Madrasa Khanqah of Sultan al-Zahir Barquq
by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza
Next to the madrasa of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad stands the Madrasa Khanqah of Sultan al-Zahir Barquq at Nahhasin on the street called al-Mu'izz in Islamic Cairo, which can be dated to between 1384 and 1386 AD. The architect Shihab al Din Ahmad ibn Muhammad al Tuluni, who belonged to a family of court architects and surveyors, was in charge of part of the construction. The name of Jarkas al Khalili, the master of Barquq's horse and the founder of the famous Khan al Khalili, appears in the inauguration inscription on the facade and in the courtyard.
Its founder was Sultan Barquq, who was of Circassian origin, recruited under the Turkish Bahri Mamluks. The Circassians were subjects of the Tatar Golden Horde and were first imported to Egypt as slave troops by Qalawun in the thirteenth century. Barquq was freed in 1363 AD he established his dominance in the Mamluk government in 1382 when he seized power through a series of intrigues and assassinations. Since he also began recruiting Circassian Mamluks from Caucasus, Egyptian history references the following era as the Circassian Mamluk period with Sultan Barquq as its founder. These Mamluks were garrisoned at the Citadel and where therefore also called the Burji or Burgi Mamluks.
Sultan Barquq sought to legitimize his rule by associating himself with the previous dynasty, the Bahri Mamluks, to whom the legacy of fending off the Crusaders and Mongols and espousing Sunni Islam was bequeathed. Having established himself socially by marrying Baghdad Khatun, a widow of Sultan Sha'ban, one of the last descendants of Sultan Qalawun, he ordered the construction of a funerary foundation for his family. To emphasize the continuity he intended he chose a site next to the early Qalawunid monuments, which set the style during this period with counterbalancing and contrast of massive forms. However, Burquq's building would set the tone for architectural decoration in Cairo between 1400 and 1450.
The foundation established for this complex endowed a Madrasa teaching the four rites, a Friday mosque and a mausoleum, but unlike Sultan Hasan's madrasa, it was also a Khanqah for Sufis. This was a relatively large foundation, which housed as many as one hundred and twenty-five theology students and sixty Sufis, with living quarters for the teachers and stables for their horses.
The facade is paneled with recesses surmounted by stalactites. The upper windows have pointed arches as well as wooden grills. This is a style that can be seen in several mosques of the Bahri Mamluk period, including that of Aydumur al-Bahlawan (1346) and Ulmas (1329/1330). A tiraz band runs along the facade.
The dome next to the minaret is not original, though the two structures do seem to be in harmony. The original dome was a wood and plaster structure that collapsed in the nineteenth century. However, the building had frequently been the theme of illustrations, making it possible to reconstruct the dome fairly accurately. The new dome is made of brick. Though the dome's surface is plain, there is a cornice of stalactites at its base. This is a feature seen at the mausoleum of Sarghitmish, the Sultaniyya and the mausoleum of Yunus al-Dawadar (1382) located near the Citadel.
An octagonal minaret is recognizable at great distance by its solid overlapping roundels, column-supported galleries and onion shaped copper finial. The minaret is completely octagonal but differs from most of the other fourteenth century minarets in that its shaft is carved. There are intersecting circles where white marble has been inlaid in the stone. This design may have been inspired by the intersecting arches at the top of the minaret of Qalawun, which was build during al-Nasir Muhammad's reign. Just as in the Qalawun mausoleum, the facade of the minaret on its lower part has columns attached to the wall. These columns with their capitals are carved parts of the wall masonry, rather than true columns and capitals. The capitals themselves are unusual, with palmettes in high relief, and one of them is adorned with a stylized ram's head.
A trilobed stalactite portal graces the facade, and to the north of the portal is a large dome flanked by a minaret. This high, rectangular, slightly offset entrance is next to al-Nasir's Madrasa. The original bronze door is adorned with geometric stars inlaid with silver. Barquq's name, which means "plum" in the Egyptian dialect, is visible on the raised boss of the center star. Though on a much smaller scale, the vestibule within imitates that of Sultan Hasan's mosque. It has a stone dome flanked by stalactities. The recess of the portal is decorated with a large rectangular panel with inlaid marble, also reminiscent of that at Sultan Hasan's vestibule. The mosque retains a number of its original windows, doors and other furniture.
A bent entrance leads through a corridor to the cruciform interior. This vaulted passage has a recess on the left side which was probably used for water jugs, kept fresh by a wooden lattice door that is now missing. There are four iwans that face the courtyard that have four, large pointed arches. Above the arches is a large inscription carved in stone. The open court is paved with marble mosaic and features large porphyry disks.
The ablution fountain situated in the center of the courtyard has a bulbous wooden dome on eight marble columns, also similar to that in the Sultan Hasan mosque. During this period, the the sultan attended the first day of prayers at the traditional inauguration ceremonies of a mosque. Records indicate that at the inauguration of this specific mosque, the ablution fountain was filled with sugared water, and sweetmeats were distributed to the congregation.
This is a tripartite sanctuary, like that of Sultan Qalawun's mosque, with two pairs of granite columns on each side separating the central, large aisle from the side aisles. The sanctuary has an un-vaulted wooden ceiling, which is wonderfully painted and gilded due to a modern restoration. The qibla wall, to the right, is decorated with a marble dado and marble prayer niche. The qibla iwan was once lit with enameled mosque lamps that are today at the Islamic Museum. The current ones are replicas.
The entrances to the four Madrasas are pierced in recesses. The upper part of the recesses form round arches with zigzag carved voussoirs, a device that can also be seen in the Roda Nilometer. However, there, the arches are pointed.
We find a new feature on the doors inside the building. Rather than the whole surface of the door being faced with a bronze sheet, there is instead a central bronze medallion and four quarter circles of medallions at the corners, leaving the wood background to contrast with the bronze. Even the bronze appliques are pierced in order to show the wood background. This pattern of decoration, common in carpets, was originally adopted from book bindings.
The living units for the students all open onto interior passages, as there is no space on the facade or the courtyard. According to Doris Behrens-Abouseif, the waqf deed refers to this complex as a Madrasa-Khanqah and to its dwelling units as a rab', a term usually used to denote collective housing. Instead of tabaqa, the term for an individual living unit in a domestic rab, the deed uses bayt, a term used interchangeably with khalwa in waqf documents to describe a living unit in a madrasa or khanqah. The addition of a Sufi program to a madrasa reflects the integration of Sufism into urban life in fifteenth-century Egypt.
On the north side of the prayer hall a door communicates with a vestibule with a stone bench that leads into the mausoleum. The dome above the mausoleum has wooden pendentives and is painted and gilded with the usual decorations.
Interior view of ceiling
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