Al-Azhar, Thousand Year-old Lofty Beacon

Al-Azhar, thousand-year-old lofty beacon

Al-Azhar in 1937

On the eastern side of Cairo, AL-Azhar has stood for over a thousand years. It has been a lofty beacon sending light in all directions and immortalizing the sciences of the Arabs and the civilizations of Islam.

Establishment of AL-Azhar

Gawhar Al-Sikilly completed the foundation of Cairo in 969 AD one year after the Fatimid invasion of Egypt. Gawhars first achievement as recorded in Al-Maqrisis book, was the establishment of Al-Azhar Mosque. Work on it began on a Sunday of Gumada Al-Oula, 359 AH. On its completion two years later, it was opened for prayers in Ramadan 361 AH, July 972 AD.

According to the great historian Al-Maqrisi, Gawhar replaced the dark dresses which were the emblem of the Abbassids with white ones. Al-Azan was changed to "Hasten to good deeds." Gawhar also ordered that the Khutba (sermon) should begin with "Allahs blessings be upon Muhammad the Chosen, upon Ali the Favoured, upon Fatma the Pious, upon Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein the Prophets grandsons whom Allah has purified, and upon the chaste Imams, fathers of the Prince of the Believers Al-Muezz Lideen-Allah."

AL-Azhar is located south-east of Cairo at the center of the Fatimid capital as a symbol of the Fatimids spiritual domination and a center of their religious beliefs.

Study at AL-Azhar

In 975 AD, Chief Judge Abou Al-Hassan Ibn Al-Noaman read at AL-Azhar his fathers summary of the Shia jurisprudence. Many scholars and dignitaries were present. He recorded all their names. That was the first seminar held at AL-Azhar.

Abdel-Rahman Katkhuda niche
and a wooden minbar

In 988 AD, Minister Yaakoub Ibn Killis got permission from Caliph Al-Aziz-Billah to appoint 37 scholars at AL-Azhar to hold seminars after Friday prayers. The scholars were given reasonable monthly salaries. They lived in a house specially built for them near AL-Azhar and were carried on mules as a symbol of honor.

In addition to the educational role of AL-Azhar, the Chief Judge used to hold judicial councils there on certain days.

When the Ayyubis came to power with their Sunni beliefs, the Khutba was no longer delivered at Al-Azhar but at Al-Hakem Mosque for almost a century. However, AL-Azhar remained the destination of great scholars such as Abdel Latif Al-Boghdady who came to Egypt in 589 AH.

Sultan Saladdin following suit of King Al-Adel Nour El-Din Zanki of Syria built Al-Nasseriya school, beside Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque, for teaching the Shafei Jurisprudence and the Wheat school for teaching the Malki jurisprudence. The number of schools established during the seventh and eight centuries AH largely increased, a matter affecting the academic activities of AL-Azhar.

In the ninth century, AL-Azhar has become the Mecca of scholars and students from all parts of the Islamic world. Upon closure of the institutes of Baghdad and Cordova, AL-Azhar has assumed the intellectual and cultural leadership in Egypt and the Islamic world as well.

Under the Mamelukes, AL-Azhar scholars occupied supreme legal posts. In the late ninth century, Mamelukes began to suffer old age and AL-Azhar had its share of neglect. The Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517 AD was the most shattering blow directed to the pillars of Islamic civilization. During that period, AL-Azhar however became the stronghold of the Arabic language against the Turkish and attracted students from all parts of the Arab world.

In the beginning of the19th c. AL-Azhar has become the Islamic worlds lighthouse of knowledge.

Architecture of Al-Azhar

Al-Azhar sat amidst the narrow, irregular streets and cul-de-sacs of medieval Cairo, with Islamic accretions of Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluke, and Ottoman architecture.

The porticoes (schools) of AL-Azhar

1 - The Abbasid portico

It was opened on Shawwal 24, 1315 AH under the reign of Khedive Abbas Hilimi II; hence the name. The Rector of AL-Azhar then was Sheikh Hassouna Al- Nawawy. It is built in the Ottoman architectural style at a cost of LE 6,080. It is located at the western side of the mosque and consists of three floors. The first floor where the Board of Directors used to meet has a magnificent niche made of colored marble finely decorated with plant and geometrical motifs, and a library as well. Formal ceremonies were held on this floor. The second floor is divided into several sections: a hall for time-keepers and another for guards, a sub-portico consisting of several rooms for the students and a room for the physician and the pharmacist. It also includes the archives of AL-Azhar. The third floor includes the office of the Mufti, his secretary and employees.

Taybesir Schools niche

2 - The Taybesir portico
It is built by Prince Alaaddin Taybersi in 1309 AD and includes a library.

3 - The Akbagha portico

It is erected in 1340 AD by Prince Akbagha Abdel Wahed and now hosts AL-Azhar library. It has a niche decorated by golden and colored mosaic.

4-The Kurds portico

It is located to the right of the Mezayyeneen door.

5 - The Indians portico

It is located also to the right of the Mezayyeneen door and consists of two floors. The first has only one room and the second four.

6- The Baghdadis portico

It is located on the second floor of the Indians portico. It includes two rooms, a kitchen and a lavatory.

7 - The Barniyya portico

It is located in the roofed area between the porticoes of the Turks and the Yemenis.

8 - The Yemeni portico

It is located next to the Barniyya portico and opens on the roofed area outside the Turks portico.

9 - The Gabartiyya portico

It is situated outside the Barniyya portico and is named after a town in Ethiopia.

10 - The Turks portico

It was built by Sultan Qayetbay and renewed by Prince Katkhuda. It has 16 marble pillars and 12 rooms on the upper floor. It has a large library, a kitchen, and a well.

11 - The Sennariyya portico

Established by Muhammad Ali, it is situated to the left of the Maghrabi door in front of the Turks portico.

12 - The Maghrabi portico

It is situated to the right of the Maghrabi door. It has 15 arches supported by marble pillars. There were rooms as well as a library on the upper floor. It has a porter, and a clerk.

13 - The Sulaimaniyya portico
It lies between the Shawam and the Java porticoes. It has five rooms and a large bookstore.

Gawhariyya Schools niche

14 - The Java portico

It is situated between the Sulaimaniyya and the Shawam porticoes. It also has a large bookstore.

15 - The Shawam portico

It was built to the right of the Shawam door by Sultan Qayetbay and underwent restoration works under Princes Osman and Abdel-Rahman Katkhuda. It has about 30 rooms, a large bookstore, and a well.

16 - The Upper Egyptians portico

One of the most famous porticoes of AL-Azhar, it lies to the right of the Upper Egyptians door and consists of a spacious balcony in the middle of which is a marble pillar, a large library, and a kitchen.

17 - The Haramein (the two Holy Shrines) portico

It lies to the right of the minbar near the Upper Egyptians door. It hosts students from Mecca, Madina, Al-Taaif, and other parts of Hijaz (Saudi Arabia). It is built by Abdel-Rahman Katkhuda and includes a hall on the ground floor and three rooms on the upper.

18 - The Barabra portico

It lies to the left of the Shurba door.

19 - The Dakarnat Soleih portico

It lies near the Sharakwa portico.

20 - The Sharkawiyya portico

It was built by Viceroy Ibrahim Bey in response to the request of Rector Abdullah Al-Sharkawy. Before this portico was built, students from the Sharkiyya province used to live in the Taybersi and the Maamar porticoes.

21 - The Gawhariyya portico

It occupies a small area and has no pillars. It contains two opposite balconies between which is a small passage covered with colored marble. It is established by Gawhar Al-Kankibai who was buried there in 844 AH.

22 - The Zawia of the Blind portico

It was built by Prince Osman Katkhuda. It lies outside the Gawhariyya portico. A lane and a stone path separate them. It has four marble pillars, a qibla, a lavatory, and 13 toilets. The upper floor comprises three rooms for blinds only. The Sheikh of the Zawia should be blind.

23 - The Hanbaly portico

It lies beside the Zawia of he Blind. It is built by Osman Katkhuda, and has three rooms on the upper floor. It was renovated by Prince Rateb Pasha in 1217 AH.

24 - The Maamar portico

It is named after Ibn Maamar and is located to the right of the general Lavatory of AL-Azhar. It is a common portico, i.e. not belonging to a particular group.

25 - The Fashniyya portico

It lies between the Hanbaly portico and the lavatory. Nothing remains of it now but lockers of the students.

26 - The Hanafy portico

It lies between the Fashniyya and Shanawaniyya porticoes. It is established by Prince Rateb Pasha in 1279 AH. It is spacious. The upper floor includes 13 rooms for the distinguished students, and a library.

27 - The Shanawaniyya portico

It lies at the eastern side of the nave of the mosque near the Fayyoumiyya portico.

28 - The Fayyoumiyya portico

It lies at the eastern side of the nave, too. Nothing remains of it except students lockers.

29 - The Baharwa portico

It hosted students from Al-Bihaira province only and had a Sheikh and a naquib (Deputy-Sheikh). Nothing remains of it either.

The minarets of AL-Azhar

AL-Azhar had six minarets. One was outside the Mezayyeneen door, to the right of the mosque. It had been built by Abdel-Rahman Katkhuda and can be reached through the door of the small lavatory, near the Taybersi school. The minaret and the lavatory were demolished and in their place were built the Abbassid portico and the administration of AL-Azhar.

Left to right:
Minarets of Sultan Al-Ghury,
Sultan Al-Ashraf Qayetbay and
Akbagha School

There were three other minarets overlooking the nave. One is the minaret of the Akbagha school. It is the first minaret in Egypt built of carved stone. It was built by Prince Alaa Eddin Akbagha. The second which lies to the right of the mosque was built by Sultan Al-Ashraf Qayetbay. The third is next to the second and is the highest of AL-Azhar minarets. It was built by Sultan Al-Ghury. It can be reached through a small door in the nave leading to the roof of the western portico.

At the eastern corner of the mosque there were two minarets. The one at the south-eastern end can be reached through the Upper Egyptians portico, the other at the north-eastern end through the Shurba door. Both were built by Abdel-Rahman Katkhuda. Each minaret has a closet in which the Muazzin (prayer caller) waits till it is the time of the Azan (call for prayer).

Doors of AL-Azhar

AL-Azhar has nine doors. The most important of which is the main door known as the Mezayyeneen (barbers) Door. Mezayyeneen used to sit in the passage between the Taybersi and the Akbagha schools: hence its name. It was established by Abdel-Rahman Katkhuda.

The second door is the Abbassid Door. It is on the western side of the mosque. It was established by the Ministry of Wakfs when the Abbassid portico was built. It bore Quranic verses in golden letters.

Akbagha Schools niche

The third door is the Maghrabi Door, facing the Turks lane. The fourth is the Syrians Door. It is located at the southern corner of the mosque and leads to the qibla balcony.

The fifth is the Upper Egyptians Door which locates at the southern corner of the mosque also and overlooks the Bathiyya lane. It was built by Abdel-Rahman Katkhuda.

The sixth is known as the Haramein Door. It was also established by Katkhuda.

The Shurba (soup) Door is at the north-eastern qibla wall. It was so called because it is near to the kitchen where soup and rice were cooked and distributed to the poor.

The Gawhariyya Door which is established by Gawhar Al-Kinkibani locates at the northern corner of the mosque. It opens on the Shanawany Street, opposite Al-Adawy Mosque. The ninth door is the Lavatory Door.

Reform of Al-Azhar

The 1872 decree issued when Sheikh Muhammad Al-Mahdy Al-Abbasy was rector stipulated an oral examination for the Alamiyya Degree which became a prerequisite for teaching there.

Sheikh Muhammad Abduh and Khedive Abbas II syrveyed AL-Azhar with an eye to change. Decrees followed providing Al-Azhar with an administrative council, a central library, a regular salary schedule, courses in secular subjects, and formal admission requirements. The syllabus was no longer confined to religious subjects. Abduh managed to establish affiliated institutes in the capitals of the provinces.

In 1908 a decree stipulating that primary, secondary and some higher schools syllabuses -except foreign languages courses- should be taught at AL-Azhar was issued.

Decree No.10 issued in 1911 AD when Sheikh Selim Al-Bishry was rector for the second time defined the powers of Azhari rectors, and set up the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar headed by the rector.

The 1930 reforms established the Faculty of the Arabic language, the Faculty of Usul Al-Din (Theology), replaced the independent school for Qadis with the Sharia (Islamic law) Faculty, and conceded Azharis the right to teach in state schools.

Law No. 103 of 1961 shook up Al-Azhar. Nasser ram Al-Azhar reform through the National Assembly. The reform swamped the three old faculties by adding others, including Medicine, Agriculture, Engineering, and an Islamic Girls Faculty and establishing the Academy of Islamic Studies.

The story of Al-Azhar

Al-Azhar mosque