Sultan al-Mu

The Sultan al-Mu'ayyad Complex in Cairo, Egypt


by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza


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It is said that Sultan al-Muayyad was a pious and oppressive man, but he was also a musician and poet. His reign was cursed by plague and by his own unusual currency reforms, so that when he died everyone was so brutally engaged in choosing his successor that nobody attended his funeral, and he was buried without even a towel in which to wrap his body. However, that may be a bit of an exaggeration.


The complex that Sultan al-Mu'ayyad built is situated next to Bab Zuwayla in Cairo, and originally contained a madrasa-khanqah, a Friday mosque, and two mausoleums. It was constructed between 1415 and 1422 AD. However, unlike Barquq's madrasa-khanqah, in which the Sufis of the khanqah and students of the madrasa dwelt under the same roof and enjoyed exposure to each other's teachings and religious practices, this madrasa, whose curriculum comprised the study of official religion according to the four rites, was dedicated to Sufis only.


Because of it's site, the mosque, or at least it's minarets, became a land mark of Cairo. Originally, the site had unpleasant connotations, because there was a prison adjoining Bab Zuwayla which al-Mu'ayyad, when an amir, was lucky to leave alive.







Sultan al-Muayyad Shaykh was a Burgi or Circassian Mamluk who served as sultan between 1412 and 1421. Al-Maqrizi relates that during the reign of Farag ibn Barquq, al-Mu'ayyad, a great intriguer during a time of great intrigues, was captured and thrown into the prison on this site. He suffered terribly from the lice and the fleas, and vowed then that if he ever came to power he would transform the infested prison into a "saintly place for the education of scholars." Once he became sultan, he soon fulfilled his promise, spending some 40,000 dinars on its construction. "Marble was taken from everywhere", relates the 15th century historian al-Taghribirdi, "even from (private) houses and palaces ... The prize of marble in Egypt soon rose to astronomical height for the vast demand and the big dimensions of the mosque. Thus, what regards decoration and the use of marbles, this mosque became the most beautiful ever to be built in Cairo".


Numerous donkeys were occupied for days carrying away loads of bones of the dead found in the prison. Due to the Sultan's lavish endowments, the madrasa became one of the most prominent academic institutions of the 15th century. A large library was collected, and the most eminent scholars of the day filled professorial chairs. the most famous specialist in Quranic exegesis in Egypt, Ibn Hagar al-'Asqalani, was installed as lecturer in Shafi'i jurisprudence.


Finally, there was a great ceremony for its opening, when al-Mu'ayyad and his Mamluk entourage came down from the Citadel. According to reports, the water basin in the middle of the vast courtyard was filled with liquefied sugar and sweets were offered, along with lectures and much ceremony.


The exterior facade of this monument provides an excellent example of how Mamluk buildings were intended to dominate the urban setting, both physically and visually. As one looks north through the arched opening of the gate the massive facade ending in the portal and the dome fills the vista. As one looks south it is the twin minarets soaring over the gate that catches one's eye.





Originally, the mosque had three minarets, including the two we see above the towers of Bab Zuwayla. They are twins, but the third one, near the western entrance, was different in appearance. However, it was destroyed sometime during the 19th century. The two remaining ones, though they present no innovation in the evolution of minarets, are particularly slender and elegant with their zigzag carved shafts. The carved chevrons decorating the octagonal second stories of the twin minarets, which are also to be seen on the exterior of the stone dome, provide an excellent example of this type of surface decoration for carved masonry domes from this period. Noteworthy, however, is the signature of their architect, carved on a cartouche above the entrance to their staircases on the northern side of each shaft and dating to 1419 and 1420 (AD). His name was al-Mu'allim Muhammad Ibn al-Qazzaz and thus far, this is the only known signature of a Mamluk architect on a building. We do not know to what extent he was involved in building the rest of the complex, but he exploited the mosque's proximity to Bab Zuwayla by using it's towers as both buttresses and bases from which the two identical minarets rise.




However, there is a story related to the remaining minarets. It seems that after their completion, one began to lean dangerously towards one of the neighboring buildings. It was decided to tear down the newly built minaret and rebuild it. The demolition work alone took a whole day, during which one of the local workers was killed by falling pieces. Afterwards, Bab Zuwayla was closed for a whole month.


The mosque itself originally had four facades and four entrances. The two main facades are the one parallel to Bab Zuwayla on the site of the Fatimid southern city wall which was rebuilt in the 19th century, and the facade perpendicular to Bab Zuwayla on its left, with the main portal.




The muqarnas portal is of grand proportions and is enhanced by a pishtaq, or wall above the entrance that is higher than the others. A conch rests on a large vault where nine tiers of dripping stalactites have been lavishly incorporated. A band of carved stone inlaid with marble and red and turquoise colored stones frames the doorway. The panels on either side of the portal have examples of square Kufic and are an arrangement of the shahada, the first pillar of Islam, "There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God." Over the portal and on the bays to either side of the door is a Quranic inscription often used in religious buildings, "Only he shall inhabit God's place of worship who believes in God and the Last Day and performs the prayer, and pays the alms, and fears none but God alone; it may be that those will be among the guided." (9:18)


The door is a masterpiece of bronze metalwork. Interestingly, it was taken, along with a bronze chandelier, from the mosque of Sultan Hasan against payment of a sum of five hundred dinar (a relatively paltry amount) to the waqf (endowment foundation) of the Sultan Hasan Mosque which, however, did not change the illegality of the deed. Islamic law prohibits the acquisition of land or other properties for a new foundation already endowed upon a previous religious foundation. Once endowed, a property cannot change owners. Maqrizi, however, mentions many such illegal acts connected with the foundation of religious buildings and makes a resigned and bitter comment about "one thief stealing from another."




Inside, the vestibule is covered by a magnificent groin cross-vault flanked by two half-domes on stalactites. It is perhaps the most remarkable feature of the entire complex. Today, one enters the mosque through the mausoleum, but originally there was direct access into the courtyard. The mausoleum dome, which has an exterior similar to that of Faraj Ibn Barquq, is smaller and has two cenotaphs. This is where Sultan al-Mu'ayyad and his son are buried. One of the cenotaphs is larger than the other, with remarkable Kufic inscriptions in marble crafted during the Ikhshidid, or early Fatimid period (10th century). Their texts are Quranic, and they must have been taken from an earlier building. The text, a verse from the Quran (15: 45-46), reads, "But the god-fearing shall be amidst gardens and fountains: Enter you them, in peace and security." The graceful leaf forms which emanate from the vertical letters and fill the empty spaces over the horizontal letters are characteristic in early Islamic art of the desire to fill voids. These "foliate" beginnings lead subsequently to very lush arabesque backgrounds for scripts.



On the top part of the northwestern wall of the mausoleum, on the side facing the courtyard, there are two blind windows with very intricately carved stucco decorations in the Andalusian style.


The hypostyle plan of the congregational mosque is similar to that of the khanqah of Faraj Ibn Barquq, but on columns rather than piers. This is a late example in Cairo of the open courtyard plan on a large scale, and the last such hypostyle mosque to be built in Cairo. There is an ablution fountain in the middle of the courtyard. Of the four iwans, only the sanctuary section survived. Originally, there were plans for it to be flanked on either side by a domed mausoleum, but only one was built This is where the tombs of the female members of the family are buried, though there is no mausoleum.


The sanctuary is lavishly decorated with a high marble dado and a polychrome marble prayer niche with a row of inlaid niches separated by blue glass colonnettes. A painted and gilded wooden ceiling, stucco grilled windows and beautiful doors inlaid with wood and ivory in addition to the marble columns with their pre-Islamic capitals, contribute to the richness of the decoration. The prayer hall was restored during the 19th century, when Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Muhammad 'Ali, installed Turkish tiles that were inset into the qibla wall. It was apparently at that time that the badly ruined iwans were torn down but only the western one was rebuilt. The rest of the area was turned into a garden. It was once again restored in more recent times. In 2001, the Ministry of Culture removed the garden, and rebuilt the missing arcades around the courtyard. The mosque also has its original wood and ivory pulpit. A doorway at one end of the sanctuary leads to the second story platform of the Bab Zuwayla, and to the minarets.








The living quarters of the Sufi students were not around the courtyard as they are at Faraj's khanqah, but formed a separate structure consisting of a courtyard surrounded by several stories of living units. It no longer exits.


On the western side of the mosque, Sultan al-Mu'ayyad built a hammam (bath). The pendentive in it that once supported a dome have remarkable stalactites.


It should also be noted that, as part of the more recent restoration work, part of al-Qahira's (Cairo) recently discovered southern wall was placed on display on the south side of the mosque courtyard.









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

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

Mosque, The: History, Architectural Development & Regional Diversity

Frishman, Martin and Khan, Hasan-Uddin


Thames and Hudson LTD

ISBN 0-500-34133-8