Egypt: The Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun

The Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun


by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza


The Ibn Tulun Mosque was completed in 879 AD on Mount Yashkur in a settlement named al-Qata'i by the founder of Egypt's Tulunid Dynasty (868-905 AD), Ahmad ibn Tulun. Al-Qata'i was about two kilometers from the old community of Fustat. He was born in Baghdad, the son of a Turkish slave of Mongol origin owned by the Caliph, al-Ma'mun. He would later rise to became governor of Egypt after his stepfather, who died in 870, was awarded that position.



The Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun



The mosque that he had built over a period of three years of mudbrick became the focal point of the Tulunid capital that lasted only 26 years. It was the third congregational mosque to be built in what is now greater Cairo, and at approximately 26,318 square meters in size, is the third largest mosque in the world. It is the oldest mosque in Egypt that has survived in a fairly original form. An ancient calligraphy in 9th century Kufic script provides: "The Amir... has ordered the construction of this blessed and happy mosque, using the revenues from a pure and legitimate source that God has granted him...".



The Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun



When the city center moved to what would become Cairo proper, away from al-Qata'a, the mosque fell into disuse. It was damaged when used as a shelter for pilgrims from North Africa to the Hijaz in the 12th c., but restored and refounded with madrasa-type functions by 'Alam al-Din Sanjar al-Dawadar at the behest of Mamluk Sultan Lajin in 1296. (Lajin had been one of the accomplices in the assassination of Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil ibn Qalawun, and while hiding in the deserted mosque, he vowed to restore it should he escape). It was also restored in later periods, and is in fact being restored again today. This mosque is one of Egypt's oldest, as well as a popular tourist attraction. The Ibn Tulun mosque reflects all the characteristic features of Abbasid art within the realm of architecture, and was obviously influenced, particularly with regards to the minaret, the great rectangular piers with engaged corner columns, the decorative motif and other features by the famous Samarra mosque in present day Iraq.



The Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun




The mosque is surrounded by an enclosure that measures 118 x 138 meters (387 x 453 feet). Surrounding the mosque on three sides (all but the qibla side) are narrow enclosed wings called ziyadas, and the mosque's famous minaret with its external spiral ramp is located within the northern ziyada. These small outer courtyards were an extension to insure privacy and separate the sanctified space from the public space of the outside world. They measure about 19 meters in width, and bring the mosque as a whole almost to an exact square shape. Both the enclosure walls and the walls of the ziyada are surmounted by a unique crenellation, a fortified parapet with alternate solid parts and openings, that is probably also of Samarra influence. However, the walls lack the heavy external buttresses and so were probably built strictly as a decorative motif. Rather, the single row of large windows with circular openings on the upper registers of the walls, the frieze of simple square frames and the decorative crenellation seem almost delicate.



Top of the Ibn Tulun walls


Top of the Ibn Tulun walls



This minaret, with its only remaining original element being the square base, communicates with the mosque by way of a passage. Its second story is cylindrical which is in tern surmounted by later Mumluk restorations in stone. The original minaret was built of brick. This is Cairo's only minaret with a spiraling external staircase and the overall structure is unique in Egypt.



The minaret of the Mosque is a famous Cairo landmark, though completely unique in its design.


The minaret of the Mosque is a famous Cairo landmark, though completely unique in its design.



Five traditional transverse aisles on the qibla side of the courtyard, which are separated by the heavy piers of the arcades. There are 13 arches on each side of the courtyard. Though the columns are of brick, decorative capitals and bases were modeled from wet plaster. The arches themselves are mostly not completely round, but rather pointed at their peak, and high up in the spandrels of the arches are small windows which both allow for circulation within the mosque, and help light the arcades. The fountain (sahn), which was a later addition built by Sultan Ladjin, is surrounded by double arcades on three sides. However, Ibn Duqmaq described the original structure, which apparently was very similar to that at Samarra but was destroyed by fire in 986, as: "the fawwara which was in the middle of the sahn had windows on all sides, and over it was a gilt dome on ten marble columns, and round it were sixteen marble columns with a marble pavement.



The Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun



And under the dome was a great basin of marble, 4 cubits in diameter with a jet of water in the centre...and on the roof was a sun-dial. The roof had a railing round it of teakwood (saj)." Al-Mustawfi says it was known as "Pharaoh's Cup" (Kas-i-Fir'awn), and that its basin was formed from one block of stone 23 cubits in circumference, standing to a height of 7 cubits, and half a cubit in thickness. The prayer hall had a flat wooden roof and within, the mihrab bay, apparently restored during the Mamluk period, was accented by a wooden dome. On either side of the mihrab were two columns with perforated capitals. The inner column on each side is in the form of a basket, while the outer capital is decorated with vine leaves and branches of grapes detached from the background. The mihrab on a pier overlooking the courtyard is attributed to the Fatimid vizier, Al-Afdal (circa 1007 AD).



mihrab and minbar


The mihrab and minbar



Behind the qibla wall, which interestingly has a somewhat different orientation then other Cairo mosques, was the Dar al-Imara consisting of three rooms connected to the mosque by doors on either side of the mihrab. This area was used into the Fatimid period for administration purposes, and may have housed a library, but it also gave access to the maqsura, a private area used by the Caliph, his close associates and his family during Friday prayers. The mosque's original decorations, presenting in both stucco and wood the most valuable and best preserved examples of the Samarra style, are of considerable importance from the standpoint of Islamic art/history. The stucco decorations are found both inside and outside the mosque, and the soffits of the arches were decorated with bands of stucco ornamentation, although they have been extensively restored. However, a number of them have survived in their original state, revealing a geometric band with floral filling. The inner arcades present a frieze of floral decoration that runs around the arches, and above the arches Kufic inscriptions of the Qur'an are said to run some two kilometers ( 6,600 feet).



The Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun



Interestingly, folktales maintain that this frieze was believed to have been carved onto the planks from Noah's Ark. The 128 window grilles of the mosque's external walls also feature intricate geometric patterns of stucco, with each pattern varying from the others. As a final note, recent restoration work on the Ibn Tulun mosque is probably some of the most analyzed and debated. Some object to any restoration of this 1,100 year old monument, while others believe that the work is being rushed, and not properly supervised. Some of this criticism has apparently led to some refinements in the process, so we will simply have to wait and see how the final effort evolves.








Reference Number

Al Qahira

Sassi, Dino


Al Ahram/Elsevier

None Stated

Cambridge Illustrated History Islamic World

Robinson, Francis


Cambridge University Press

ISBN 0-521-43510-2

Historical Cairo (A Walk Through the Islamic City)

Antonious, Jim


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977-424-497-4

Mosque, The: History, Architectural Development & Regional Diversity

Frishman, Martin and Khan, Hasan-Uddin


Thames and Hudson LTD

ISBN 0-500-34133-8