Mosque of Ilgay al-Yusufi
by Lara Iskander
During the Mamluk Period, the city of Cairo was the model for all Islamic cities, dazzling the world with its magnificence. The city stood out for its variety and number of buildings, designed for a multiplicity of purposes covering the full range of activities of the time, the majority of which still stand today, among them we find mosques, madrasas, khanqas, zawiuas and wikalas all closely linked to the nature for the city as both commercial capital and a centre for students and academics who came to Cairo along with merchants and traders from far and wide.
As their name indicates, the Mamluks were slaves that had been purchased, received as gifts or taken as prisoners of war. This was a practice that had existed since early times in Islamic society. Following the death of the Sultan al-Nair Salih al-Din al-Ayyubi and the political disorder that occurred as a result, the Mamluks became increasingly involved in military operations and their numbers grew.
The Bahri Mamluk (1250-1381) state came into being when Shajar al-Durr, widow of al-Malik al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub was proclaimed the successor to her husband and sultana of the territories. The majority of the Bahri Mamluks were Turkish people from the south of Russia.
The Bahri Period is considered highly significant both to Egyptian history and civilization as a whole and to the Mamluk Period in particular; because it contributed many and varied creative themes to the already diverse branches of Islamic architecture.The Mosque of Amir Ilgay al-Yusufi is a famous late Bahri Mamluk building which was built for the amir in 1373. The amir Sayf al-Din Iljay, was an amir of the sword who rose through the ranks, so basically a military commander.
His monument was built shortly after his appointment as commander in chief of the armies and his marriage to Khunda Baraka, the mother of Sultan Sha'ban (1363-77). The Mosque of Khunda Baraka, known as Umm al-Sultan Sha'ban, is found nearby along Bab al-Wazir Street, the main street leading to the Citadel.
For a few months Ilgay was the real head of the government; however, when Princess Baraka died, a quarrel with the sultan over her property obliged Ilgay to flee. He drowned crossing the Nile on horseback. His recovered body was brought back for burial in his madrasa. The display of the saqi or 'cupbearer', a cup in the middle field of a three-register shield, appears in the dating inscription over the entrance.
This late Bahri complex is visible from the top of Suq al-Silah Street with its three storied minaret and the unusual curved ribbed dome of the Mausoleum. The terminology of the building type of the mausoleum used in Islamic sources is varied. The standard description term refers to the function of the building as a place of burial. Another term is qubba which refers to the dome.
The Mausoleum dome of Ilgay al-Yusufi which overlooks the main street is an outstanding feature of the monument. The stone ribs deflect at 45 degrees to the right and curve back
towards the crown, producing a powerful dynamic effect. Between the stepped shoulders of the transition zone is a new window form for this time period. From this point on the standard fenestration for domes becomes three round windows, one over two, above three arched windows. The interior gypsum windows of the dome remain intact, providing a beautiful example of the colorful window patterns reflected in the interior space.
As for the minaret, it follows the typical architectural style of the Mamluk era; it is divided into three distinct zones; a square section at the bottom, an octagonal middle section and crowned with a circular section with a bulb shape, 'Gawsak' at the top. Its shaft is richly decorated and the transition between each section is covered with a band of muqarnas decorations.
The main faade is divided proportioned into four bays: two wide ones topped with stalactite cornices, and two narrow ones with fluted keel arches.
The architecture of the main facade is characteristic of the Mamluk style of the Bahri Period. Mamluk Cairene facades provided a dramatic visual play of forms and volumes positioned in such a way as to put emphasis on their contrasting outlines. The faade of Ilgay al-Yusifi exemplified this arrangement by the vertical thrust of the minaret ending with the bulb shape, the curved counterbalance of the dome, the rectangular outline of the portal, the mass of the facade encompassing a tall vertically articulated wall and finally, the sabil strategically carved out at the corner and the horizontal band of crenellations unifying the facade.
The relationship of these forms and their proportions to each other is what gave the Cairene facade its originality. The difference and uniqueness of each building lay not so much in the shapes and forms for individual features of the monument, but in their positions, their relationships to one another, and the effect of the building as a whole on its site.
Above the sabil at the corner of the structure is a cubical mass subtracted from the bulk of the building for the kuttab loggia. The space still shows the beautifully carved wooden side rail and ceiling and a remarkable marble column. The surmounting of the sabil with a kuttab, a Qur'anic school for children, to form a unified composition was unprecedented but by the end of the Bahri period, the Sabil acquired this place and it became a standard practice in religious buildings. Originally the Sabil was open to the street on two sides, which were screened off by the Kuttab or Quranic school, the first instance of what was to become standard Cairene practice.
The interior plan of the madrasa belongs to the cruciform type with a large open sahn (courtyard) surrounded by four iwans, each with a frontal arch. Remains of the gilded decoration on the ceilings of the lateral iwans show the beauty and richness with which all four ceilings must once have been decorated. The interior plan of the madrasa belongs to the cruciform type with a large open sahn (courtyard) surrounded by four iwans, each with a frontal arch. Remains of the gilded decoration on the ceilings of the lateral iwans show the beauty and richness with which all four ceilings must once have been decorated.
Interior of courtyard;
In fact, two of the iwans still exhibit the beautifully decorated and colored wooden ceiling. On the other hand, the minbar, which has lost its top and remains in a poor shape, still shows fine carving and inlay. Another remarkable architectural feature of the mosque entrance is the vault of the vestibule which still remains in good condition.
The living units are separated from the madrasa's courtyard, whose sides are occupied by the four iwans, and they have their windows on a side street. Such extrovert architectural aspects are characteristic of late Bahri madrasas and express their active role in Cairene life.
The Qibla Iwan Sources
Williams, Caroline. 2002. Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.
Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. 1989. Islamic Architecture in Cairo. Leiden: E. J. Brill.