Sharia al-Mu`izz li-Din Allah, or the Qasaba, is the great artery of Fatimid Cairo. For almost nine hundred years this ceremonial way was a favourite building site for those who held power. Each monument has a story to tell. Today, when the sun goes down and the lights come on, it is magic hour at the monuments.
The mosque of al-Aqmar (1125), or ‘the Moonlit’, was built by al-Ma’mun al-Bata’ihi, grand wazir to the Imam al-Amir. Located on the northeast corner of the Great Eastern Palace – the residence of the Fatimid imam – this small oratory arrived during a time of great political and spiritual crisis for the Fatimid regime.
The mosque makes many significant contributions to Cairo’s architectural history. First, its plan is the earliest example in Cairo of an arrangement determined by its street location. The façade of the mosque is aligned with the previously existing route, but the inside of the mosque is angled so as to be properly orientated towards Mecca (the qibla). As one stands on the street and looks through the doorway, one will notice that the qibla wall is not on an axis with the main entrance. This alignment of the façade with the street, while angling the interior for a correct qibla orientation, became increasingly common and complex in later religious buildings.
Second, al-Aqmar was the first mosque in Cairo to have a decorated stone façade. Much of this decoration appears for the first time and it tells a story of times long past. The ribbed-shell hood of the entrance salient, with its pierced medallion is a new motif. It was the prototype for all the later cusped, ribbed, blind, keel-arch decoration that is still in vogue on buildings in Cairo, in Egypt and on Egyptian buildings erected elsewhere around the world. Other novelties were the panels of stalactites, and the shelltopped niches.
Finally, appearing for the first time is an historic inscription below the cornice. It reads, in part, ‘…its construction was ordered by the servant of our lord and master Imam al-Amir bi-Ahkam Allah, son of Imam al-Must`ali…the most illustrious lord al-Ma’mun, commander of the armies, sword of Islam, helper of the imam, surety of the judges of the Muslims, and guide to the propagandists of the believers…in the year 519 (1125)’.
Apart from its novelties, the decoration of the façade is also quite unusual because of the message it conveyed when it was built. The events of a succession crisis are reflected in the decoration of al-Aqmar. Briefly recounted, both the vizier and the imam he served died in 1094: first, Badr al-Jamali who had been the all-powerful vizier for twenty years, and then the Imam al-Mustansir, who had ruled for fifty-eight years. The new vizier, al-Afdal, young and ambitious, by-passed the eldest son Nizar, and enthroned al-Musta`li, a younger and more tractable prince. This led to a schism in the Fatimid Shi`i community, which was exacerbated when at Musta`li’s death in 1101, al-Afdal proclaimed al-Amir, a child of five as imam/caliph. Al-Amir was rejected by the Nizaris and during his reign the Nizari schism caused the Fatimids to lose the support of the greater part of the far-flung Isma`ili community. When the dictatorial al-Afdal was assassinated by Nizari emissaries in 1121 a great public assembly in Cairo in 1122 proclaimed the legitimacy of the Musta`li line. The decoration and inscriptions on the façade of al-Aqmar attest to this concern over the Nizari controversy and over the role of the reigning Fatimids as the true imams.
The Fatimids were Isma’ilis, a sect of the Shi`a. They believed that the true leadership of the community passed from Muhammad to his son-in-law Ali; then to al-Hassan and al-Husayn (his grandsons), and then to the descendants of al-Husayn through his son Ali Zayn al-Abidin, who survived the massacre at Karbala in 680.
With the death of the sixth imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq, in 765, there was a split in the Shi`i community. Those who followed the eldest son, Isma`il, the seventh imam in the line, became the Isma`ilis, or ‘Seveners’; those who followed a younger brother, Musa al-Kazim, became the ‘Twelvers’. Today, the spiritual head of the Isma`ilis is the Aga Khan. The historic inscription on the faҫade of al-Aqmar stresses al-Amir’s succession through his father al-Musta`li.
The Quranic inscriptions are just as revealing. They stress the Fatimid connection to the ahl al-bayt (the ‘people of the house’, i.e., the descendants of the Prophet). In the pierced medallion of the entrance hood Sura 33, v. 33 encircles the names of Muhammad and Ali. ‘O People of the House [al al-bayt ] God only desires to put away from you abomination and with cleansing to cleanse you’. According to a hadith, Muhammad took under his cloak (kisa’) Fatima, Ali, al-Hassan and al-Husayn, and while he hugged them, he spoke the words of 33:33.
On the beveled corner of the façade, in three little niches, appears 16:128, ‘Verily God is with [top niche] those who are God-fearing [bottom right niche] and with those who are good-doers [bottom left niche]’.
Roundels containing the words Muhammad and Ali are placed on either side of the top niche so that the message can also read, ‘Verily God is with Muhammad and Ali’. This emphasizes that faith in this triumvirate is the very cornerstone of the house of religion.
Other aspects of the decoration also stress Shi`i spiritual relationships. The decoration of a mosque lamp and a star in the panel (top left), refers to a saying the Shi`a ascribe to the Prophet, ‘The stars are a pledge to the world that it will not be drowned, and my family is a pledge to the community that it will not go astray’. The plant which grows out of a pot (in the lozenge below), is an allusion to the Prophet’s grandsons, for he often called al-Hassan and al-Husayn ‘my two sweet-smelling herbs in the world’.
The decoration of the top right panel resembles the doors of the period, including a door to a closet in the mosque itself, where Qurans were kept. In association with the other imagery on the façade, this door can be understood as visually recalling Muhammad’s words on the Farewell Pilgrimage, ‘I leave to you two precious legacies, the Book of God and my posterity, the members of my family’.
Finally, the major and minor niches on the façade can be grouped into numerical combinations that have Shi`i meanings, such as three for Ali, al-Hassan, and al-Husayn; five for Muhammad, Fatima, Ali, al-Hassan and al-Husayn – ‘the people of the cloak’; and seven for the Isma`ili imams.
In 1993, the mosque was given a total and quite controversial restoration by the Bohras, an Isma`ili sect from India. They recreated the right wing of the façade. They filled in the central roundel at the top of each side. And they installed a marble mihrab – a copy of a wooden mihrab, presented in 1125 to al-Azhar by the caliph al-Amir, now in the Museum of Islamic Art.
One of the few structures to have survived the centuries more or less intact, the Mosque of al-Aqmar now has new inscriptions, new windows and new marble in the sanctuary area and has lost its historic authenticity. Even so, the decoration of the façade can still be read as a compelling narrative.
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Caroline Williams holds graduate degrees in Middle Eastern history from Harvard and Islamic art and architecture from the American University in Cairo. She has been a frequent resident/visitor of Cairo since 1961 and has authored the widely-acclaimed book Islamic Monuments in Cairo- The Practical Guide (AUC Press, 2008).