The Mosque of Mahmud Pasha in Cairo
by Seif Kamel
The Cairo Mosque of Mahmud Pasha is located at Salah El Din Square in front of the Citadel gate known as Bab el-Azab, and to the east of the Mosque of Sultan Hassan. It is just to the left of the Qanibay Amir Akhru Madrasa. It was founded by Mahmud Pasha, the Wally (governor) of Egypt from the Othman empire during the region of Sultan Suleiman Ibn Sultan Salim. He ruled Egypt for less than two years, and his mosque was completed in 1567, the same year of his death.
The Ottoman Empire was not really a very stable time for Egypt. Many of the rulers of Egypt reigned for only five or six years, due to the struggles between the Ottomans and the Mamluks to rule the country. This resulted in many problems for common Egyptians, including famine, which struck Cairo in 1695, when the population of Cairo rose up in demonstrations. The Pasha at that time refused to acknowledge the them and the revolt worsened until finally a new governor, Mahmud Pasha, was appointed to rule Egypt.
He is known to have been a rapacious and sanguinary man, never going out except with his executioner, to whom he would indicate with a gesture of his hand those destined for death. He met his own death by an assassin's bullet through his cheek.
Today, the Mosque of Mahmud Pasha is an active, functioning facility. I was somewhat concerned that my visit would upset those praying in the mosque, but after telling the guardian of the mosque the reason for my visit, he welcomed me warmly, saying, "Masha'alah", which means that he thought I would be doing something good for the mosque.
Apart from prayer time and during the Friday congregation, most mosques in Egypt are open to visitors, be them Muslim or not. The only exceptions are the mosque of Saydena el Hussein (now actually a relatively new structure) on Al Azhar Street and the Mosque of Sayeda Zienab. One must take off one's shoes before entering, and observe the sanctity of the facility by keeping one's voice down, but visitors are usually welcome. Some of the mosques have a small entrance fee, and it is customary to give a tip to the guardian or whoever looks after one's shoes or provides a scarf to wear (for women). Though mosques are usually open 25 hours a day, they are normally open to visitors from about 9:00 am until 7:00 pm.
Once one enter Salah El Din Square, one's eyes are normally drawn to the huge Mosque of Sultan Hassan and Refa'i. . However, to the right of them one will find a small read and white mosque set high on the ground. This mosque is considered a hanging mosque because one has to climb some stairs in order to reach it. However, from its porch one has an excellent view of Salah El Din Square and the Citadel beyond.
The exterior form and arrangement of the building are typical Mamluk. This implies a facade divided into bays with a stalactite cornice and windows of one small one over two larger ones. The mosque is free standing and inside it takes the shape of a large, square hall with sides of about 19.75 meters in length. The mosque's four walls are built of stone using an Ablaq scheme of alternating in red and white colors, both inside and outside. The location of the mausoleum dome behind the prayer hall to face the Citadel and building the minaret on a semicircular, protruding buttress flanking the dome, are both features that were copied from the Sultan Hassan Mosque.
The minaret of this mosque is located on the southern side. This is a pencil shaped minaret, which reveals its Ottoman heritage. That is a bit peculiar, given that the remained of the mosque's architecture is Mamluk in style, though the profile of the dome is slightly shorter and more rounded than Mamluk domes. This is a slender, circular tower that appears particularly elongated because of the circular buttress on which it rests. The same features can be seen at the the Sultan Hassan Mosque, which may have inspired the Mahmudiyya architect. Above the base is the first balcony where the call to prayers is made. Both this one, and a higher balcony, rest on stalactite supports. The shaft of the minaret, like the buttress, is ribbed with vertical moldings.
On the facade, there are many windows in the mosque to allow light and fresh air to enter, but all of them are simple wooden windows as seen from outside. However, their colorful glass and placement is aesthetically pleasing. The entrance portal of the mosque is designed similar to the Sultan Hassan Mosque, made of stone but of course much smaller.
Inside the mosque, a lowered aisle leads straight across the sanctuary from the entrance to the absolution fountain. Within the mosque I found one of the most interesting views to be that of the dome in the praying area. Muslims paid great attention to the ceilings and the domes of their buildings, and this one is no exception. Golden designs adorn the dome and the placement of intricate stucco and colored class windows bring these decorations to life. The fact that the mosque is free standing enhances the effect of the light coming through the windows. Aside from the dome, the ceilings are of a step design, as many are in Cairo. The steps are divided into groups and each group ends with a larger step. All around the bottom edge of the ceiling are verses of the Quran written in the ornate Arabic script known as Thulth. Though the mosque lacks any marble decorations, the treatment of windows and ceiling make this mosque particularly attractive.
There are four large granite columns that support the structure of the ceiling, a feature that can be found in the Mosque of Sultan Barsbay. These huge columns are Pharaonic in origin, and are considered one of the remarkable features of this mosque. Made of granite, their pointed arches are not parallel to the Qibla wall, but form a rectangular pavilion in the center of the mosque.
On the Qibla wall of the mosque, the Mihrab, a niche indicating the direction of Mecca is, unlike most others in Cairo, very simple with little adornment. There is only a simple curve in the wall, though the lighting of the Milrab is beautiful with three lanterns and one large one above. Likewise, the Minbar of the mosque is also rather simple with decorations on the door and stairs. The bulb at the top of the minbar is made of wood but, compared to other mosques in Cairo, is very small. A loggia of painted wood faces the prayer niche and is reached by an inner staircase.
The mausoleum of Mahmud Pasha is accessed from the east wall of the mosque. It is built separately from the mosque, similar to examples at the Sultan Hassan Mosque and in the Hussein Mosque after renovation.
The Mausoleum dome is made of stone and it is a very simply design. This is one of the few domed mausoleums of the Ottoman Period. Although it is very high, it is a plain dome with many small windows for light and some simple stone decorations around the dome, where it rests on pendentives The tomb of Mahmoud Pasha is also very ordinary and made of white marble with no decorations at all.
Renovations and restorations were made in the Mahmud Pasha Mosque by the committee for the preservation of Arabic monuments at the end of the 19th century, during the reign of King Farouk, who is buried only a few meters away in the Refa'i Mosque, along with a number of other members of the last royal family of Egypt..
This is the type of small, ancient mosque that escapes many people's attention, and yet, it makes for a very nice visit. There are perhaps as many as a hundred of them around Cairo, but this one is convenient to other sites more frequently visited by tourists. Visiting a historical mosque in Cairo is usually enjoyable and people working in the mosque are kind and helpful to visitors.