Al-Gawhar Al-Lala Mosque in Cairo, Egypt
During the times of the Mamluk sultans, the wall over the Citadel Square was embellished with dazzling palaces and Mosques reflecting the grandeur and commemorating the lives of the Sultans.
Citadel Square is considered one of the oldest squares in modern Cairo. During the Ayyubid rule and from the beginning of the 12th century, it became the citys center of gravity, from which the leaders of Egypt ruled the country. During the Mamluk era, construction continued within the Citadel walls and around the square with the houses of Sultan Baybars amirs and successors.
A view of the Sultan Hassan Mosque and Citadel Square from the Gawhar al-Lala Mosque;
A view of the entrance portal of the Mosque
The horse and armourers markets or Suqs (from which is derived the name suq al-Silah Street), which were very important trade markets, were also moved to this area in the vicinity of Sultan Hassan Mosque and Madrasa given its significant and central location. Hence, around the Citadel, numerous religious buildings were also erected, including the Gawhar al-Lala Mosque.
The location of this mosque is quite unique, firstly, given its vicinity to the Citadel and secondly, its construction on a relatively high hill that provided it with a panoramic view of the Citadel square and the Sultan Hassan and al-Rifai mosque. It is reached through a stepped passageway and has a spacious terrace in front where one can get a high glimpse of the Citadel Square.
Gawhar al-Lala mosque can be reached from the Citadel Square through a stepped street behind the Mosque of al-Rifai. The mosque also lies quite close to the Mosque of Qanibay Amir Akhur. The Mosque was built in 1430 AD and is considered small at only 2,000 square feet. This 15th century Mamluk mosque was built by Amir Gawhar al-Lala, a civil servant in the palace of Sultan Barsbay. Al-Lala was a title given to the post of the private tutors of the sons of a Sultan.
Gawhar al-Lala was a freed slave, who was in service to the son of Barsbay who succeeded his father briefly for three months. Though at first, Gawhar was highly honored by the prince, he fell from his high ranks and was thrown in prison where he died suddenly as a result of an epileptic fit. He was known for his kind heart and his good deeds and he was very much appreciated by many of his students even during the times of his imprisonment.
The mosque was planned along the lines of the cruciform madrasas, popular at the time of the Circassian Mamluks in the 9th till 15th century. Definitely, after a visit to Al-Rifai, this mosque will feel strikingly small in comparison. Nevertheless, all the best decorative features and elements of the mid-Mamluk period make this a charming mosque to visit.
Left: Old view of the Mosque's wooden latern covering the Sahn (actually, a dome with windows);
Right: A recent view of the Sahn lantern
The main entrance flanked by stone benches called maksala leads to a derka, a rectangular hallway, from which a bent passageway takes one through a secondary door leading to the sahn or covered courtyard of the mosque. The wooden ceiling of the passageway is beautifully decorated with fine paintings.
The sahn of the mosque is decorated with marvelously colored marble and with attractive marble panels on the floors. The sahn is adorned by a handsomely decorated yet a bit faded wooden lantern. The mosque has two side iwans and two main iwans, the largest being that of the qibla which is paneled in slabs of cool marble and soft colors.
Left: View of the original wooden entrance door, finely decorated in copper;
Right: Exterior view of the kuttab's wooden Mashrabeyya screen
The minbar, or pulpit, might seem different from other minbars of this period given the fact that all the inlay polygonal inserts are missing and have been replaced with plain forms. These alterations probably date from the time of its restoration by the French Comite in the 1980s. Inside the building adjacent to the mosque there is a sabil-kuttab, as well as a Mausoleum in which the founder, Al-Gawhar, is buried. There are also quarters used as storerooms and lodgings for the students and civil servants.
The main entrance in the center of the southwest faade overlooks Darb al-Labbana Street. The sabil, with its wall built of wood, is located in the southern section of the structure. It is of a type of sabil that has corner columns, which came about in the 8th/14th century. The kuttab is, as is typical in such structures, located above the sabil. A finely carved wooden mashrabeyya surrounds the balcony of the kuttab. From here, one can see one of the very best views of Citadel Square.
The minaret of the mosque rises above the sabil faade. It is built in the Knob style, which is also called the al-qulla style, with a single balcony. The mausoleum 'qubba', or dome, where the tomb of Al-Gwhar is found, is situated on the western corner. The fine old door leading to the mausoleum through the mosque is made of wood and distinguished by an overlay of fine and detailed copper decoration common to that period.
A notable architectural feature of the mosque is the manner in which the gypsum windows of the qibla iwan are angled to adjust the difference between the line of the street faade and the direction of the qibla.
Today, there is a gallery in the northwest iwan which has been draped so that women may pray there. The mosque is still in use and frequented by many visitors. A caretaker will gladly show one around the mosque and mausoleum. The ablution area that stands today is a recent addition. No sign of the old ablution area remains.
MWNF, 2001. Mamluk Art; the Splendour and Magic of the Sultans Al-Dar Al-Masriah Al-Lubnaniah, Cairo, Egypt.
Williams, Caroline. 2002. Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.