Mosque and Madrasa of Shaykhu in Cairo, Egypt

The Mosque and Madrasa of Shaykhu


by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza



The Mosque and Madrasa of Shaykhu



Under Sultan Hasan, in 1354 AD, Amir Sayf al-Din Shaykhu al-Umari rose through the ranks to become Commander-in-Chief and al-Amir al-Kabir, or "Great Prince". He was the first to hold this latter title. However, his personality is said to have alternated between cruel and mystical. Together with amir Sarghatmish, who had been for years his fierce rival, Shaykh belonged to "perhaps the last generation of Mameluke who had been thoroughly educated for public service. He was known to have repeatedly interfered in religious affairs, but was also commended for his piety in washing the dead during the " Black Death". He is remembered for at least one lasting innovation regarding an important element of etiquette at the Sultan's court: He decreed that no person, with the exception of the Sharf of Mecca, should sit near to the Sultan. He was murdered in 1357 at more than fifty years of age, but prior to his death, he build and endowed a mosque and madrasa, together with a Khanqah (a religious hostel for Sufi monks), (built five years after the mosque and madrasa) just across the street. The two buildings, though built at different times, share many similar architectural elements.



Interior of The Mosque and Madrasa of Shaykhu


He established professorships in the four madhhabs, or rites, in Prophetic traditions and in Quranic readings, endowing them with considerable wealth, though the famine of 1403-1404 AD largely reduced the school's holdings. The mosque itself originally housed 20 sufis. Some of their cells remain preserved behind the northern walls of the mosque. Later, when the Khanqah was across the street was finished, the sufis, together with their first headmaster, moved into the new complex. The mosque and madrasa date to about 1349 AD, and according to al-Maqrizi, the historian, was one of the mosque outstanding and beautiful in Egypt. It is located on the northern side of Saliba Street ("Cross Street"), which runs from below the Citadel to the mosques of Ibn Tulun and Sayyida Zaynab. The minaret, which stands above the portal's vestibule, employs prismatic triangles for the transition from the square base to the octagonal shaft. The entrance to the mosque leads first into a vestibule where three of the walls have embedded pieces of polished black glass. The original purpose of this glass may very well have simply been decorative, but others have suggested that it was meant to protect the establishment against jinns, or evil spirits, or possibly used as curing panels which anybody with an ailment seeking relief could touch or lean against. Just after entering the vestibule, to the right is a locked door leading to a tomb that was perhaps originally intended for the founder. However, after the khanqah was built, he chose to be interred there instead.


View of the Courtyard  towards the prayerhall of the  Mosque and Madrasa of Shaykhu



This mosque combines hypostyle features with a cruciform plan. It is built in the style of a small congregational facility. After the vestibule there is a courtyard where to the left, a small mashrabiyya enclosure extends out from the wall. Dating to the mid-eighteenth century, this was meant to contain water jars. On the qibla side of the rectangular courtyard is an arcaded sanctuary, which is faced by another arcaded hall across the courtyard. The two lateral sides of the courtyard are each occupied by a recess that opens onto the courtyard through a double arch sustained by one column only.



The Stone minbar of the Mosque and Madrasa of Shaykhu


Like many of the mosques in Cairo, the building is not naturally oriented towards Mecca. Hence, inside the qibla wall (the wall oriented to Mecca) of the sanctuary is bent in a diagonal away from the street. Here, an interesting architectural element is also the stone minbar, which are normally made of wood. This is one of the very few ancient stone minbars that still exists in Cairo. Along its sides are geometric decorations that have largely eroded away. There is also a carved stone dikka (a device to hold the Quran) dating to 1555-56, which is very beautiful. It consists of a rectangular platform mounted on eight columsn and today it continues to be used for Quran readings and lecturing during festive occasions. The mihrab (pulpit) has traditional alternating courses of red, white and blue stone, and its marble paneling belongs to the type favored in the mid-fourteenth century. However, in the lowest register there is glazed tile that seems to have been imported from Tunisia or Spain and embedded at a later date.


Indeed, this is a most beautiful mosque of a most interesting period of Egyptian history, the Mameluke dynasties when slaves became the rulers of Egypt.


Last Updated: May 29th, 2011







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