The Attarine Mosque in Alexandria, Egypt
by Seif Kamel
The Attarine district is considered to be one of the most interesting areas in Alexandria. It is a sprawling antiques district. There are antique shops piled high with European furniture and trinkets that date back to Napoleonic times. Here, also, the intriguing belongings of many Europeans who fled the 1952 revolution are up for sale.
The Attarine Mosque is located in the middle of this unique area, on Attarine Mosque Street. This mosque was originally a church dedicated to Saint Athanasius in 370 AD. When Islam came to Egypt, the church was converted into a small mosque, which was built up and eventually became known as the Mosque of a Thousand Columns. As time passed, this mosque started to get old and some of its ceilings were damaged at the beginning of the Fatimid period.
Badr El Gamaly, the general of the army, came to Alexandria to put down the revolution started by his older son, Muzafar El Dawla, who was trying to create an independent state apart from the Fatimid rule in Alexandria in 1055 AD (447 H). Badr placed the city under siege for an entire month before he was able to enter Alexandria, after which he took his son Muzafar prisoner. Badr punished the people of Alexandria, because they helped his son in his revolution, by ordering high taxes to be collected from everyone, Christians and Muslims alike.
Badr took some of this money and restored the mosque of Al Attarine in 1057 AD (449 H), after which it became a congregational mosque for Friday prayers. At the time that the Attarine Mosque was rebuilt, Alexandria had two mosques. One was the western mosque, or old mosque, built by Amr Ibn El Aas when he conquered Egypt. He named it the "Mosque of the Thousand Columns. The second was the eastern, or new mosque of Attarine, so named because of its location in the Attarine area in Alexandria. The word Attarine means 'the spice dealers'. It had, at the time, not been a congregational mosque for some time. It was only practiced in the western mosque of Amr Ibn El Aas before the period of Al Nassir Ibn Qalawun, who ordered the practice of Friday prayer in the Attarine mosque continued once again.
The mosque has suffered much damage and renovation throughout its history. In 1370 AD (772 H), one of the columns of the mosque was broken, although this didnt cause any major damage. In 773 H, the mosque was renovated and there was a small garden placed beside it, which was a custom in mosques in North African countries and Spain. However, in the Mamluk and Ottoman periods the mosque was neglected. Therefore, the ceiling and the walls of the mosque were damaged. When Abbas II became the ruler of Egypt in 1901, he ordered his men to plan a whole renovation process for the mosque. What we see today is the result of that renovation.
The mosque was designed in a rectangular shape that appears triangular from outside, with the minaret in the corner of the triangle in the southeastern part of the mosque. The mosque actually has two facades. The first one is in the northeast portion of the mosque where the main entrance door is located. The other entrance door of the mosque is located on the eastern side of the mosque, and it leads to the mausoleum of the mosque. The southern part of the mosque consists of eight commercial stores. The profit from these stores is used to pay for the expenses of the mosque.
However, perhaps the most alluring element of this mosque is its minarets, which many believe to be one of the most beautiful in Egypt. It consists of four levels. The first level or base of the minaret is square in shape. The second level is an octagon shape. The third level, where the Imam stands and call for prayer, is circular shaped and has accurate, marvelous decorations all around it. The fourth level is a wonderful small circular dome with astonishing decorations.
The interior of the mosque consists of two floors. The first floor hosts the prayers of men while the second floor is only for women. The first floor of the mosque is a rectangular shaped area with four huge stone double columns that in tern support arches that support the ceiling.
The ceiling of the middle part of the mosque was covered with an open square dome, or a shokhsheikha. This is actually more of a skylight than a dome, with four decorated windows on each side. Under these windows, there is a line of Islamic inscriptions from the Quran. Overall, the ceiling of the mosque is the most appealing element within the mosque. It is covered with amazing paintings of geometric flowers.
The lighting of the mosque is appealing as well. There are two kinds of lanterns in the mosque. The first type are gold plated lanterns with many arms, each holding a lamp at the end. The second type are huge brass lanterns, such as one that hangs from the shokhsheikha. These brass lanterns have Islamic decorations all around them.
The qibla wall, which is always on the side of the mosque facing Mecca to indicate the direction in which Muslims should pray, lies in the northeast part of the mosque. It is where the mihrab of the mosque is located. The mihrab of the mosque is wider than most mihrabs in mosques in Egypt. It is decorated with green and brown paint and has two gold plated columns on its sides. At the top of the mihrab there is a verse from the Quran which says that the angels asked the Muslims to pray in the direction of the mihrab.
The minbar (basically the Islamic equivalent to the pulpit always located to the right of the mihrab) of the mosque lies to the side of the mihrab and it's design is very simple. However, it is made of one of the finest kinds of wood. The door of the minbar has gold plated designs all around it and there is a small triangle shaped dome at the top.
A visit to the Attarine Mosque is very interesting for various reasons, one being to see how this historic mosque has transformed through time. The only remaining original item is the stone stating that the mosque was built by Badr El Gamaly. Another reason for visiting the mosque is to see the wonderful architecture, including one of the most beautiful minarets in Egypt. Enjoying the variety of shops while walking through the Attarine district is also always appealing.