At the very beginning of Islam’s arrival into Egypt, mosques were established first in what is now Cairo, and then throughout the country, and then throughout the continent of Africa.
The ‘Amr ibn al-‘As mosque in Old Cairo is the oldest in all of Africa. But like the pharaonic monuments, it takes centuries for the builders to achieve the feat of really wowing us. So I want to share with you a mosque that has both amazing history and architectural interest. It’s a jewel and gem, and there is nothing that can compete with its beauty. It is the Sultan Hassan Mosque.
If the greatest pharanonic monument is the Great Pyramid, then the ‘Great Pyramid’ of the mosques is the Sultan Hassan Mosque.
Every time I visit this mosque with tour groups, I cannot marvel enough at the splendor of it. During the Mamluk era of Egypt, from 1250–1517 A.D., the rulers of Egypt built many breathtaking buildings, but the greatest Islamic building in the world is the mosque and the school (madrassa) that is not far from the Citadel. It was established by Sultan El Nasr Hassan, son of El Nasr Mohammad, son of Al Mansour Qalawun, in 757–764 A.H. (Anno Hijrah – the Islamic calendar whose dating started on the year in which the Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina, 623 A.D.) So, 1356–1363 A.D. is when the Sultan Hassan Mosque was built. It includes four big madrassas, for the four major schools of sharia law, each with halls for teaching and housing for students. It has a hospital, a sakia water wheel, and old minaret; a main entrance, derkah (wall that avoids some one. looking into the house from the door), corridor, courtyard, meida (for ablution), an iwan (vaulted portico), dekket al muballegh (the elevated bench for the repeaters or the informers), a minbar (pulpit), a qibla, and a mausoleum.
Awhile back, I showed a German family around Cairo on their first trip to Egypt. They had never been inside a mosque before. I decided to show them many mosques and I chose the best three: the Alabaster Mosque of Mohammad Ali, Sultan Hassan Mosque, and Al-Rafa’i Mosque.
Visiting Sultan Hassan Mosque was a great experience for my friends – not only was it special for them to enter any mosque, but to visit the best mosque ever, they couldn’t believe their eyes! Unfortunately many people from the West think that it is not allowed for non-Muslims to go inside mosques. This is not true. Don’t miss out on an amazing experience.
We went on one of those beautiful sunny Cairo days. I had previously suggested they dress conservatively and asked one of the female family members to bring a scarf to show respect to the culture. I also jokingly told them to wear socks without holes in them because before you enter the mosque you will have to take off your shoes. I told them to take small change to give the man at the mosque entrance who would watch over their shoes. (In the Alabaster Mosque they give you the option to wear blue booties over your shoes that costs 5LE per pair. But usually there is a shoe attendant who expects money on the way out and I usually give him 2LE for each pair of shoes.)
Only 5 minutes from the Citadel by car, Sultan Hassan Mosque opens from 9–4pm every day except on Fridays, when it opens after noon prayers (about 1.30pm). The tickets were 40LE (half price for students with an International green student card) and this ticket is for the two mosques facing each other, Sultan Hassan as well as Al-Rafa’i. To get to the mosques we walked through security to the ticket booth, careful to ensure we had the right change. After passing the ticket booth, we walked a few feet and turned around to see one of the most impressive panoramic views. In front of us stood the towering Citadel with the powerful Alabaster Mosque of Mohammad Ali and to our left side Al-Rafa’i Mosque, and to our right side Al Sultan Hassan Mosque, school, and hospital, all in one complex.
We took a flight of stairs to the entrance of the complex. Sadly, the Mu’ayyad Sheikh stole the beautiful original door of this mosque complex. Behind the door is the derkah, a wall to provide privacy to the people inside the house when the main door is opened.
In the entrance are geometric stalactites. In Islam (especially in places of worship) it is forbidden to show human, or animal, shapes. So the genius artisans and architects excelled in decorating Islamic constructions with ornaments that are geometric or floral, or with beautiful calligraphy. The Mamluks (originally slaves who came from the Caucasus) brought with them the stalactite decoration element and were very well known for decorating with different colors of marble, mainly black, white, red, and yellow. From the derkah we looked up to see beautiful stained glass windows and a dome. When we went deeper into the building we saw the hospital and also clinics for outpatients. And to the left, was the entrance to the mosque.
Once the family entered the mosque their jaws dropped to the ground because they could not believe how gorgeous and how vast the open court of the mosque was. The beautiful flooring made of marble inlay is in impressive geometric patterns. In the middle of the forecourt there is the meida, ablution fountain, because in Islam you have to wash before you pray: your hands and face three times, including your mouth three times, your nose three times, your hair once in each direction, inside and outside your ears once using your index and thumb, your feet three times, and then your forearms up to your elbow three times. Given the mosque’s strategic location, it was used repeatedly as a place for rebellious Mamluks against the Citadel. As a result, the wooden dome above the fountain was burnt by a fireball and was replaced with stone. Also, the 14th century Sultan Barquq ordered the demolition of the stairs leading to the mosque as well as those of the minarets. However, these were rebuilt in the 15th century. Incidentally, only the southern minaret is original. The small northern minaret was rebuilt eleven years after it collapsed in 1600 A.D.
When we stood in the middle of the open court we saw four iwans making a cross shape. An iwan is a vaulted portico (which also can have a flat roof). These represent the four Sunni religious schools of Islam, the schools of Malakiyah, Hanafiyah, Shafi’iya, and Hanbaliya, where the students used to sit in semicircles with their sheikh and listen to his interpretation of the Holy Qur’an according to the founders of the four major schools. The largest iwan is the qibla iwan facing Mecca, with an elegant stucco inspiration band, an example of Mamluk art at its best. In the iwan there is also a dekket al muballegh which is like a bench made of stone supported by beautiful marble pillars with a wooden ladder leading up to it. Here a group of men stand and observe the Iman, loudly repeating what he is saying so those in the back of the mosque can hear. In the iwan el qibla, there is a one-of-a-kind original stone pulpit, more than 650 years old, with a gorgeous two leaf wooden door covered with the most fascinating handmade copper ornaments. This is used for the Imam to give his two sermons on Friday for noon prayers. The acoustics in this mosque are amazing.
Behind the mehrab(qibla) is the mausoleum Sultan Hassan prepared for himself – instead his two sons are buried there. The dome of this mausoleum is indescribable stone with ebony wood stalactites inlaid with silver and gold. The building fees were enormous costing 20,000 gold dirhams a day, every day for 3 years – a huge sum, even by today’s standards.
Please make sure you visit this mosque it is simply the best. You must see it in order to believe it!
Ibrahim Morgan is Egyptologist/Tour Guide,
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