By Caroline Williams
Photography by Taher Ghallab

Sharia al-Mu`izz li-Din Allah, or the Qasaba, was the great artery of Fatimid Cairo. Its importance as a ceremonial way lasted for almost nine hundred years, and the variety of monuments still clustered along its length show that it was a favourite building site for those who held power. Each monument has a story to tell. Today, when the sun has set, newly installed lighting along this route imparts a special magic to these monuments.

Early morning in al-Mu`izz Street, opposite the main entrance

The hospital, madrasa and mausoleum of Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun (1284-85) were built on a section of Sharia al-Mu`izz known as Bayn al-Qasrayn, ‘Between the two Palaces’; a reference to the ceremonial ground between the great Eastern Palace and the lesser Western Palace built for the Fatimid imams in the center of al-Qahira, their court city founded in 970 CE.

Sultan Qalawun’s large complex of buildings in Bayn al-Qasrayn provides the earliest monumental examples of the new styles and techniques brought to Egypt from Syria, and dramatically illustrates what was to become the hallmark of Mamluk architecture: imposing scale and profusion of ornament.

The minbar and mihrab, which are decorated with glass mosaics heavily influenced by Byzantine styles

Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun was a Tatar, or Mongol, from the Kipchak region of the lower Volga, which was ruled by the Golden Horde. Al-Salih Ayyub was the first to import slaves from this region. He made them his bodyguards or mamluks (literally, ‘chattels’). They were called the Bahari Mamluks (1250–1384), because they were originally quartered in the island citadel at Rauda, hence Bahari or riverine. Qalawun, one of al-Salih’s Mamluks, became sultan in 1279 and founded a dynasty that ruled for almost a century. He died in 1290, at the age of seventy, while en route to attack the crusader fortress of Acre.

Qalawun’s monument was conceived as a multi-functional complex from the beginning, combining a hospital, a madrasa and a mausoleum, thus consolidating the idea of mixed use buildings that began with the madrasa-tomb of al-Salih Ayyub across the street. The three components of Qalawun’s complex were built in thirteen months between June 1284 and August 1285, such an astonishingly short time that visitors today would surely agree with the historian al-Maqrizi’s comment made in the fifteenth century, ‘When a spectator contemplates this huge edifice and hears it was built in such a short span of time, he often will not believe it.’

When standing in front of the façade, take a moment to observe the many beautiful and innovative features all around you. First, the façade has a striking Gothic cast and is divided into arched bays with triple double-tiered windows, an arrangement that marked a new emphasis on vertical rather than horizontal dispositions. Qalawun was familiar with crusader churches in Syria, and many artisans of that region displaced by war were attracted to Cairo by the patronage of the new ruling elite. Next, looking up, the minaret also exhibits foreign influences: the square bottom and middle stories recall the shape of Syrian minarets, but the interlacing arcades filled with carved stucco, forming a network around the top story, were perhaps the work of craftsmen from Andalusia and Morocco. Turning to the main entrance, you will see interlaced masonry of multiple colors – a design imported from Syria. The main door, covered with bronze polygons, is an example of the geometric patterns preferred by the Mamluks. Now look towards the roof to see the jagged, stair-step crenellations of the parapet. In a country where rainfall is rare and flat roofs are standard, crenellations relieved the monotonous horizontal lines of the roof. Finally, note the dramatic band of Thuluth inscription – the monumental script favored by the Mamluks – which runs across the façade at eye level. This is worth quoting because it boldly attests to a new dynastic power with imperial ambitions, one that had prevented the Mongols from invading Egypt and was about to expel the crusaders from Palestine:

‘This noble dome, and magnificent college, and blessed hospital were ordered by our lord and master, the most august sultan al-Malik al-Mansur, the learned, just, God-assisted, victorious, champion of the faith, conqueror, sword of the world and the true religion … lord of kings and sultans, sultan of the length and breadth of the earth … king of the two continents and the two seas, king of kings of Arabs and non-Arabs, guardian of the two qiblas, servant of the two sanctuaries, Qalawun al-Salihi, associate of the Commander of the Faithful – may God prolong his glory, glorify his victories, elevate his beacon, and double his power – the incomparable among contemporary kings, the treasure of those destitute of resources, he who renders justice to the oppressed against the oppressor …’

The mashrabiya screen surrounding the cenotaph, under which the sultan and his son, Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad, are buried.

When you enter the building, the entrance to the madrasa is on the left, halfway down a long corridor, which separates it from the mausoleum. You now find yourself in a large courtyard. Notice the lobed fountain at its centre, this belonged to the Western Fatimid palace upon which the madrasa was built, and also the qibla iwan at its eastern end, which is strongly reminiscent of a northern Syrian basilican church, with three aisles, classical columns and an upper story of double-tiered arches. The mihrab has a hood decorated with glass mosaics, a feature also imported from Syria, whose architectural forms and decorations were heavily influenced by existing Byzantine styles. Look also at the carved marble panels of intertwining vine stems in the niche.

The marble Gothic gate brought to Egypt from the crusader church of St George in Acre by
Al-Nasir’s older brother, Sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil

The mausoleum, on the right side of the corridor, is one of the largest and most ornate in Cairo. Its plan, that of an octagon in a square with arches on square piers and Ptolemaic columns, is reminiscent of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The visitor is at once struck by the height of the chamber and almost overwhelmed by the profusion and variety of ornament. Note especially, the marble strips on the walls, the panels of polychrome stone inlay in geometric patterns (some with the name Muhammad in square Kufic), the capitals and inscriptions rich with gilding, and the mashrabiya screen around the cenotaph, under which the Sultan and his son Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad are buried. There is also breathtaking carved stucco around the arches, colored glass windows, and a painted, coffered ceiling. A broad strip of inlaid marble panels, like a ceremonial carpet, leads in a direct path from the entrance of the mausoleum through to the mihrab. This niche, which is the visual indicator of the direction of Mecca, also exemplifies a new style: its hood is entirely decorated with polychrome marble and its niche is divided into registers of mosaic inlay and blind arcading.

One last thing to notice is that the eastern, or qibla, wall is of varying thickness. This is apparent in the differing depths of the window openings. The angling allowed the façade of the building to be aligned with the street, while its interior was oriented southeast toward Mecca. One final observation is that with this complex the preferred placement of a funerary attachment becomes the west side of Sharia al-Mu’izz rather than the east side. This was because the mihrab in a tomb on the west side of the street also fronted the street. Through the open windows, passersby outside could hear the Quranic recitations for the dead and could invoke a prayer for his soul. A tomb on the east side of the street, as is the case of the tomb of al-Salih Ayyub, would place the mihrab on the back wall, and this kind of continuing interaction would be less likely.       

Sultan Qalawun’s complex established the monumental architectural style that was continued throughout the Bahari and early Burji (1382–1450) periods. In looking at the neighboring complex, the madrasa-khanqah-mausoleum of Sultan Barquq (1384–86), built a hundred years later, one sees this visual continuity. Characteristic of this style is the counterbalancing and contrast of massive forms: the horizontal façade, given additional emphasis by its division into tall, shallow recesses; the semi-spherical canopy of the dome; and the vertical thrust of the minaret.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 3, 2011

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