The Refa'i Mosque
by Seif Kamel
After visiting the huge mosque of Sultan Hassan last week, I had to visit the other Mosque that lies right beside it, the Refa'i Mosque. Seeing these two mosques from a distance makes one think that they are one mosque split in two. This is because of the many similarities between the exterior designs of both mosques. The Refa'i Mosque was designed so that it would not look dwarfed by the huge Sultan Hassan Mosque.
The Refa'i Mosque is located next to Sultan Hassan Mosque in Salah El Din Square near the Citadel in Cairo. Actually, it is separated from the mosque of Sultan Hassan by a pedestrian street. As I entered this lane I was overwhelmed by the huge structure of the Refa'i Mosque and the tiny details of the decorations on its exterior walls, and by the large marble columns that are a part of the entrance portal. The designers and builders of this grand mosque paid considerable attention to every single detail of its ornamentation.
The Al-Rifa'i Mosque was constructed in two phases over the period between 1869 and 1912, when it was finally completed.
Khoshiar Hanem, the mother of Khedive Ismail, was really the one who wanted the mosque built in 1869. It's construction took 40 years. It now contains the tombs of many royal family members in Egypt, which is the reason why Khoshiar Hanem wanted it built in the first place. She placed the most important engineer in Egypt, Hussein Fahmy Pasha, in charge of its design.
This enormous structure was built upon the site of the former Rifa'i zawiya, acquired and demolished by the Princess Khushiar. Shaykh 'Ali al-Refa'i was a medieval era Islamic saint. The zawiya was a pilgrimage site for locals who believed that the tomb had mystical healing properties. It houses his tomb, along with that of Yehia Al Ansary, a companion of the prophet.
The Mosque is rectangular in shape, measuring some 6500 square meters in size. 1767 square meters of this area is reserved for praying, while the remainder is the mausoleum of the royal family. The Refa'i Mosque was built in the Bahri Mamluk style which was popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. This style was similar to the European style of buildings at the time. Most of the materials were imported from Europe. The building of Refa'i Mosque was part of a vast campaign by the 19th century rulers of Egypt to both associate themselves with the perceived glory of earlier periods in Egypt's Islamic history and modernize the city. Construction on the mosque was moving along at a good pace when, first Hussein Fahmy died and then in 1885, Khoshiar Hanem also died. She was granted her wish of being entombed here, and then in 1894, when her son Khedive Ismail also died, he was entombed next to her. All of this caused the process of building the mosque to stop for about twenty five years. During Hussein Hilmy II rule of Egypt, he ordered Max Hertz Pasha, who was Austrian, and his Italian assistant Carlo Virgilio Silvagni, to finish the enormous task of completing work on the mosque. They also completed the decorations of the mosque, for which the original architect had left no plans, from models taken from the best mosques in Cairo. This was accomplished in 1911, and it was opened for Friday prayer for the first time in 1912. The mosque came to represent a turning point in the cultural and political history of Cairo.
The doorway through which I entered the mosque opens onto the narrow street between the two mosques. It had two huge marble columns to either side, with an unusual spiral design on their columns. The decorations on the walls above the door and all around it are fascinating, and even the ceiling of the entranceway is interesting. The designers seem to have been very articulate, paying attention to the smallest details. The ceiling above this portal is wonderful with golden Mamluk inspired decorations. However, this was not its main entrance originally. That was located at the western end of the building, but it is now closed.
Once inside the mosque, one finds oneself in front of the mausoleum of Shaykh 'Ali al-Refa'i, the head of the Refa'i tariqa, or order of dervishes. He was considered a saint during his lifetime, and people still walk around his tomb, touching their hands to the sandalwood screen, while seeking his blessed intercession in their lives. Some people still come to this mausoleum to read a verse of Quran for the Shaykh. Reading the verses of " Fatha" for the dead is a well known Islamic tradition. His tomb is covered with fine pieces of wood engraved with marvelous decorations. What really completed the amazing scene were the many flowers and roses placed on top of and all around his tomb.
To the left of this tomb, behind the mashrabiya screen, in other chambers lie the tombs of King Fuad, who reigned from 1917 to 1936, and his mother along with the mausoleum of the Shah of Iran. It contains the tomb of Mohamed Reda El Bahlwy, who died in exile in South Africa in 1944, and was returned to Iran after World War II. Part of the burial chamber is currently occupied by Reza Shah's son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who died in Cairo in 1980. For Iranians who find themselves in this mausoleum there is poignancy for an emperor who reigned for 37 years during which Iran was an island of stability and progress in a volatile part of the world. The mausoleum is small but it has many amazing decorations. Colorful designs and golden verses of Quran are all about the room and here is one of the most beautiful Mihrabs I have encountered. It is decorated with marble and gold and shines as if it were built just yesterday. The room was also filled with flowers. The tomb itself is only a small step rising from the floor with the name of the Shah and his dates of birth and death. After leaving this mausoleum, I entered the prayer hall of the mosque. Most people do not enter a place looking at the ceiling, but I did. The ceilings were carefully chosen and decorated in a charming style. They are stepped in a way that is similar to the ceilings in other historical Islamic buildings such as the Gayer Anderson Museum and the Suhaymi House. The gold for its gilding was imported from Turkey at a cost of 25,000 LE, which between 1906 and 1912, was a very large sum. Muslims paid great interest to the ceilings especially in mosques because when a Muslim is speaking to God, he is supposed to look upwards towards the sky and therefore the ceiling.
Most of the walls of the mosque are covered with colorful marble with different styles of the Mamluk style ornamentation. This is an impressive place, both in its monumental size and in the variety of its dazzling ornamentation. Here, nineteen different kinds of marble from seven different countries were used. Pointed arches divide the royal mosque into three porticoes. Two marble columns, one white and the other dark green, stand at the sides of the great dome There are forty-four grand columns in all, and eighteen intricately worked window grills. Each cost 1,000 LE. There are many doors in the walls and all the doors are made with the finest wood and decorated with pieces of expensive Abanos wood. Many of the walls have blue decorations highlighted by golden lines all around them.
Lighting has always been an interesting element of mosque design. The lighting of this mosque is well suited, consisting mainly of huge, ornate brass lanterns that hang from the ceiling. These lanterns are electric now, but in the past used candles as a source of light. There are also many smaller lamps hung haphazardly, it would seem, from the ceiling.
The Dikka here is one of the most beautiful I have seen. It is a raised platform from which the respondents (qadi) repeat the ritual postures of the iman and speak the responses so that the stages of prayer may be transmitted to larger congregations. This rectangular Dikka is made out of white, pure alabaster supported on eight columns. It is adorned with Quran verses engraved using pure gold all around it. Beside the Dikka, there is the Quran table, known as a kursi, which is a wonderful work of art in wood. It is well designed and in very good condition.
The Minbar of the mosque is decorated with mother of pearl. The door to the minbar is made of wood and decorated with abanos wood and alabaster. The platform of the minbar is like many other in Cairo, surmounted by a dome. This minbar is the most brilliant one can see in the Mamluk style. Unlike the minbar, the mihrab of the mosque is rather plain and familiar, not unlike many others in Cairo. It is only a niche in the wall to show the direction of the qibla. There are five lines of decorations in the mihrab with some very small golden decorations in the second line but the whole mihrab is still very average and unassuming. The founder and her family are buried in funerary chambers along the north wall of the mosque. Access to them is from a door on a line with the column cluster nearest the qibla.
The first tomb I saw belonged to Khedive Ismail. This was the first time I had ever seen one of the tombs of the last royal family in Egypt. . Khedive Ismail was certainly one of the most important of his dynasty. It was he who was responsible for the building of the Suez Canal, along with many bridges and railways in Egypt. His tomb is very unique and appealingly decorated. It is in a rectangular shape with three levels, shaped not unlike a small step pyramid, with each step elaborately decorated. At one end of it is a column. The second tomb is of Khoshiar Hanem, the founder of the mosque, a consort of Ibrahim Pasha and the mother of Khedive Ismail. It was her wish to be buried with her son in a great mausoleum and her wish was granted. Her tomb is similar to her son's but with only two steps, adorned with golden Quran verses written all around it.
We then moved to the other room where the three wives of Khedive Ismail were buried. The first and last tombs are just like Khoshiar Hanem tomb with two, ornately decorated steps.. These two wives were Muslims. The tomb in the middle belongs to the Christian wife of Khedive Ismail, though just before her death, she converted to Islam. Her tomb, like the other two, are decorated with Islamic scripts, but here there is also a Christian cross. Two of his daughters are also entombed in these chambers. The third room belongs to Sultan Hussein Kamel and his wife. Hussein Kamel was one of the two Khedives that held the title of Sultan. He did not reign for long, nor did he contribute much to Egypt. However, his tomb is fascinating, with three steps adorned with monumental Quran verses, that can be easily read. This is the largest tomb in the mosque.. The final tomb is that of King Farouk, the last king deposed during the revolution of 1952. He was crowned in 1936 and reigned for 45 years. He died abroad in 1965. His tomb is very simple, perhaps because he did not die as a king, and it is interesting to see the difference between the tomb of the last shah of Iran and the last king of Egypt. Though not an ancient mosque, this is nevertheless an interesting one with its very ornate decorations, and housing the remains of the last vestige of Egyptian royalty. Given that it is very convenient for most tourists, situated as it is next to the more ancient Sultan Hassan Mosque and just outside the Citadel, it is well worth a short visit to see the final glory of Egypt's royal past.
One of the wonderful Mashrabiyya screens within the mosque