The Al-Azhar Mosque
by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza
Located in El Hussein Square, the Al-Azhar Mosque (the most blooming), established in 972 (361 H) in a porticoed style shortly after the founding of Cairo itself, was originally designed by the Fatimid general Jawhar El-Sequili (Gawhara Qunqubay, Gawhar al-Sakkaly) and built on the orders of Caliph Muezz Li-Din Allah. Located in the center of an area teaming with the most beautiful Islamic monuments from the 10th century, it was called "Al-Azhar" after Fatama al-Zahraa, daughter of the Prophet Mohamed (Peace and Prayers Be Upon Him). It imitated both the Amr Ibn El-As and Ibn Tulun mosques. The first Fatimid monument in Egypt, the Azhar was both a meeting place for Shi'a students and through the centuries, it has remained a focal point of the famous university which has grown up around it. It was under Yaqoub Ibn Cals that the mosque became a teaching institute. This is the oldest university in the world, where the first lecture was delivered in 975 AD. Today the university built around the Mosque is the most prestigious of Muslim schools, and its students are highly esteemed for their traditional training. While ten thousand students once studied here, today the university classes are conducted in adjacent buildings and the Mosque is reserved for prayer. In addition to the religious studies, modern schools of medicine, science and foreign languages have also been added.
Architecturally, the mosque is a palimpsest of all styles and influences that have passed through Egypt, with a large part of it having been renovated by Abdarrahman Khesheda. There are five very fine minarets with small balconies and intricately carved columns. It has six entrances, with the main entrance being the 18th Century Bab el-Muzayini (barber's gate), where students were once shaved. This gate leads into a small courtyard and then into the Aqbaughawiya Medersa to the left, which was built in 1340 and serves as a library. On the right is the Taybarsiya Medersa built in 1310 which has a very fine mihrab. The Qaitbay Entrance was built in 1469 and has a minaret built atop. Inside is a large courtyard that is 275 by 112 feet which is surrounded with porticos supported by over three hundred marble columns of ancient origin. To the east is the prayer hall which is larger than the courtyard and has several rows of columns. The Kufic inscription on the interior of the mihrab is original, though the mihrab has been modified several times, and behind is a hall added in 1753 by Abd el-Rahman Katkhuda. At the northern end is the tomb medersa of Jawhar El-Sequili.