The Mosque of Amir Baha' al-Din Aslam al-Silhdar (Silahdar) in Cairo
by Lara Iskander
The mosque of Amir Baha' al-Din Aslam al-Silhdar was built by the amir in 1344-5 (745-756). Baha al-Din Aslam was a Mamluk who rose to the rank of silahdar (sword bearer), during the reign of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad, who was a significant patron of the Mamluk era (120-1517) for his notable interest and efforts in architecture and constructions; a reflection of political status and power.
Though al-Silhdar is described by the historian al-Maqrizi as a man of good deeds and kindness, he fell victim to slander which led to his imprisonment for eight years and a half. Al-Silhdar was not released except at the end of al-Nasir's reign which lasted for almost half a century and later was given back his rank.
The neighborhood in which Aslam al-Silhdar Mosque is located is noteworthy both for its turn-of-the-century architecture and its location. The mosque faces a relatively spacious square which is located just inside the eastern Ayyubid city walls and overlooking al-Azhar Park. The mosque lies close to Abu-Hereba Street at about 300m to the east.
Though this mosque shows evidence that it was built in stages, a unified and coherent structure resulted as each new section followed consistent patterns of the existing parts. It is also likely from the arrangement of his building that Aslam built his mausoleum first and subsequently added to it the Mosque.
The mosque follows the Madrasa-Mausoleum complex of al-Ahmad Mihmandar as a prototype and has a cruciform plan, however, several new variations to the traditional plans are noted one of which is the entrance design which leads directly into the mosque iwan and the absence of the traditional transitional space or entrance, named in Arabic, 'Magaz'.
Another entrance leads directly to the sahn through a bent passageway. While the latter was probably just a secondary entrance, the former located on the southern faade was the main entrance used by the Amir.
The cruciform plan of Alam al-Silhdar mosque presents several other differences to the traditional four-iwan plan.
The east-west and north-south iwans are of different heights and display rather foreign features both horizontally and vertically. The north and south iwans have arcades of two columns each; the east and west iwans are arched, the qibla iwan contains a rather unfamiliar mihrab and a small minbar.
The Northeast Side of the Courtyard;
The room over the south iwan was most likely a reception room for the amir -who was also a shaykh in the madrasa, given its location on the main faade and above the main entrance. The opposite room was probably the location of the Kuttab as it had a separate staircase.
The interior facade of these rooms is composed of a triple register of windows with carved screens, stucco medallions, lozenges and keel arched panels. Over the east iwan which has a higher arched opening there is only one row of medallion/lozenge panel decoration.
The second balcony above the iwan is a rare feature in Mamluk mosques and only became popular in Ottoman mosques. It was probably used by students, sheikhs, or Sufis given the absence of a separate access to it by women other than by the staircase leading through the living units. The present roofing of the sahn was put in the 1990s to protect the interior.
The tomb chamber which is enormously high on the southeast corner is now being used as a store room. The walls are pocked and pitted which generally is an indication that some sort of previous surface decoration (usually stucco) existed. There is a mihrab, of carved stucco which is also unusual for this date, when marble panels were the vogue.
The mosque has two facades. The most attractive feature is on the main southern one showing a large rectangular marble panel with red, black and white interlace of trilobed forms. The brick ribbed dome of the mausoleum is decorated with stucco ribs and a band of white, blue and green faience mosaic around the base. However, much of the ornaments have disappeared. The crenellations around the base of the dome are also unusual for Mamluk times. Around the drum of the dome there is an inscription band, also of faience mosaic which is the Throne verse of the Quran (2:255).
The complex represents the constantly evolving Bahri Mamluk architecture, and its rejection to fixed patterns and modules. This is evident from the developed new configurations and arrangement of iwans, portals, and courtyards, the changing patterns of decoration, all taking into consideration the limitations of the available plots and the required functions of the structure.
The fourteenth century mosque is still in use by the local residents today and given the fact that it lies in a main square at a crossroad that connects the darb al-Ahmar area to downtown Cairo from one side and runs south towards the Citadel from the end is one of the most widely used, and the most public, of the neighborhood's open spaces.
Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. 1989. Islamic Architecture in Cairo. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Williams, Caroline. 2002. Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press: 93-94.