and pomp. On the occasion of Fouad's visit to Sultan Hassan, for example, Al-Ahram reports, "The Royal procession left Abdin Palace at 11.55am on Friday. The royal carriage was preceded by a detachment of cavalry officers and escorted on either side by mounted royal guards. Sitting to the left of His Royal Highness was Prime Minister Hussein Rushdi. The royal carriage was followed by other carriages conveying senior palace officials." The streets, invariably bedecked with Egyptian flags, were thronged with onlookers who cheered the sultan and the passing procession.
While it was not unusual for a ruler to attend the Friday prayers, what marked several of these occasions under Sultan Fouad was that the Ministry of Al-Awqaf distributed to those who attended -- and to the press -- a precis on the history of each mosque the sultan was to visit. The cultural and historical value of these historical briefs is certain to be as interesting to Al-Ahram's readers today as they were 80 years ago.
The Ministry of Al-Awqaf briefs frequently included a short biography of the mosques' founders. Of these, we have selected three, primarily for their diversity and their historical spread. The first is an account of "the noble master, sheikh of learned sheikhs and treasure of petitioners of spiritual guidance, Abu Abdallah Mohamed Ben Hassan Ben Ali Al-Bakri Al-Shazli Al-Hanafi" who founded "the mosque generally referred to as Al-Sultan Al-Hanafi." Al-Hanafi was born in Cairo in the eighth century H (15th century AD). Orphaned at an early age he was brought up by an uncle who, "when the child reached the age of seven, wanted him to learn a trade. So he sent him to a sieve maker, but he fled and went to the local sheikh. The uncle then sent the child to the flour sift makers and told the master craftsman to keep an eye on the child for fear that he grow up without a trade and become dependent on others. Again, the child played truant in order to learn the Qur'an. Finally the uncle gave up his efforts, allowing his nephew to memorise the Qur'an and perfect its recitation."
Al-Hanafi, the biography continues, developed into the model of dedication to spiritual pursuit. At the age of 14 he began writing sermons. After a short period of trading in books, he built a religious retreat in which he spent seven years "after which he devoted himself to preaching and guidance." Al-Hanafi also joined the Shazli Sufi order. It was not long before the young preacher acquired a considerable following. "He was of the Hanafi school. Handsome in figure and dress, he would sit in his mosque at various times in order to preach and it would fill up with people seeking the benefit of his knowledge and guidance." These included many spiritual leaders and senior Islamic scholars. Al-Hanafi's reputation quickly spread to other Islamic countries. "He received numerous gifts from the kings and princes of these countries while he was honoured by the sultans and princes of Egypt who never refused him a favour and who frequented his mosque." Al-Hanafi was not a sultan, yet the title was somehow affixed to his name. He died in 847 h. (1443 AD) having acquired in his lifetime an aura of sanctity as a prominent Sufi leader and religious guide whose influence continues to the present day.
The subject of the second biography also lived in the Mameluke era, but was a prominent court official rather than a religious leader of humble origins. Judge Zayn Al-Din Yahya Ibn Abdel-Razeq Al-Armani was the majordomo of the Sultan Haqmaq (1438-53).
Sinan Pasha, the subject of the third biography, lived in the early period of the Ottoman era which began in Egypt in the 16th century. This Ottoman pasha was the founder the mosque bearing his name in Boulaq and had quite an illustrious career. He was appointed governor of Egypt in 1567 and the following year he was commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan to conquer Yemen. The Ministry of Al-Awqaf writes, "He set out at the head of his forces to Yemen by land having first dispatched a contingent of his forces by sea. After conquering the rebellious Yemeni tribes, he restored security and order in the country. On his return voyage, he passed by the holy city of Mecca where he undertook the restoration of many benevolent institutions and constructed other institutions that he deemed necessary." After three years in the Hijaz, Sinan Pasha returned to Egypt, overseeing along the way the digging of water wells and the construction of rest houses along the pilgrimage route to Mecca. Sinan Pasha's governorship of Egypt ended upon his appointment as Ottoman Grand Vizier. He was then appointed viceroy of Syria, founding another mosque bearing his name in Damascus, and then four more times grand vizier. He died in 1595.
Of the 13 mosques Sultan Fouad visited during the first half of 1918, 10 were Mameluke edifices, which is only natural in view of the fact that most of Cairo's extant historical mosques date to this period. Two, however, long predated these and are noted both for their historical and architectural importance. The first was the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-'Aas, named after the Muslim general who conquered Egypt in 641, and the second was the Mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun, the first Muslim viceroy who would establish an autonomous dynasty in Egypt.
The Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-'Aas, the Ministry of Al-Awqaf brief writes, was the first mosque in Egypt. "It was built on the eastern bank of the Nile. Surrounding the mosque, a new urban quarter was established and is now an important part of Old Cairo." The original mosque was constructed of adobe brick and restored and enlarged many times in successive eras.
The Mosque of Ibn Tulun, "is an enormous structure that has withstood the vicissitudes of fate, for it is still standing like a towering mountain, proclaiming the greatness of its founder, the brilliance of its architects, the skill of its craftsman and the quality of its materials." Construction of the mosque began in 263 h. (876 AD). According to the Ministry of Al-Awqaf account, a story associated with its construction testified to its founder's religious tolerance. Originally, it relates, the mosque's architects wanted 300 marble columns which could only be obtained from older churches and temples. However, Ibn Tulun refused. "Thus, when Abu-Katib Al-Farjani, the architect, suggested constructing columns of fireproof baked brick, Ibn Tulun was delighted with the idea and permitted construction to begin." The Ministry of Al-Awqaf brief also informed its readers that the Mosque of Ibn Tulun was the first mosque to provide essential services to worshippers. "It was equipped with a place to provide drink and medicine and staffed with pharmacists and doctors to treat worshipers afflicted by sudden illness. This was perhaps the first organised medical relief service in history."
Extracts of the Ministry of Al-Awqaf briefs on the Mameluke mosques comprised in Sultan Fouad's campaign to revive these historical monuments provide an excellent survey of the diverse components that contributed to the grandeur of Mameluke architecture. The Mosque of Aqsunqur (748 h./1346 AD.) was constructed with an eye to splendor and function. "Its floor and walls are encased in excellent quality marble. It also has a marble pulpit and is bedecked with exquisite lamps. This was the first mosque to be equipped with permanent benevolent facilities including a library to educate orphaned boys and a sabil (fountain house) to supply potable water."
Of all the Mameluke mosques in Cairo, undoubtedly Sultan Hassan is the best known. Constructed over a period of seven years, from 757 to 764 H. (1356 - 63 AD), "this exquisitely designed and executed mosque is eloquent testimony to the superiority of Egyptian architects," writes the Ministry of Al-Awqaf brief. Certainly, no cost was spared in its construction. Its gracefully arched halls, its lofty dome and its marble encasement bespeak both serenity and elegance. According to the brief, "the income of many lands in Egypt and Syria were placed in religious trusts to be allocated for the mosque's construction and the perpetuity of worship and education in its four schools and other public charities prescribed by the trust's founders."
Sultan Al-Ghuri (1501-16) was one of the last Mameluke sultans. Construction of the mosque bearing his name began, according to the Ministry of Al-Awqaf brief, in 909 H. (1503 AD). It was part of a larger complex including a khanqah (residential institution endowed for sufis and religious ascetics) and a sabil (water house). As for the architectural features, "the mosque's dome is one of the largest in Egypt and its floor is of intricate designs of beautifully coloured marble. The khanqah contains three halls, a courtyard for memorising holy texts and storage place for books. The sabil, designed to resemble the entrance of the mosque, contains a large window on each of its three sides for the distribution of water."
It is interesting to conclude with the brief of the mosque constructed in Bulaq by one of the early Ottoman Pashas, Sinan, whose biography was cited above. The Ministry of Al-Awqaf brief writes that the Sinan Mosque, constructed in 981 H (1573 AD), "is dominated by a great central dome and is surrounded on three sides by an open gallery roofed with small cupolas. Its minaret, located in the back , was renovated in the 13th H century (19th century)." This small and restful mosque contrasts sharply with the imposing monumental architecture of the Mamelukes and reflects Egypt's transition from an independent power under the Mamelukes to a province of the Ottoman empire.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.