The Funerary Complex of Sultan al-Ashraf Qaytbay (Qaitbay, Qaitbey, Qaytbey): In the Northern Cemetery of Cairo


The Funerary Complex of Sultan al-Ashraf Qaytbay (Qaitbay) In the Northern Cemetery


by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza



An overview of the complex of Qaytbay



Qaytbay was one of Barsbay's Mamluks. A Mamluk was a slave and Qaytbay was originally purchased for fifty dinars. However, in this strange culture, often one had to begin his life as a slave to obtain greatness, and thus Qaytbay worked his way up through the ranks to become commander-in-chief of the army, and ultimately sultan. he reign from 1468 through 1496, a record broken only by al-Nasir Muhammad. He was noted for his martial prowess and physical energy, and for his remorseless financial taxation of his subjects. The two main efforts of his reign were developing relations with the rising power of the Ottomans and a promotion of trade, particularly with the Italians.



Sultan Qaytbay was a prolific builder of various institutions in Egypt during his reign, much like al-Nasir Muhammad in the fourteenth century. In fact, some eighty-five structures have been attributed to him in Syria, Palestine, Mecca, Alexandria and Cairo. His reign was long enough to allow specific styles to develop in the various important monuments that he sponsored. This was a period of consolidation, however, rather than innovation, when domestic ideas of architecture played a more significant part than did foreign ideas. This was a golden age of stone carving when architecture, rather than being gigantic, tended towards refinement. Particularly on facades, marble work also played a prominent role in decoration.



View of minbar



Qaytbay's monument remains a fine example of architecture during a period when decorative arts had reached their zenith. It was once a vast desert complex that included a commercial center on the main north-south trade route with Syria and the east-west trade route with the Red Sea. This complex, built between 1472 and 1474 AD and now featured on the Egyptian One Pound Note, is well worth a visit.


The Mosque


The groin vaulted trilobed portal


The groin vaulted trilobed portal



Not all of the several structures that comprised Qaytbay's complex have survived, though the best preserved is the mosque, which also contained a madrasa together with the founder's mausoleum. It has two free standing facades, and is actually a rather small structure relative to many other complexes. On the south side is a groin vaulted trilobed portal adorned with ablaq inlay and some stalactites.

Another view of dome


View of ourt, takhtaboush and mashrabiyya


Left: Another view of dome; Right: View of ourt, takhtaboush and mashrabiyya



To the left of the portal is a sabil-kuttab, and on the right is a minaret. Rising from the structure on the southeast side is a small but magnificent mausoleum dome. Its surface is adorned with a carved straight-lined star pattern superimposed on another carved network of undulating arabesques.



Interior view of Mihrab and Minbar

A historical view of the qibla wall


Left: Interior view of Mihrab; Right: A historical view of the qibla wall



The stone minaret, carved with stars in high relief, is slender and elegant. On its surface there are two separate designs, complex but clear. One is a plain, raised straight-lined star pattern and the other an undulating lacework of floral arabesque that is grooved and recessed. The bulb at the top has a carved, twisted band on its neck. This is one of the most beautiful minarets in Cairo, and from its tower one is provided with an excellent view of the dome. The sabil, or fountain, has a gilded wooden ceiling and in the vestibule is a stone bench and cupboard with doors inlaid with wood and ivory.



Historic view of detail geometeric designs

Detail of geometric design


Lfet: Historic view of detail geometric designs; Right: Detail of geometric design



The inside plan of the structure is that of a modified Cairene, urban cruciform madrasa. The umbrella style groin vault above the passage leading into the interior of the mosque is especially handsome. Here, one also finds wooden lattice doors where water jugs were kept cool. Within are two unequal iwans on the east and west and two recesses. The floor is of marble, and is richly adorned with polychrome marble dadoes and stucco with colored glass windows. Restoration here included the wooden ceiling which is vividly painted and the wooden lantern above the central area. This ceiling is a beautiful example of a composite decoration using the three primary ornamental forms of Islamic art, which include calligraphic, geometric and arabesque designs. Here, the star is prominent as it is elsewhere in Islamic art as a symbol of guidance often mentioned in the Quran. The richness of the decoration is amazing, and yet the total effect is well-proportioned and subdued.



Interior of the Dome of the Mausoleum



The prayer niche is of stone, with albaq inlaid patterns not unlike those of the portal conch (a niche with an oval top). Around the covered courtyard, the corner recesses are ornamented with Keel-arched niches with windows. There is, on the upper space, and band of inscriptions. The mausoleum is accessed from the courtyard and the tomb chamber is one of the most impressive in Cairo. Within, its prayer niche is of paneled, carved and painted stone. The stone pendentives have finely carved stalactites and the great dome seems infinite in its soaring height.



Another view of the Dome



Though the foundation deed records various apartments for the Sufis and others attached to the foundation, none of these living units has survived. This deed also calls the structure a madrasa, though it does not specify any systematic curriculum of instruction in Islamic law. It also notes that Sufis should attend sessions in the mosque but no reference is made to their being boarders and there was no known kitchen within the structure. Hence, this was probably a fairly ordinary congregational Friday mosque, and such mosques normally held sessions for Sufis. The use of the term madrasa was most likely now used by tradition, rather than as referring to a specific function. The waqf deed refers to this structure as a jami'.



Interior view of north iwan



A second, small mausoleum with arabesque carvings built by Qaytbay before he became a sultan sits on the west side of the mosque (some maintain that it was built for his son). It has a smaller, but equally ornate dome and now houses the tomb of Gulshani, a saintly man who lived in the mosque during the Turkish period. Other funerary structures include a maq'ad or loggia. It is adorned with a row of windows within blind arches opening onto the exterior of the complex. The maq'ad, a term used to designate a reception area, is built over storerooms. In addition, there is also the remains of watering trough for animals decorated with keel-arched carved niches on the north side of the mosque. It is roofed, and in the back to the right is a saqiya, or wheel that supplied the water.



The Rab'

Farther north is the facade of the rab', basically an apartment complex built by Qaytbay. A rab' may be built above storerooms or workshops in a complex called a wakala, qaysariyya, or khan. This particular rab' was used to partially fund the waqf which was the income used to support the complex and personnel. Here, the level of the portal provides evidence of this structure's antiquity, for the rab' is buried more than two meters under the present street level. The groin-vaulted trilobed portal flanked by the sultan's blazon is magnificent. The shops are now buried, but one can get an idea of the architecture of the apartments, with their painted wooden ceilings.


Another image of the dome of the main mausoleum


Another image of the dome of the main mausoleum



Qaytbay built another wakala and a rab' above it near Bab al-Nasr, and still one other that is now in ruins near the mosque of al-Azhar.









Reference Number

Historical Cairo (A Walk Through the Islamic City)

Antonious, Jim


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977-424-497-4

Islamic Monuments in Cairo, A Practical Guide

Paker, Richard B.; Sabin, Robin; Williams, Caroline


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 036 7

Islamic Architecture in Cairo: An Introduction

Behrens-Abouseif, Doris


E. J. Brill

ISBN 90-04-08677-3