The Mosque of Qaitbey in the Fayoum of Egypt
by Seif Kamel
Sometimes the inventory of archaic Islamic monuments in Egypt can focus too much on Cairo. These monuments are often well documented and there are several good books about Cairo Islamic Monuments. However, in looking about the country we can get an idea of how prolific some rulers were as builders. In the Fayoum of Egypt, we find few noteworthy Islamic monuments. Perhaps the best known are the Hanging Mosque, the Mausoleum of Ali Al Ruby, and the Mosque of Qaitbey. Of course, Qaitbey is a very familiar name to us, as a number of his building projects throughout Egypt remain very much intact.
Though the Fayoum remained for some time a Christian stronghold, with even today has a significant population of Christians, it fell very quickly to the Arab invasion after the fall of Fort Babylon. Actually, the Fayoum held out against the Arab armies and was one of the last parts of the country to fall. The province was defended by a Byzantine garrison and a native Egyptian force led by John of Maros, stationed at Al Lahun. When the Arabs threatened Bahnasa "Oxyrhynchus" South of Beni Suef, John hurried south and managed to repulse them, though they soon returned with reinforcements and took the town. John and his men escaped and fled south of Asyut where they were subsequently routed and killed. Meanwhile, a Theodorus maintained the Fayoum and used it as a base for unsuccessful sorties against Bahnasa. By this time the rest of the country had been abandoned and the main Byzantine forces had retired to the Babylon Fortress in Old Cairo, leaving all of northern Egypt and much of the south in Arab hands.
Babylon fell, however, in April 641 when the Arabs were reinforced by 4,000 Berbers. Most Egyptians welcomed the Arab conquest of the Caliph Umar when it came in the belief that the new regime could not be more repressive than the old Byzantine one. The fall of the Babylon meant the end of the resistance in the Fayoum also, for when Domentianus, perfect of the Fayoum heard the news, he fled the province with his troops in the night leaving only a token garrison at Fayoum City. Theodorus was away in middle Egypt, and the Arabs immediately fell on the Fayoum and took it easily. The small force in the fort could offer little resistance and were all killed. The inhabitants of the Fayoum surrendered peacefully. At about the same time, the last pocket of resistance in Upper Egypt was wiped out.
The first governor of the Fayoum under the Arabs was not an Arab at all, but a Coptic Christian, Philoxenos, who faithfully carried out his duty, which included levying a poll-tax, payable by all non-Muslims. This was how the Arabs built many of the Islamic monuments that still stand today.
In later years, the Circassian Mamluk Sultan Al Ashraf Seif El Deen Qaitbey, a renowned warrior, torturer, and builder who ruled Egypt from 1468 to 1496, made occasional visits to the Fayoum, including one in March 1476. He came especially to see the newly-completed orchard and watermill of one of his ministries, Khayrbak Hadid, on his Fayoum estate. It was probably on this visit that Qaitbey begun the work of building the mosque that today bears his name. It is usually assumed that he built the mosque and the bridge by which it stands, but it has been suggested that he merely restored the existing mosque of Ibn Fahl, mentioned by Nabulsi, the Fayoum governor in the 13th century. The mosque was formerly named (and frequently still referred to as) Khwand Asl Bay (Kwawand Asla Bey, Khund Asla Bey) Mosque. She was the wife of Qaitbey who some believe was responsible for the mosque's establishment, or that the mosque was built on her behalf.
I took a taxi from the Queen hotel where I was staying for my second part of my tour, and gave the driver two Egyptian pounds as this the fare from anywhere to anywhere inside the small city of Fayoum. The mosque is located on the Bahr Yousuf, the main canal in Fayoum City, by six bridges west of the famous waterwheels of the Fayoum.
The mosque from outside is quite plane with not much notable decorations. The walls are adorned with some bands of Quranic tests, and the top of the walls are surmounted by decorative crenellation, while the window treatment is very typical og mosques built during this era. There are two rows of windows, with the lower ones covered by wooden screens and the upper ones that consist of double, arched units below a circular window. Very significantly, it has no minaret. I have visited so many mosques around Egypt and this is the first mosque I have ever seen with no minaret, though I would soon find out that the other historical mosque in the Fayoum, the Hanging Mosque, likewise has no minaret. Minarets do sometimes fall, but they are always rebuilt. Regrettably, we are unsure weather this element of most mosques originally existed. Outwardly, the only real element of a normal mosque, other than the portal, is a small dome which, unfortunately, is located in the ladies section of the mosque, so we were unable to view it from within.
The portal of the mosque is on the south side. It is set in a large recess in a heavy stone wall, decorated with carved blocks of Quranic texts. Above the door is a classical seashell style conch surmounting triple arches and flanked by medallions, which also flank the upper part of the doorway below. The double door is made out of heavy wood, beautifully ornamented with green (tarnished) bronze in a rather unusual design.
The mosque from inside is quite plain and simple as well. The ceiling is made of strong heavy wood and adorned with with strips of wood. There are many ancient columns inside the mosque, including a number of them with remarkable Corinthian capitals. They were probably taken from the ruins of Kiman Faris, a short distance to the North. The arches of the mosque were painted with the famous red and white colors (known as Ablaq) that one sees in historical mosques dating to the Mamluk Period all over Egypt. The windows of the mosque are plane as well but with some colorful designs.
To the left as one enter the mosque is a curtained-off section for women, where the dome of the mosque is located. nearby, under one of the mats, is a well in the floor that was once connected to the Bahr Yusuf canal. It was originally used for raising water for ablutions but it is no longer in use.
The large Mihrab of the mosque is located on the eastern wall. Though perhaps quite simple in comparison to other mosques in Egypt, I found it very interesting with its huge Quran inscriptions carved into its wall. It is also colorfully ornaments and flanked on the left and right by small stone columns.
The Minbar, perhaps the most appealing element within the mosque is located to the right of the Mihrab. It is an excellent example of Islamic decorative art. It is made of intricately carved wood with inlaid ivory from Somalia. Above the door of the Minbar there is a verse from the Quran that encourages Muslims to frequently visit the mosques for prayers. The top of the Minbar is huge, made with the same wood and ivory, and looks quite impressive, with a large bulb surmounting the pulpit. The Quran chair, known as a dikka, next to the Minbar is also well executed with wonderful Muslim decorations all around it.
Interestingly, and revealing of the depth of antiquities in Egypt, this mosque is mentioned by practically no major guide books, regardless of its early date and unaltered nature. Visiting the Qaitbey Mosque in the Fayoum is quite an experience for any fan if Islamic art. Although the mosque is quite simple, it is beautifully executed and it appears untouched by history. One can also very easily visit the Hanging Mosque which is only a three minute walk away. It is also very near the local market in Fayoum City, were items such as copperware, spices and gold Jewelry my be purchased. One a week, there is also a special pottery market held in this bazaar.