Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Standing proud

After a year of preparation, the area of the Sultan Hassan and Refaai mosques is to become an open-air museum to show the sumptuousness of Mamluk architecture. Nevine El-Aref reports on the development

Al-Ahram Weekly

Ambling around the monumental Islamic compound of the awe-inspiring Sultan Hassan complex and the Refaai Mosque in Al-Qalaa Square in mediaeval Cairo is an unforgettable experience, a chance not only to explore two of the largest and most extravagant mosques in the Islamic world but to delve into the dramatic life of their owners.

If the pomp of ancient Egypt is symbolised by its Giza Pyramids and Sphinx, the pride of Islamic Egypt has to be these two unique mosques. Both share the similar Mamluk opulent architectural style and engineering challenges, even though they were built in two different eras. The Sultan Hassan Mosque was built in 1360, while the Refaai Mosque was built in 1912.

Sultan Hassan was the son of the great Mamluk Sultan Al-Nasser Mohamed Ibn Qalawoun, whose own gigantic complex is in Bein Al-Qasrein Street in historic Cairo and includes a mosque, a mausoleum, a madrassa (Quran school) and a bimarestan (hospital). Hassan inherited the sultanate in 1347 at the age of 13, but three years later he assumed authority and arrested Emir Manjaq who had controlled the state’s affairs. Sultan Hassan appointed people he favoured to positions of power, which upset the dignitaries, generals and emirs who had been holding the reins. In 1351 they rebelled and dethroned him, imprisoning him for three years.

Hassan spent the time in his cell studying. In 1356 he regained his throne and in an attempt to solidify his power he reshuffled most of the ruling establishment, but in 1361, before he could consolidate his position, he was assassinated. The man behind the assassination was the chief military commander Yalbugha Al-Umari, who rebelled against Hassan along with other emirs, officials and generals because of his extravagance in spending the sultanate’s fortune on his favourite projects. Some documents say that Hassan first escaped from the Citadel to Cairo, where he was found and imprisoned before being put to death, leaving 10 sons and six daughters. His body was hidden and never found. The Syrian historian Ibn Kathir (1301-1373) recorded the sultan’s extravagant use of public funds, and nowhere is this more evident than in his gigantic and lavishly decorated mosque and madrassa.

Sultan Hassan assigned Prince Mohamed Ibn Baylik Al-Muhsani to supervise the construction of his mosque in 1357. The sultan’s murder meant it was not finished. Gamal Mustafa, director-general of the Sultan Hassan and Refaai site, says that if the work on the mosques had been fully completed then the wooden plaques on the façade would have been engraved with decorative items similar to those found within the walls of the mosque.

The mosque itself is a massive, religious Mamluk complex and includes a mosque, a madrassa, a bimarestan and a bath. It was built close to the Salaheddin Citadel, the seat of the Sultanate at the time, in order to please the sultan when he looked down from his palace across the open space connecting the mosque to the Citadel.

It is a remarkable complex for its unusual grandeur and innovative architectural style and decoration, which led the mediaeval historian Al-Maqrizi to say that although it was commissioned by a low-profile sultan, the Sultan Hassan Mosque complex housed several wonders of construction. It was built according to the cruciform style featuring an open courtyard surrounded by four iwans (vaulted halls with arcades) representing the four schools of Sunni Imams: Al-Hanafi, Al-Shafei, Al-Hanbali and Al-Maliki. The quibla iwan, the largest of the four iwans, is decorated with two windows in recesses and an oculus above the marble mihrab covered with coloured marble panels decorated with floral motifs.

The dekkat al-mouballegh (the bench of the repeater) situated at the front of the quibla iwan is made of marble and is raised on eight pillars and three piers. Two doors opening in the quibla wall lead to a mausoleum dome behind the mihrab. The dome measures 21 square metres, and its decoration is similar to that of the quibla iwan.

The mosque complex is 7,906 square metres wide with four façades, an open courtyard, iwans, a minbar (pulpit) and a mihrab (niche). The cost of its construction was 30,000 dirhams per-day, making it the most expensive mosque in mediaeval Cairo. This cost was met by seizing the assets of victims of the plague who had died without heirs. In his account of the events, Al-Maqrizi noted that a eunuch was said to have heard the sultan say: “If it were not that the sultan of Egypt would be called incapable of finishing a building that he had started, then I would stop building this mosque on account of the great amount of what has been spent on it.”

The northeast façade is the most impressive. Its sheer wall has four vertical sets of windows, while at the top of the wall is a massive cornice with five layers of stone stalactites. The open court is almost square and is decorated with a large ablution fountain at its centre. This is covered with s wooden dome supported on eight marble columns the capitals of which are decorated with verses from the Quran.

The fountain has been restored. Mustafa told Al-Ahram Weekly that the marble lintels of the fountain were rehabilitated while damaged and missing ones were replaced with similar lintels. Engravings and decorated items on the fountain were also cleaned. After being restored the fountain was taken out of service. “It is not used any longer used for ablutions,” Mustafa said, adding that the investigation carried out during the restoration of the fountain had not been able to determine the source of the water in and out of the fountain. It was established, however, that the fountain was not connected to the street drainage system. In order to prevent any unexpected leakage of water in the future, Mustafa told the Weekly, the water to and from the fountain was cut off and modern basins were installed outside the mosque for ablutions. The original baths of the mosque were also restored and placed on service for worshippers and visitors.

The original bath of the mosque is situated outside the mosque next to the bimarestan and includes a large, square marble bathing basin at its centre with a large number of outlying basins.

Mustafa said that the bath had its own water system which channelled fresh, clean water from the water wheel within the complex and dumped the dirty water into a cesspit buried in the sand. The same system was used to bring clean water to each of the basins. The water runs over a marble watercourse.

“This is the first time we have found a complete bath like this in an Islamic monument,” Mustafa said, adding that while other mosques had basins or baths, even those did not have a supply of running clean water and had water tanks instead.

Mustafa told the Weekly that the water wheel was now under restoration in order for it to regain its original features and stand as a model to show the plumbing system used in the Mamluk era. The area in front of the water wheel has been cleaned of rubble and sand, while the wheel itself has been cleaned and missing parts replaced.

Mustafa said that over the span of time the area had been sadly neglected and was used as a garbage dump by people from the neighbouring residential area of Souk Al-Selah (the weapons market).

The building housing the water wheel has also been cleaned and restored and will be converted into a library for Islamic arts and history. The library, Mustafa said, would not only be for the use of students and researchers but also for visitors and anyone else interested in learning more about Islamic monuments. It will include books on history and the arts, and copies of rare Islamic documents. A cafeteria will also be established there.

Near the water wheel zone is the bimarestan and a number of small, vaulted rooms once used to lay out the dead, according to Sunni religious rites, before funeral prayers in the mosque. Mustafa pointed out that time had taken its toll on these open air rooms, with cracks spreading across the walls and parts of the tiled flooring damaged or missing. With restoration, however, the rooms have regained their allure. He suggested that within the development process this area would be converted into a Mamluk market displaying products used at that time. Retail spaces would be allowed to antiques and souvenir bazaar owners as well as copper and silversmiths to increase the complex’s revenue, which in turn would be used in maintenance or to restore the neighbouring Refaai Mosque.

“It will also give visitors a complete view of how the Mamluk market looked in its heyday,” Mustafa said.

As for the bimarestan, Mustafa suggested that it would be converted into meeting rooms for scholars, cultural seminars or events. He said that in order to give visitors a view of how a bimarestan looked in the Mamluk era, one room would be furnished with furniture and equipment used in Mamluk hospitals.

To improve the landscape of the area outside the mosque, some of the original date palms were transferred to other monumental sites so as to create a dramatic view of the mosque and the landscape.

All excavation in the area within the mosque zone will also be on the visitors’ path after the completion of work and restoration.

Curator Hadir Ali told the Weekly that until now only a part of the excavation had been completed, but the lack of funds had intervened. She went on to say that the remains of a 19th-century wekala (business complex) had been discovered along with a number of decorated marble columns.

Unfortunately there will be a stop to functions at the site. “To protect the Sultan Hassan Mosque from further damage, wedding parties will no longer be held there,” Mustafa said. He explained that guests had damaged several parts of the decoration in the mosque. The dekkat al-mouballegh and the Quran lectern had also been damaged and some wooden parts broken off.

Opposite the Sultan Hassan mosque is the spectacular Refaai Mosque, with its overwhelming structure and stunning decorative items. When one looks at both mosques from a distance, one might feel that they are one mosque split in two. The Refaai Mosque has a similar grandeur to the Sultan Hassan Mosque, so that neither is dwarfed by the other.

The Refaai Mosque was constructed in several phases between 1869 and 1912, when it was officially completed. It was built on the orders of Khushyar Hanem, the mother of Khedive Ismail, to be a burial place for her family and herself. She assigned engineer Hussein Pasha Fahmi to design it in harmony with the Sultan Hassan Mosque.

The Refaai Mosque was built over the mausoleum and zawia (chapel) of Sheikh Ali Al-Refaai, the grandson of the Sufi Refaaiya tariqa (sect) leader Sheikh Ahmed Al-Refaai. Ali Al-Refaai was considered a saint during his lifetime, and people still visit his mausoleum seeking his blessed intercession in their lives. Some people still come to this mausoleum to read a verse from the Quran for the sheikh and to offer him flowers. Bunches of flowers and roses can sometimes bee seen on top of and all around his tomb.

The Refaai Mosque is rectangular in shape, measuring 6,500 square metres in size. Some 1,767 square metres of this area are reserved for prayer, while the rest is the mausoleum of the Mohamed Ali royal family. It was constructed in the Bahri Mamluk style popular in the 19th and 29th centuries. This style was similar to the European style of buildings at the time, and most of the materials used in the construction and decoration of the mosque were imported from Europe.

The construction was moving ahead at a good pace until 1885 when Fahmi died, followed soon afterwards by Khushyar Hanem. She was granted her wish of being entombed there, and then in 1894, when her son Khedive Ismail also died, he was entombed next to her.

These events placed the construction of the mosque on hold for almost 20 years, but when Khedive Hussein Helmi II came to the throne he assigned the Austrian architect Max Pasha Hertz, who at the time was head of the Committee for the Conservation of Arab Monuments in Cairo, to complete the construction. It was finished in 1912.

The mausoleum contains not only Khushyar Hanem and her son Ismail Pasha but also his wife and two daughters. Other members of Egypt’s royal family buried there are Sultan Hussein Kamel and his wife, as well as the last crowned king of Egypt, Farouk, whose body was returned to Cairo after his death in Rome in 1965. Farouk’s daughter Ferial was buried there in 2009. The mosque also served briefly as the resting place for the shah of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who died in exile in South Africa in 1944. His body was taken to Iran after World War II, but part of the burial chamber is currently occupied by Reza Shah’s son Mohamed Reza Pahlavi who died in exile in Cairo in 1980.

The mausoleum is small but houses wonderful decorations. Its walls are covered with colourful marble designs and golden verses from the Quran. The floor and Pahlavi tombstone are of bright green marble. The tomb itself is merely a small step rising from the floor with the name of the shah and dates of his birth and death.

The prayer hall is another distinguishing part of the mosque. The ceiling is beautifully decorated as it is stepped in a way that is similar to the ceilings in other historical Islamic buildings.

The curator, Nesrine Nabil, told the Weekly that the gold embellishing the ceiling was imported from Turkey at a cost of LE25,000, which was a very large sum of money at the time. The walls of the mosque are covered with colourful marble in the various styles of the Mamluk ornamentation. “There are 19 different types of marble from seven different countries,” Nabil said. The prayer hall has 44 grand columns in all, as well as 18 intricately worked window grills.

“Up to now the mosque has not been restored,” Mustafa said. He added, however, that restoration would start early in 2014 when work at the Sultan Hassan Mosque would be finished. However, a tapestry given to the mosque by the Pahlavis would be restored in the near future.

The Refaai Mosque is in an excellent state of preservation and it requires minimal restoration. However, Mustafa is hoping that when an appropriate budget is available he will be able to assign a team of surveyors to inspect the monument’s roof, which has been affected by rain water. He said that previous inspections had yielded very positive reports that confirmed it was still in good condition.

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