Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 June 2004
Issue No. 695
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Refuge for mystics no longer

The function of a khanqa has evolved in Egypt over the millennia but the tradition lingers on, says Veronica Balderas Iglesias

Click to view caption
Partially restored Khanqa of Al-Ashraf Barsbay. The elegant Khanqa of Al-Nasir Farag Ibn Barquq built around an open court is in Sunni style; To rhythmical sound individuals reach a state of frenzy; Secluded cells for Sufi piety; One of two mausolea built by Ibn Barquq to honour his father

Khanqa, a Persian word, means "home", and for long these buildings served as a sort of monastery or lodge where Sufis (Muslim ascetics) retired to practise their faith. They believed that in order to attain the highest spiritual experience it was necessary to retreat from the world for an unspecified time, whether hours, weeks or months, and live in a community within the confines of these sacred places, secluded from the world, devoted to prayer. It was an esoteric experience in which the practitioner, through meditation, reached for God.

It was Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi, better known as Saladin, who introduced the concept of the khanqa to Egypt. This Sunni general of Kurdish origin seized power from the Shia Fatimids in 1169, and in order to help promote a Sunni revival as the official religion of Egypt he accepted the Sufi lodge as an equivalent of the Islamic madrasa or theological school. The first khanqa he ordered built was that of Saida Al- Soada, near Cairo's historic Bab Al-Nasr, or Gate of Victory.

Now that they had somewhere in which to live and worship, the Sufis in turn helped Saladin combat Shia influence by spreading word of the sultan's achievements and calling for jihad (holy war) against the Christian infidels -- the Crusaders. To secure Cairo from Crusaders' attack, Saladin ordered the construction of the Citadel, the largest fortress in the Middle East, and from that lofty and impenetrable perch he and his successors ruled for 80 years. During that time the Sufi community proliferated. In their private lodge, they underwent initiation under a spiritual master, and learnt a ritual that was ultimately derived from the teachings of the Prophet Mohamed.

But slowly the Mamelukes, originally slaves in the sultan's bodyguard, were gaining great power, and in the middle of the 13th century they succeeded in toppling the Ayoubid Dynasty of Saladin. In 1308 a Mameluke named Baybars Al-Gashankir ascended the throne. One of the greatest of the Mameluke sultans, he initiated an architectural revival, restoring some of the historical buildings in Cairo and building a khanqa on Cairo's Al-Gamaliya Street, on the site of the former Fatimid chancellery.

It was a large khanqa, 68 metres in length, and it was designed to accommodate 400 Sufis. These included 100 residents, 100 soldiers and sons of amirs or princes, and a staff that included two faqihs (those in search of spiritual knowledge), two reciters, a guard in charge of the key, a person responsible for maintenance, a cook, an eye doctor and an individual whose job was to lay out the dead. Their salaries were paid with income from Waqf (religious endowment) properties, including land in Egypt and the Levant. The system of the Waqf was based on charitable endowments -- donations by the devout who bequeathed personal property to the needs of religious communities for humanitarian reasons or for public service. Confirmation that the khanqa of Baybars was a Waqf foundation is inscribed on the façade of the wall which the khanqa 's main-entrance shares with the sultan's mausoleum.

This was a time of intense Sufi worship in Egypt. "Dervishes, the popular name by which Sufis are known, belong to the tariqa or path of the prominent Sufi and poet Mauled Al- Jilaleddin Al-Rumi. They base their spirituality on the zikr, the repetition of certain words and movements which bring them into touch with the sublime," says Aisha Rafea, a Sufi practitioner and writer whose father founded the Islamic Spiritual Society in the early 1950s. " Zikr means remembrance, and the purpose of life is to remember the grace of Allah," she says.

The dervishes' tariqa or path is based on poetry, music and the concept that dancing can be a form of meditation in motion. The synchronised swirling movements help the Sufi to concentrate on the divine, on Allah. When they spin, with their right arms extended to heaven, and their left to the earth, they at once receive God's grace and distribute it to the congregation. It creates a strong sense of spiritual intoxication through the repeated chanting Allah, Allah.

Al-Nasir Farag, the eldest son of Sultan Barquq, who ascended the throne in 1382 and founded the Burgi or Circassian Mameluke Dynasty, built a new khanqa in Cairo's Northern Cemetery, on the eastern desert boundary of the old Fatimid city. The most recent inscription is dated 1411, but renowned medieval chronicler Al-Maqrizi (1364-1442) wrote that it was actually inaugurated in 1410, with 40 Sufis appointed to it.

"A social function was introduced in his time," Rafea says. Hitherto the khanqa was a retreat, a place for meditation and communal worship, but Farag ordered that it also serves as a shelter for widowed and divorced women. When impoverished Sufis were provided with food the khanqa came to serve more than its original function of a retreat. The building came to serve many purposes. It was a mausoleum for Sultan Barquq and his relatives, used as a congregational mosque for Friday prayer, and rooms annexed to it provided living quarters for Sufis as well as a school for their students. Additionally, two sabils (public fountains) were built into its outer structure to supply water to passers-by, and on the upper level of each sabil there was a kuttab for schooling orphans. In many medieval buildings in Cairo, slabs of stone inscribed with hieroglyphs indicate that they were usurped from older buildings, and this khanqa is no exception. A Pharaonic slab can be seen in the vestibule leading into the long corridor which, in turn, gives on to the courtyard.

The shafts that pierce the ceiling of this corridor provide both light and air circulation. Of an ablution fountain in the central courtyard, there are only remnants. The four outer walls of the architectural complex are unadorned, but the northwest façade and main wall, which is divided into sections by vertical recesses, is crowned by a stalactite cornice. The qibla wall -- that part of the mosque in which the mihrab (niche) is situated -- is punctuated by rectangular windows with bronze grilles, and at the top and in the windows is coloured glass set in stucco. Each mausoleum of the sultan's relatives comprises a square chamber with a mihrab and a high dome rising above, painted with red and black floral motifs imitating marble, a material that would have been too costly and too heavy for the structure. The decorations of the upper level are more ornate, so that the viewer's attention is drawn upward, towards heaven. Sultan Barquq and his son Abdul-Aziz are buried in the northern dome. Farag Ibn Barquq's body remains in Syria, but his two daughters are buried in the southern mausoleum along with their nurse.

Al-Ashraf Barsbay, who ascended the throne in 1421 and ruled for more than 16 years. His khanqa is located in the Mameluke cemetery, halfway between the mosque and madrasa of Qaitbay and the khanqa of Farag Ibn Barquq. The complex comprises a small mosque, rooms for the Sufis, the sultan's private mausoleum and two tombs for his relatives, as well as two sabils and a kitchen.

The building is in a bad state of repair. Some parts have collapsed and the minaret has toppled. Today only the mosque remains, and although some parts have been restored and consolidated this is not an easy task. Here, as in so many instances of restoration of historic monuments, it is difficult to determine the different phases of construction, their purpose, and exactly what stage of the construction of the building is worthy of conservation.

Ihab Ahmed Ibrahim, professor of Islamic Architecture at Cairo University, told Al-Ahram Weekly that it was important to understand the nature of the building construction over successive phases. "We have to establish whether a building was used only by Sufis as a place for retreat and worship, or if it was a complex that also comprised a mosque, a kuttab and any other structures. This must be considered in advance, so that the structure can be restored accordingly," he said.

After the Ottoman conquest of Egypt at the beginning of the 16th century foreign characteristics were introduced, and new practices gradually merged with the traditional Arab and Islamic culture. This led to a mix of cultures that affected the people and their traditional buildings. Many of the practices that had been carefully nurtured and preserved and which had deepened over a period of nine centuries underwent change, not least those of the Sufis.

The concept of a clergy does not exist in Islam, yet the Ottoman Turks encouraged innovation in the function of the khanqa from a place in which involuntary communal worship was carried out, into a more organised form of worship. Applicants were encouraged to attend prayer on a regular basis.

Sad to say some Muslims began to imitate the mystic behaviour of Sufis and travel round Egypt laying claim to mystical power for their own profit. They wore woollen clothes (the word Sufi is derived from suuf -- the woollen habit of the prophet and saintly people -- and visited the homes of the innocent and vulnerable with the avowal of bringing blessing upon them. Sufis naively began welcoming these impostors into the khanqas and offered them food and shelter. Even the name khanqa changed to tikiya, meaning "to stay at ease, eat and sleep". In Egypt today, Sufis tend to gather in their own homes to practise their faith while khanqas have become historical monuments. In fact, the remaining khanqas are located in the heart of poor neighbourhoods and are frequented by homeless people who either dwell inside them or enter the mosques to pray. Few now know the meaning of the word khanqa, and even well- educated people confuse it with the word "Al- Khanka"-- the name of an area in a Cairo suburb where there is a psychiatric hospital.

In Turkey, despite the clamp-down on dervishes since the secularisation of the country in 1922 under Kamel Ataturk, the town of Konya, the birthplace of the spiritual leader Al-Rumi, still witnesses a joyful annual celebration on the anniversary of his death at which he was believed to have become one with the eternal. Thousands of people, mostly tourists these days, gather to watch the stately and elegant ceremony to music derived from the 18th-century Ottoman courts.

Elsewhere dervishes keep a low profile, except in the United States. The popular image of Sufism in the West is of mystic and exotic dervishes swirling in a colourful dance, rather than the original concept of a modest way of life based on cleanliness, discipline and devotion. "The International Association of Sufism will build a khanqa in northern California," Rafea says. "It will be open to all Sufis from diverse backgrounds, cultures and orders to serve as a sanctuary from today's chaotic world."

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