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2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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Building on the past

By Fayza Hassan

Cairo, it is often said, is the city of the Mamelukes. Before their advent, the Fatimids and Ayyubids built several fine mosques and tombs in Al-Qahira; Salaheddin erected the formidable Citadel, but it is only when the Mamelukes came to power that Cairo became architecturally the richest capital in the Muslim world. Dazzled, Ibn Khaldun wrote at that time: "He who has not seen Cairo has not seen the greatness of Islam." The city was dotted with mosques, tombs, khanqas (hostels), and madrasas (schools). Its forest of domes and minarets, its ornate doors and magnificent palaces were equaled neither in Istanbul nor in Delhi.

The Mamelukes, whose position was not hereditary, were anxious to leave part of their riches to their descendants. Often, at their death, their fortunes were confiscated by the state. One way around this problem was to erect religious edifices, endowing them to their descendants under the waqf system. Another reason for this architectural proliferation was the powerful relationship between the Mamelukes and Islam.

"The sultan of Cairo, successor of the caliphs," writes André Clot in L'Egypte des mamelouks, l'empire des esclaves 1250-1517 (Perrin, 1996), "was the guardian of the Holy Sites, and the leader of the Pilgrimage, as it was from Cairo that the mahmal departed. [The sultan] played host in his capital to the four grand qadis of Islam." It was therefore necessary for Cairo to display concrete proof that it deserved its place among Muslim cities. Finally, it may have been that the Mamelukes, born Christians and recently converted, vied to prove the sincerity of their conversion and the strong ties binding them to their new faith. The Ottoman conquerors had none of these problems, and their construction drive may have been somewhat more restrained.

According to eminent historian André Raymond, however, while the architectural grandeur of the Mamelukes is uncontested, many of the achievements that followed -- from 1517 to 1805, when Mohamed Ali came to power -- have suffered from the general discredit that befell Ottoman rule during the 20th century.

Things are only starting to change, he said at a conference that took place recently at the French Cultural Centre, and in recent years the architecture of this period has been re-examined with a greater measure of objectivity. Among the many accusations directed against Ottoman art, he added, is its lack of both magnitude and originality, besides the fact that it was not an indigenous product but was imported by the foreigners who replaced the Mamelukes in the seat of power. "One should not forget, when passing these judgments," commented Raymond, "that Cairo was no longer the capital of the Muslim world, but had fallen to the rank of a chief-town in a province among others in the Ottoman empire." This reduction in status was followed naturally by a decrease in the general affluence of the inhabitants and therefore in the funds allocated to construction.

If one considers the period as a whole, however, one is compelled to observe that it was not as dormant as we have been led to believe. In the list prepared by the Committee for the Conservation of Islamic Art, for instance, 230 of the buildings marked for preservation date from the Mameluke period, as against 199 from the three centuries of Ottoman rule. Taking into account the indifference displayed by specialists in the first half of the 20th century for the latter period, it is easy to guess that not all Ottoman monuments were deemed worthy of being protected. In fact, many more were passed up, some of them pulled down in the past 20 years. The numbers, therefore, represent only a fraction of Ottoman architectural production; yet even such a conservative estimate belies the reputation of poverty that has beleaguered this heritage.


sabils of Khusraw Pasha and Al-Ghuri
Raymond set Ottoman public architecture "under the dual sign of innovation and permanence," its most palpable trait represented by a remarkable fidelity to the Mameluke building traditions. "Not so surprising," he said, "since Mameluke art was considered indigenous and national. Constructions in Cairo simply continued to be inspired by the structural designs of complexes like those of Qaitbay, until well into the 18th century." According to him, the Ottomans did not display colonising intentions as far as art and architecture were concerned. On the contrary, they harboured great respect for Arab culture, which they considered an intrinsic part of their own. In fact, when Selim I -- having defeated the Mamelukes at Marj Dabiq near Aleppo -- arrived in Egypt in 1516, he was so impressed by Cairo's architecture that he conceived the ludicrous plan of transporting some of the Egyptian monuments to Istanbul. Eventually, he scaled his project down to a duplication, in Istanbul, of the madrasa built by the Mameluke Sultan Al-Ghuri (who had died during the Marj Dabiq battle). In view of this venture, he dispatched a number of Egyptian builders and artisans to the Ottoman capital. The madrasa was never built, however, and the craftsmen were duly returned

Further proof of the Ottomans' esteem for Egyptian workmanship, added Raymond, can be found in the sabil-kuttab, the first such Ottoman foundation, built by the wali, Khusraw Pasha, in 1535 -- a pastiche, albeit a very artistic one, of Al-Ghuri's sabil or public fountain, constructed 30 years earlier on the same street, 400 metres away.

Khusraw Pasha governed Egypt between 1534 and 1536. The sabil is the only building he erected here, although he was known to have been a great patron of architecture. His mosques and kulliyyas (schools or madrasas), built in the imperial (Ottoman) style are found throughout Syrian and Anatolia. It is not that he was incapable of commissioning a building in Ottoman style, therefore, as Raymond remarked; rather, he was so awed by the Mameluke fashion that he wished to emulate it closely.

The Ottomans had obviously recognised the originality and beauty of Mameluke art, a fact that is quite striking if one remembers that during the same period, Ottoman art was flourishing in Istanbul, as illustrated abundantly by the buildings erected at the time by the famous palace architect Sinan (1538-90).

It remains true, however, that, out of a total of 77 mosques, only four were constructed in Ottoman style between 1517 and 1598, the others having been more or less inspired by existing trends. Still, one should not be led to believe that the few buildings in pure Ottoman style dating from the first years of the conquest were an attempt to impose on Egypt the culture of its conquerors; rather, the representatives of the Porte felt the need to make a political statement by establishing visible and imposing symbols of its domination.

The oldest of these four Ottoman monuments is the mosque of Soliman Pasha at the Citadel, dated 1528. Describing it, Doris Behrens-Abouseif writes in The Minarets of Cairo (AUC Press, 1987) that, despite its plan, which is entirely Ottoman, and its minaret, following the style of Istanbul (a cylinder with a conical top), it displays a typical Mameluke feature: it is adorned with two stories, each with a different stalactite pattern. Most Ottoman minarets in Cairo, which are in general rather squat towers, have only one gallery.

That Soliman, (whose terms as governor of Egypt preceded and followed Khusraw's) decided to build his mosque within the Citadel, which was the seat of power of the Mamelukes and the headquarters of the janissaries, can only be construed as a clear intention of asserting his position, commented Raymond. Another Ottoman construction serving the same purpose and realised in 1571, was the mosque of Sinan Pasha in Bulaq, whose features were strongly inspired by a mosque built in Istanbul in 1552 by the famous architect Sinan (no relation to the pasha). Travellers arriving at the port of Bulaq were thus confronted at once by an obvious symbol of Ottoman domination. The third characteristically Ottoman monument of importance is the mosque of Malika Safiya (built 1610), the Venetian wife of Sultan Murad III and mother of Sultan Mohamed III, which was commissioned by an important Ottoman figure, replicating many traits of her mosque, the Yeni Valide, in Istanbul.

These are the only three monuments built by the Ottomans at the beginning of their rule to carry a political message.

Soliman Pasha
Sinan Pasha Abul-Dahab
Sultan Hassan Mahmoud Pasha
Left: the Ottoman minaret of the mosque of Soliman Pasha at the Citadel; above, clockwise from top left: mosques of Sinan Pasha; Abul-Dahab; Mahmoud Pasha; Sultan Hassan

From that moment on and until 1774, when Mohamed Abul-Dahab built his mosque, no monument of consequence was erected by the Ottomans. Interestingly, the plan of this mosque is a replica of Sinan's in Bulaq. "And for a good reason," according to Raymond: after the failure of Ali Bey El-Kebir to establish Egypt's autonomy, it was important for Abul-Dahab to reaffirm Ottoman hegemony over the country. This is why the site, opposite the illustrious Al-Azhar, was chosen and the mosque built in a style (by now familiar to Egyptians) that symbolised the power of the Porte.

In brief, the intrusion of Ottoman architecture on the indigenous Mameluke style had political rather than aesthetic motivations, said Raymond. Strangely, however, among all the traits of Ottoman architecture discarded by subsequent builders, the Ottoman minaret has remained even when the mosque itself has been designed in neo-Mameluke style. Behrens-Abouseif concurs: "Mameluke architecture in general -- and decoration in particular -- continued to prevail but not the Mameluke minaret, which after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517 was replaced by the pencil-shaped Ottoman one."

A relevant example of the phenomenon, according to Raymond, is the mosque known as Al-Mahmoudiya, commissioned by Mahmoud Pasha on Rumayla Square near Sultan Hassan mosque. Built in 1567 in neo-Mameluke style, it was crowned by a purely Ottoman minaret. Similarly, albeit much later, when Osman Katkhuda had his pseudo-Mameluke mosque constructed in 1734, the architect endowed it with an Ottoman minaret.

Another decorative feature borrowed from the Ottomans was the extensive use of ceramics (imported from Turkey or copied). One excellent example of this practice cited by Raymond can be seen in the decoration of the tikiya and tomb of Ibrahim Al-Gulshani, founder of the first Khalwati zawya (small mosque) in Egypt. According to the Blue Guide, this tikiya, situated near Bab Zuweila, was rebuilt in the early 20th century, while the sandstone tomb containing the sheikh's body is a 1519 original. "Later additions to the decoration are the tiles which cover the façade, probably [dating] from the 17th century." More ceramics were used as small decorative panels in various sabils, but this type of adornment reached its apex in Egypt when it was used in the decoration of the mosque of Aqsunqur, a Mameluke monument restored in 1652 by Ibrahim Agha, head of the janissaries at the time. He was the one who added the characteristic white and blue ceramics to the prayer wall, thus creating such a powerful impression that the edifice has been known as the Blue Mosque ever since.

On the whole, said Raymond in conclusion, the Ottomans intruded on Mameluke art with very few monuments, and only for political reasons. Even these featured several elements borrowed from Mameluke style, noticeable in the shape of the doors, windows or interior arrangement. One should not forget that those who built them were Cairene artisans, trained in indigenous techniques that had been used for centuries. While Egyptians took over certain decorative motifs that pleased their aesthetic sense, the prevalent style remained pre-Ottoman -- well into the 18th century.

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