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The Khangah/Madrasa of Amir Sanjar al Gawly


The Khangah/Madrasa of Amir Sanjar al Gawly

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza


A general view of the minaret and the two domes of the Khangah/Madrasa of Amir Sanjar al Gawly

I have spent considerable time on Mui'z Street lately, exploring old Fatimid Cairo. It is full of Islamic monuments, but Cairo is known as the city of 1,000 minarets, and there are other places to explore. Today I want to examine another street, known as Saliba. It links Salah El Din Square, where the Sultan Hassan Mosque is located, with Sayeda Zainab Street, the location of the Sayeda Zainab Mosque.


This street is also rich with many monuments. The most important among them is the mosque of Ibn Tulun built in 879 and considered one of the most ancient and largest mosques in Egypt. The Gayer Anderson Museum is also located on this street, together with the Mosque of Taghri, built in 1440, the Mosque of Amir Shaykhu, built in about 1348 and Sabil Kutab Um Abbas, built in 1876.

A view of the main portal to the complex

I have visited this street before, specifically the Sarghatmish Madrasa. That monument was impressive and I wanted to return to see others. I often find myself intrigued by a specific monument because of a strange name or unusual architectural elements. This time I found both in the Sangar Salar complex (the Khanqah-Madrasa of Amir Sanjar al-Jawli), which is both a mausoleum and mosque built to function as a khanqah (khanqah, khanqahh). Commonly referred to as the Sangar Salar Khanqa, this complex is perched on the rocks of Jabal Yashkur on Saliba Street. It is an impressive complex viewed while coming down from the Citadel, along one of the medieval processional roads.

A view of the window treatment

Today in Egypt, the term Khanqah commonly refers to a sort of asylum for those with mental impairment, but that is not the term's historical use. It is a Persian word that originally referred to a hostel for Sufi where a Shaykh might also reside and instruct his disciples. In more western terms, it might be thought of as a monastery. Khanqahs can be found throughout the Islamic world, though the first to be built in Egypt was one commissioned by Salah el Din in 1170 AD. Today, few Khanqahs remain in Egypt, but examples of them include that of Amir Shaykhu on Saliba Street, built in 1335 AD and the Khanqah of Faraq Ibn Barquq built between 1400 and 1410 AD.

This complex is famous for its early, pierced stone screens

It is named for two very important figures of the Bahri Mamluk Period in Egypt. One is the Amir 'Alam el Din Sangar (Sanjar) al Gawly (Jawli), who held a number of important posts during the reign of the Qala'un family. In fact, prior to his death in 1346, he completed a number of historic building projects in the Al Sham district. However, he was also a long time Governor of Palestine, where he built many buildings. Then, between 1320 and 1328, he fell from grace and was imprisoned. He died in 1344. The other figure is Amir Seif al Din Salar, the deputy of Sultan Qala'un and al Naser. He played an important role in the agitated times which marked the beginning of the fourteenth century. However, he was condemned to death by stoning in 1310 AD.

Historically, this monument was known as the Mosque, or Khangah of Al Gawly. It was actually built in 1304 by Seif el Din Salar, but was renewed by Sangar el Gawly. It is the tomb of both men, the Amir Seif el Din Salar being buried beneath the larger of the two domes, and the Amir Sangar el Gawly under the smaller one. Its khanqah and madrasa, we are told served only one rite, the Shafi'i.

Actually, the entire function of the complex is unclear. The inscriptions do not actually specify whether it was built as a madrasa or a khanqah. Only the very vague term, makan, meaning "place", is used. Maqrizi thought that it was both a madrasa and a khanqah, and we do find that in the thirteenth century, many mosques as well as madrasas were already performing Sufi rites, indicating that Sufism was becoming increasingly widespread and was no longer restricted to a small, select community. However, many khanqahs were integrating the teaching of law into their activities, thus blurring some of the difference between a khanqah and a madrasa. In fact, during later periods, the combination of madrasa and khanqah became the main form of religious institution.

Another screen in the complex

Nevertheless, this complex differs architecturally, from other known madrasa/khanqah complexes, in having no qibla-oriented main hall. Furthermore, the double mausoleum is given the optimal location that makes it both Mecca and street oriented. Hence, the religious part of the complex is thus left without the main feature of a religious building, the qibla.

One must keep in mind that a mausoleum in itself is not a religious, but rather a secular building. By being attached to mosques, madrasas or khanqahs, and by having a traditional prayer niche, it acquired religious features. Therefore, the double mausoleum of Sangar and his friend Salar should be seen above all as a memorial building to both men and their friendship.

The layout of the whole complex is an interesting juxtaposition of two patterns within the same foundation, with one set askew to the other. Such a juxtaposition is unusual among Cairene medieval monuments, where a divergence between patterns within a religious foundation is the result of reconciling the street alignment with the foundation, with its two parts, the institutional (mosque, madrasa, or khanqah) and funerary, both oriented towards Mecca.

The facade is dominated by the unusual silhouette of a minaret flanked by two unequal domes. The lower part of the building is paneled with window recesses as is usual in Mamluk mosques. Each facade is divided into three panels, two narrow ones on either side of a broad one.

The main door of the mausoleum is three meters above the level of the street. A flight of stairs leads up to the entrance, from which another flight ascends to the main level of the complex. This portal is at an angle to the rest of the facade, and is not heavily decorated, though like the windows, it is crowned by a stalactite cornice. The mosque has another entrance at the rear decorated with a stalactite portal. A tiraz band runs along the facade.

The minaret is an important one in the evolution of Cairene minarets. The mabkhara-type (resembling the mabkhara, a metal column used in the Arab world to spread perfumed oil) minaret has a rectangular shaft that is more slender and elongated than those built earlier. The top two stories of the minaret are taller, at the expense of the lower shaft, which is more squat than earlier minarets of its type. Its decorations are similar to those of Qala'un's minaret, with each side adorned with an arched panel resting on stalactites and flanked with colonnettes. A horseshoe arch and double window with a bull's eye are also employed in the design. The type of stalactites surmounting the rectangular shaft are also similar to those of Qala'un's minaret.

A view of the interior of one of the domes

The upper part of the minaret is slender, with an elongated octagonal section that supports a cornice of stalactites and above it a ribbed helmet on a circular pavilion, which was a new feature and a move towards the colonnaded pavilion characteristic of later Mamluk minarets. An interesting element of this minaret is a portal at its stairway entrance from the roof of the mosque with a trilobed arch and two small maksalas, or benches on either side. The only other minaret with this feature is that of Bashtak, built in 1340. The rectangular part of the minaret is made of stone, while the upper part is of brick.

The adjoining brick domes, although common in northern Syria, are unique in Cairo and attractively distinctive. The domes, which are unequal in size but otherwise similar, are both ribbed with stucco on their exterior, but are plain inside. They are adorned with a band of stucco at their drums inscribed with Quranic verse in Kufic script. This is a device that was widely used in the architecture of Bahri Mamluk domes, and the Kufic script was popular at the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth century all over the Mamluk region. The profile of the domes curves after about one-third of each dome's height.

The Mihrab nitche within the complex

Like most such Mamluk structures, inside the main entrance is a vestibule with a cross-vault. However, the interior is unusual. Here, there are two doors. The one to the left leads to an irregular iwan, not oriented toward Mecca. The prayer niche, set askew on a side wall, is not the original one. Here, the minbar inscribed with golden verses from the Quran, is beautifully crafted of highly decorated wood. However, the mihrab of the mosque is very simple and plain except for the upper part which is inscribed with very simple text. This iwan faces a courtyard, covered now days, that is surrounded on three sides by living cells. An arched, smaller iwan faces the main iwan. A stucco inscription band, finely carved, runs along the walls that frame the courtyard. Openings with decorative grills, some of stucco and others of stone, lit the cells. They are pierced and carved in arabesque patters.

While the iwan with the cells in on the left, to the right is a corridor, roofed with a line of cross-vaults. On the right side are the two doors of the two mausoleums, at the back of which is a dome built of stone, undated and unidentified. However, the style of its transitional zone, which resembles that of the dome added by Lajin above the prayer niche of Ibn Tulun, suggests that it is one of the earliest, if not the earliest stone dome in Cairo.

A view of the three screened arches

On the left, or western side of the corridors, there are three pointed arches opening onto a courtyard. Their screens are very unusual, as is a fourth such screen at a window between the covered courtyard and the open courtyard overlooked by the arches. These screens, which are stone panels that do not close the entire height of the arches, are pierced and carved. This technique is usually applied to stucco window grills.

Panels made of stone and used as screens have no precedent in Cairo's architecture, though this type of work continued to be used and had an impact on minaret architecture. Prior to this, most minaret balconies were constructed with wooden parapets, but later ones were often made with pierced and carved stone panels. The earliest extant examples can be seen at the minarets of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad's Mosque at the Citadel. There are other such panels, though smaller, that decorate the walls of the corridor of the double mausoleum of this building, set between the arches as decoration. They are used once more instead of stucco window grills to allow light into the students' cells.

Each of the four screens mentioned earlier is carved with an individual, intricate floral design. One of them is adorned with grapes, while stylized palmettes, flowers and stalks are also used.

The Madrasa Courtyard

The courtyard separated by the screens from the corridor has a find band of stucco inscription along the wall and a small mihrab. From here, one finds a good view of the domes and minaret, and of the trilobed merlons around the roof, which was a new form of cresting appearing at this time.

The two domed mausoleums are accessed from the corridor through two doors on the right side, and they communicate with each other through doors inside the chambers. The first door leads to the larger of the two tombs, which is also more decorated than the other one. It is the tomb of Amir Seif al Din Salar, and the decorations are concentrated in the marble inlay of the mihrab and the qibla wall, but is also evident in the carefully carved wooden doors of the closets and panels of the cenotaph, and in the stalactite-squinch system of the dome. The marble inlays of the prayer niche in fine, geometric patterns, are similar to those in Qala'un's mausoleum. A wooden inscription band runs along the walls. The transition zone of the dome is made of an octagonal belt of niches and stalactites with windows in niche forms. The inside of the dome is not ribbed, and therefore unlike those of Sayyida Ruqayya and Yahya al-Shabih, where the flutes of the domes are structure rather than simply decorative.

A view of one of the corridors

Two openings opposite the prayer niche lead from the larger mausoleum into the smaller one belonging to Amir 'Alam el Din Sangar al Gawly. In it, the prayer niche has no colored marble, but the conch is ribbed. The ribs end at the bottom of the conch with a row of small niches, a rare type of decoration for prayer niches in Cairo. The transitional zone of this dome mirrors that of the larger one.

Back in the corridor, the first of the four arches, which is smaller than the rest, opens onto a courtyard that includes several other tombs. We do not know the exact function of this courtyard which is today framed on two sides by modern buildings. On the wall that is part of the madrasa/Khanqa building, there is a small stucco carved prayer niche set in a corner, and a stucco inscription band runs along this wall. This courtyard has the remains of cells that could have been a part of the living quarters of the community attached to the complex.

Regrettably, the complex is currently being restored and is not open to the public. It was once before restored by Comite in 1894. As of this writing, we are told that it will once more open in about August or September of 2006.

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