Muhammad Ali (1805-2005) is a special series published fortnightly by Al-Ahram Weekly in anticipation of the international symposium commemorating the bicentennial of Muhammad Ali Pasha's acendancy to power, to be held in Egypt on 10 November. Contributions, proposals and letters on the subject should be addressed to the series editor Amina Elbendary email@example.com or faxed to +202 578 6089.
Previous instalments: Muhammad Ali (1805-2005)
A mosque and an imperial dream
examines the interplay between architecture and politics at the Muhammad Ali Mosque
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Clockwise from bottom left: a view of the Muhammad Ali Mosque at the Citadel; the façade of the mosque designed by Coste (from Pascal Coste: Toutes les Egyptes ); a plan of the mosque
In 1949, Gaston Wiet the French director of the Museum of Islamic Arts in Cairo and one of the most powerful doyens of heritage in Egypt published a book entitled Mohammed Ali et les beaux-arts. The book, which was part of the centennial of Muhammad Ali's death and therefore predictably laudatory, emphasises the Pasha's patronage of European artistic and architectural styles as well as his budding interest in antiquarianism as significant aspects of his overall modernisation through Westernisation project. Wiet, however, was perplexed by Muhammad Ali's greatest architectural achievement, his Great Mosque at the Citadel of Cairo. For, in contrast to his other commissions, it exhibited distinct archaic Ottoman elements. Wiet was also poignantly aware that an original design for a mosque at the same spot by one of his illustrious compatriots, Pascal-Xavier Coste, the architect from Marseilles who lived and worked in Egypt for almost ten years (1817- 1827), was discarded without explanation in favor of the Ottoman edifice. The French scholar did not consider the switch from the Pasha's viewpoint, who, after all, must have been the party most concerned about the mosque that would carry his name. Moreover, Wiet could not have imagined that the protracted building of the mosque encapsulated the saga of Muhammad Ali as a wali with a much more ambitious imperial project than is usually thought. What follows is a reconstruction of the story that Wiet could not have told.
THE MOSQUE COSTE DESIGNED: Pascal-Xavier Coste was one of the first French experts recruited by Edme François Jomard, a founding member of the Institut d'Égypte and the editor of the Description de l'Égypte, to work for Muhammad Ali Pasha in Egypt. At first Coste planned and constructed irrigation canals in the Delta, factories and mills in and around Cairo, and a telegraphic line between Alexandria and Cairo. His architectural break came in 1821 when Muhammad Ali commissioned him to design a mosque at the Citadel of Cairo. This was followed in 1824 by another request for a mosque in Alexandria which was never built. Coste was also asked to build palaces and pavilions for a number of European and Egyptian dignitaries and for Muhammad Ali himself, of which little has survived. However, his lasting impact as an architect in Egypt rested primarily on the book he published in 1837 after his return to France: L'Architecture Arabe ou Monuments du Kaire mesurés et dessinés de 1818 à 1826.
The two mosques' designs and the book were conceptually intertwined. Noting that he had no knowledge of Islamic religious architecture to guide him in designing a mosque, Coste obtained permission to visit and study a number of historical mosques. He spent two years (1822- 24) documenting many Fatimid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk structures that were later published in his book. These drawings constituted the repertoire upon which Coste based his Mamluk- inspired style for the design of the mosques commissioned by Muhammad Ali. The detailed analytical drawings of Mamluk monuments seem to have allowed the architect, who was educated in the Beaux-arts tradition, to make the leap from admiring historical examples to adopting their distinctive elements for design purposes. Coste's designs display several characteristics of Mamluk mosques and reveal how he accomplished a synthesis of a basic vocabulary for a new Mamluk style.
The design for the Citadel mosque has four hypostyle halls arranged around a central courtyard with four domes at the four corners. Four minarets à la turque -- two at the ends of each of the two external aisles that Coste added along the longitudinal sides of the mosque -- frame the square composition. A huge dome protrudes from the qibla wall in a direct reference to the arrangement of the mosque of Sultan Hasan (1356-61), the most monumental of all Mamluk structures. Two arcaded arms extend from the two ends of the entrance façade and enclose an open space that may have been intended as a forecourt. They each end in a sabil/kuttab. The façades and sections in the sketchbook show that the emphasis is on the five domes, especially the one behind the qibla wall, designated as the pasha's funerary dome. They all have high Mamluk profiles, are all ribbed or carved in a chevron pattern, and their drums are stepped and rest on four triangular corners. These are integral features encountered in all Mamluk domes of the fifteenth century.
In a note attached to his sketches, Coste says that the foundations for his mosque were excavated in June of 1827. He left Egypt for good shortly after, but the project was still alive in 1831, when the Russian consul in Cairo reported that the Pasha was collecting marble for the funerary mosque at the Citadel designed by the French architect Coste. Coste's name, however, ceased to appear in all later reports on the mosque's building. By 1833 Coste's design had been abandoned; things had changed and the mosque's appearance now seemed "barbarous" and "in the Armenian (read Ottoman) style" to the British traveler Robert Curzon. Many visitors to the Citadel in the 1830s and 1840s scorned the mosque Muhammad Ali was building as foreign in design and unsuitable for the site. But neither Curzon nor any later visitor mentions either the date in which Coste's design had been dropped or the name of the architect responsible for its replacement. From circumstantial evidence, however, it seems that an architect, or a group of architects, trained in the Ottoman tradition, replaced Coste around 1832. The new architects totally revamped Coste's design, but apparently had to use the foundation already laid for the mosque, since the mosque of Muhammad Ali today and the one designed by Coste have the same outer dimensions and are both arranged in four-meter-square grids.
THE MOSQUE MUHAMMAD ALI BUILT: The mosque Muhammad Ali ultimately built has a distinctly Ottoman, pure central-domed plan and two slender and high pencil minarets, a far cry from Coste's design. It majestically stands at a northwestern bend of the Citadel and is visible from almost every location in Cairo. It has become the symbol of the Citadel, to the point that its name is given to the whole complex in the colloquial Egyptian parlance. Moreover, the mosque has reached a canonical status as one of the principal monuments of Egypt so that its image is both engraved on the ten-piaster coin and printed on the twenty-pound bill, two of the most widely used denominations. But to ignore how Coste's design was replaced by a totally different structure after his departure from Egypt would be to miss a meaningful instance of the interplay between architecture and politics and overlook the ideological and imperial impetus behind the shift in design.
The mosque was not finished until after Muhammad Ali's death in 1848. Its decoration was completed later, during the reign of Abbas Pasha I. The exterior and interior walls and piers, as well as the porticoes surrounding the sahn are all lined with alabaster, hence the alternative name for the mosque, the Alabaster Mosque. An octagonal Turkish baroque ablution fountain covered by a carved alabaster dome stands in the center of the sahn, above which is a large dome surrounded by an ornamented awning and supported on eight columns. The mosque's two slender pencil minarets soar to a height of 82 metres. The central dome, with its four supporting semi-domes all covered with lead sheets, is 52 metres high. The interior of the dome and semi-domes is decorated with painted and gilt ornament in relief, executed in a neo-baroque style. The interior decoration contrasts sharply in its profusion and eclecticism with the structural straightforwardness of the mosque. In the middle of the western side of the courtyard, which overlooks the maydan below the Citadel, stands a brass clock-tower, the ultimate sign of modernity. It was presented in 1845 to Muhammad Ali by Louis Philippe, king of France, in return for the obelisk which adorns the Place de la Concorde in Paris today. This clock-tower somehow does not seem at odds with the rest of the mosque, even though it should.
Though unmistakably Ottoman, the mosque does not follow the example of contemporary imperial mosques erected in Istanbul in heavy baroque or rococo styles, such as the Nusretiye Mosque, built by Sultan Mahmut II between 1822 and 1826, for example. Instead, the mosque of Muhammad Ali seems to have been meant as a rhetorical composition designed to emulate older imperial Ottoman mosques. Modern guides and scholars assert that it was a copy of the Nuruosmaniye Mosque, completed by Sultan Osman III in 1755. But its plan and general appearance more closely resemble a much earlier mosque: that of Sultan Ahmet, also known as the Blue Mosque, built between 1609 and 1617 and considered the last great classical Ottoman mosque.
The Ottoman archaism of the mosque of Muhammad Ali must have been intentional, especially if we take into consideration the psychological makeup of the Pasha and the political conditions of the period during which his mosque was constructed (1830-48). Arriving in Egypt in 1801 with the Ottoman army that replaced the French, Muhammad Ali, an exceedingly cunning Ottoman officer from Kavala in Macedonia, rose from the position of second-in- charge of the Albanian contingency to secure his appointment by the Ottoman sultan as the governor of Egypt in 1805. It took him six more years of political maneuvering -- which culminated in the notorious massacre of the Mamluk amirs in 1811 -- to become the sole master of the country. He soon embarked on a programme of intense economic, social, and military restructuring that was aimed primarily at modernising the country after Western models and creating a power base for his plans of territorial expansion. Coste was only one among many Europeans, mostly French, who were engaged by the Pasha to carry out his reforms, especially building a powerful modern army. Muhammad Ali also established a new school system to train the local cadres for his army and administration; founded a press at Bulaq to publish translated textbooks for the new schools and for the administration; and sent a number of students on academic missions to Europe to acquire the higher education deemed indispensable for the proper management of the new army and state structures.
MUHAMMAD ALI'S IMPERIAL DREAM: Muhammad Ali himself remained the Ottoman gentleman he had made himself into when he first came to Egypt. He only spoke Turkish and dressed in the Turkish Ottoman fashion. He displayed the most exquisite manners of the Ottoman court. His immediate entourage was made up of an elite of Ottoman-trained men, among whom he fostered an Ottoman cultural identity, even when he was engaged in a war against the Ottoman sultan. The Pasha also cultivated a taste for classical Ottoman literature and for the lore of the great Ottoman sultans of yore. Of the 243 books printed at Bulaq press between 1822 and 1842, none is an Arabic history book. Instead, books on Ottoman history, the biographies of great Ottoman sultans, and Persian and Turkish classical poetry make up a considerable proportion of the non-pedagogical output. They include the biographies of sultans Selim I (1512-20), the conqueror of Egypt, and Sèleyman the Magnificent (1520-66), in addition to the divans of celebrated Persian poets, such as Hafiz, Sa'di, Jalal al-Din Rumi, and Farid al-Din 'Attar, which had long been de rigueur reading for a true Ottoman aristocrat.
By 1830, Muhammad Ali, who had long been aware of the intrinsic weakness of the Ottoman empire, decided to risk an all-out attack against it despite his awareness that Europe would resist such a daring move. Between 1830 and 1833, his new army marched north and threatened Istanbul before it was halted by European pressure. For eight years afterward, Muhammad Ali defiantly reigned over an empire that extended into the Ottoman heartland of Anatolia, with his son Ibrahim Pasha as the effective governor of greater Syria. He seems not to have totally relinquished his dreams of rising to the pinnacle of the empire until 1841, when his army was driven out of Syria by a combined European- Ottoman assault. Soon afterward, in the Treaty of London forced upon him by the European Powers, he agreed to recognise the sovereignty of the Ottoman sultan in return for a guaranteed hereditary entitlement to rule in Egypt for his family. This act established a semi-autonomous Egyptian kingdom which was ruled by Muhammad Ali's descendants until 1952.
The mosque of Muhammad Ali was constructed during that period of struggle for control in the Ottoman Empire, and the Pasha probably intended it to articulate his aspirations to become the new sultan. The references to the glorious Ottoman past and the independence from the decadent Ottoman present are equally well expressed in the mosque's classical style, monumentality, and location in the Citadel of Cairo which had been the seat of government in the country for at least seven centuries. This may have been Muhammad Ali's idea of visually asserting his aims to take the place of the Ottoman sultan and to revitalise the empire, and perhaps to move its capital from Istanbul to Cairo. Evoking the memory of earlier Ottoman mosques in the form and appearance of his own also reflects the mentality of the Pasha, who was after all the product of the Ottoman system and the Ottoman cultural milieu. For him, classical Ottoman architecture must have represented the most appropriate and most revered image of power itself. He did not want to destroy that symbol; he wanted instead to revive and appropriate it. Coste's Mamluk-inspired design, had it been constructed, would have given the wrong signals. It would have connected Muhammad Ali to the Mamluk legacy that he had eradicated when he massacred its last representatives, the Mamluk amirs.
But this same style was to prove itself convenient when Muhammad Ali's successors needed to proclaim their independence from the hegemony of the Ottoman Sultanate and to assert a modern Egyptian image as the symbol of their reigns. Coste's pioneering projects unintentionally inspired a whole string of religious and public structures constructed in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century in a style that was historicising in its inspirations and nationalistic in its aspirations. This so-called Neo-Mamluk style came to be regarded as an Egyptian national style, relating contemporary Egyptian architecture to a glorious phase of its history. Forgotten were the conditions of its original appearance and the metamorphoses it had undergone since Pascal Coste first synthesised its elements. And ignored was that brief interlude between the first and second stages of Mamluk revival when Muhammad Ali, who was successfully expanding his dominion, sought to give his imperial dream a concrete and intelligible classical Ottoman shape that still graces the skyline of Cairo.
* The writer is Aga Khan professor of Islamic architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of The Citadel of Cairo: A New Interpretation of Mamluk Royal Architecture (Leiden, 1995), and the co-editor of Making Cairo Medieval (Lantham, Md, 2005) .