The Mosque of Muhammad Ali at the Citadel
by Seif Kamel
Though certainly not one of the most ancient mosques in Cairo, nor even one of the most historic, because of its grandeur and its location in the Citadel, the Mosque of Muhammad Ali is the most popular Islamic mosque among tourists. This mosque is also sometimes referred to as the Alabaster Mosque due to its extensive use of that stone on some of the exterior walls and other surfaces. Sometimes it is popularly known as al-qal'a, meaning citadel, and thus confused with the fortress in which it is located.
The mosque, the largest such structure built during the first half of the 19th century, is more impressive at a distance than close up. Though there its artistic merit is questionable, it is an unparalleled contribution to the skyline of Cairo, visible high atop the Citadel grounds. Indeed, its great dome and towering minarets give the Citadel a romantic, oriental quality that makes up for any shortcomings in its detail. It is almost certainly the first feature that catches ones eyes at the fortress.
Muhammad Ali tore down the remains of Mamluk palaces and their dependencies, which were luckily described only a short time before by Napoleon's scholars as the most impressive buildings in Cairo despite their dilapidated condition. Recent excavations demonstrate that, in order to build the mosque on top of the preexisting structures, some ten meters of rubble was filled in. Muhammad Ali, who was more eager to build modern factories than religious foundations, then erected this mosque, where he is buried, as a monument to himself. It is also an imperial mosque which challenged those of Istanbul much in the same way that Muhammad Ali did militarily.
Indeed, just as Salah al-Din, many centuries earlier, had abolished all traces of Fatimid power and status by refusing to live in their palaces and having them dismantled and parceled out to his courtiers, so Muhammad Ali destroyed all traces of the Mamluk palaces from which Egypt had been ruled since the thirteenth century. This is the reason why, among Cairo's wealth of historic Islamic monuments, there is not one royal palace left from these periods.
It should be noted that the Mosque of Muhammad Ali is not typical of such structures in Cairo. In its architecture, Muhammad Ali Pasha, viceroy and effectively king of Egypt, as well as the founder of Egypt's modern era, achieved a radical break with all traditional characteristics of Cairo architecture from the Mamluk to the late Ottoman period. This departure is emphasized by the choice of sites. Now, because it is the most visible of Islamic monuments in Cairo, Muhammad Ali's mosque became a symbol of the city, even though it is the least Egyptian of these monuments.
It is interesting, as well as paradoxical in a certain respect, that while politically Muhammad Ali acted very independently of Istanbul, architecturally during his reign style came closer to that of Istanbul than ever before, including even its Western, and particularly French, influence. However, one must remember that he came close to taking the Ottoman Empire as his own, and he set out in Cairo to abandon the oriental Middle Ages and built a city that would surpass Istanbul.
Originally, the planning of this mosque was assigned to Muhammad Ali's French architect, Pascal Coste, who probably would have built it in the local Mamluk style judging from his interest in Cairo's traditional architecture. However, for some unknown reason, Muhammad Ali changed his mind and hired a Greek architect, Yusuf Bushnaq, to design the mosque on a plan similar to that of the Mosque of Sultan Ahmad in Istanbul (known as the Blue Mosque).
Built between 1830 and 1848, the long time it took to complete this monument may be due to its size, gigantic by Cairo's architectural standards. That, combined with its prominent location and its profile of domes flanked by a pair of slender high minarets, contribute to its prestige. The Egyptians themselves place a great deal of pride in this monument.
The pencil shaped minarets, over eighty meters high, stand on bases only three meters wide. Though the architecture of the mosque is entirely Ottoman, the domes are, relative to their width, higher and less squat than those in Istanbul.
The complex consists of two parts, the mosque proper to the east and the open courtyard, or sahn, to the west.
The plan of the mosque is a central dome carried on four piers and spherical pendentives, flanked by four half-domes, and four smaller domes on each corner. There is also a dome that separates the mihrab ceiling from the Qibla wall. Measuring 41 meters square, the interior is impressive because of its size, and it shows the wonderful arrangement of mass and space that is characteristic of Istanbul mosques. The main, high dome of the mosque soars 52 meters high, with a diameter of 21 meters.
The grandeur of this single, large chamber is enhanced by the circle of small lamps hung in the middle of the praying area, and just above the main dome of the mosque. Other smaller lamps, many of them more modern, are hung elsewhere in the mosque, creating a spectacle of light that is grand in its own right.
Within the mosque are two minbars, or pulpits. The larger one of wood is decorated with gilt ornament, and is original. It is said to be one of the largest in Egypt, incorporating significant gold in its decorations. The smaller one of alabaster was a gift from King Faruq, dating to 1939. The mihrab, or prayer niche, is made of Egyptian marble. It is rather simple, but very beautiful at the same time.
In the southwest corner of the sanctuary, within an enclosure richly decorated with bronze openwork, is the magnificent, white marble cenoteaph of Muhammad Ali. However, Muhammad Ali was not originally interred here. He was originally buried at Housh el Basha, but one of his successors, King Abbas I, had his body moved to this location.
The mosque has three entrances, on the north, west and east walls. The western entrance opens onto the courtyard.
The courtyard, as at the mosques of Sulayman Pasha and Malika Safiyya, is surrounded by rounded arcades carrying small domes. These domes are supported by large, though relatively simple marble columns. The courtyard is almost square, measuring 54 by 53 meters. The courtyard has a northern and southern entrance from the mosque. In the middle of the courtyard is a marble ablution fountain with a carved wooden roof on columns. The fountain is lavishly decorated in a style similar to that of the sabil-kuttab facing the madrasa of al-Nasir on Mu'izz street. That structure was built by Ismail Pasha in 1828. The sabil and the upper part of the courtyard facade are decorated with small oval wall paintings on which Mediterranean landscapes are represented.
On the west wall of the courtyard is an iron clock, presented to Muhammad Ali by the French King Louis Philippe, with a tea salon on the upper level. Its style is a mixture of neo-gothic and oriental elements. It has never worked, and probably never will. The clock, given as a gift in exchange for the obelisk now in the Palace de la Concorde, Paris, somehow does not seem to be out of place, even though by all rights it should be. Perhaps this is due to the other European influences in the mosque, or that it's colors are well coordinated with other decorations nearby.
Though the architecture is entirely Ottoman, the decoration of the building is alien to Cairene traditions, and in fact, to Islamic art. There are no stalactites, geometric shapes or arabesques. Only the inscription bands continue any type of Islamic tradition. Six large medallions around the dome enclose the names of God, Muhammad and the first four Khalifs. The script written over a royal blue that often adorns windows in the mosque actually represent verses from the poem, "Al Burda", written by Imam al Buseiry.
Even the marble chosen for decoration is different from that of earlier mosques. In fact, the decorations, which were not finished until 1857, are at odds with the simplicity of the architectural structure itself. And yet, many tourists and Egyptians themselves, who are not especially trained in art or architecture, find the mosque decorations very beautiful. Its use of greens, golds and reds can be very appealing to many.
The walls and piers of the mosque are paneled with alabaster from Upper Egypt (Beni Suef), which is inappropriate for architecture as it deteriorates quickly. A gesture of baroque luxe, unless frequently cleaned, the stone also becomes terribly grimy.
In 1931 serious structural deviancies were found in the dome and it had to be totally rebuilt. It took two years. Between 1937 and 1939 the decoration was renewed and in the middle of the 1980s the whole Citadel complex was once again renovated.