The Madrasa and Mausoleum of al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub (Al Salihiyya) In Islamic Cairo, Egypt

The Madrasa andMausoleum of al-Salih Najmal-Din Ayyub (Al Salihiyya)

In Islamic Cairo

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza

An Overall View of the Madrasa and Mausoleum of al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub

The last Ayyubid sultan of Egypt was al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub, who died defending Egypt against the Crusader attack that was led by Louis IX. He was the grandson of the more famous Salah al-Din Ayyub, known in the West as Saladdin. However, before his death, he built a rather unique school (madrasa) between 1242 and 1244, with the later addition of a tomb. This mausoleum was built in 1250 by Shajarat al-Durr, the wife of Salih al-Din who outlived him and became famous as she ruled with the first of the Mamluk sultans after his death. Though several madrasas were built in al-Qahira and al-Fustat (modern Cairo) during this period, many of them amongst houses and palaces, this is about the only one to have survived in a condition that allows its design to be fully explored.

A Closeup View of the Minaret

The construct is unique in that it was the first known example of a tomb being attached to a madrasa. The transitional zone of the mausoleum has the earliest example of a Cairene three-tiered brick muqarnas squince. Another notable feature of the mausoleum is that its Mihrab is the earliest extant example of an Egyptian prayer niche with a marble lining, and there remains a fine, wooden cenotaph marking the tomb itself. There are two carved wooden Qaranic friezes around the chamber. A part of the mausoleum protruded into the street and on this side were windows fronted by iron grilles, behind which sat the reciters of the Qur'an, whose recitationsinvoked the blessings of those passing by. The Mausoleum became a site of grand Bahri Mamluk ceremonials, for it was here that new Mamluk amirs, upon descending from the Citadel in a long procession, pledged allegiance to the sultan.

A view of shops and the Minaret

However, perhaps more importantly, this monument's madrasa was the first to be built to house all four Sunni legal schools, each in a separate iwan. Other schools of this period were dedicated to either the Maliki or Shafi'i rites of Islamic law, but this once also included the Hanafi and Hanbali rites as well. In doing so, it followed the example of the Madrasa Mustansiriyya in Baghdad (1233). This tradition would provide an evolutionary path to the cruciform plan under the later Mamluks. In 1330, under the Mamluks, the Friday sermon was introduced to this madrasa. However, the madrasa came to be more than just a center of worship and scholarship. here, the four chief religious justices, or qadis, heard cases referred to them from lower courts. Throughout much of the Mamluk period, they formed the supreme judicial tribune of the state, and hence, this construct became the center of town, the courthouse square of Cairo.

Decorations of the Entry to the building

The Madrasa of al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub occupies part of the site where the Great Fatimid Palace once stood within the heart of the Fatimid city, as does part of the famous Khan el-Khalili bazar. It is rather difficult to spot because only the minaret remains visible behind a row of shops. This minaret is the only one to have survived intact that dates from the Ayyubid Period. The minaret rests upon the roof of a passage and consists of a rectangular shaft, receding into a second story in the shape of an octagon, and topped by a ribbed, angular roof resting on stalactites. This cap is reminiscent of that of the Abu 'l-Ghadanfar built during the late Fatimid period which marks the beginning of this mabkhara (incense-burner, a term introduced by Orientalist Richard Burton, who had been told that the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim burned incense in his minarets to perfume the mosque), or pepperpot shape in minaret architecture. The rectangular shaft of the minaret is really not very visible on the street side, but in the back it is adorned with keel-arched panels with fluted hoods of carved stucco. Above this, the octagonal level is decorated with lobed openings and stalactites. These stalactites mark the earliest example in the decoration of a minaret helmet, a feature that later forms an integral part of mabkhara minaret decoration.

Floor Plan of the building

The passage that the minaret rests upon is today known as Harat al-Salihiya, and it separates the two wings of the madrasa. The entrance to the ally is actually the doorway to the madrasa. Some relics of wooden beams indicate that this passage was originally covered. The passage entrance is crowned with a beautiful keel-arched niche of carved stone with a foundation inscription of naskhi script in its center. Flutes radiate from this decoration outward evolving into a frame of stalactites on the the border of the niche. Flanking this large central niche are two somewhat smaller recesses that also have fluted hoods within a rectangular frame with stalactite cresting.

The facade that fronted both wings still stands, adorned with niches, reliefs and inscriptions. The decoration of this facade is somewhat similar to that of the nearby Aqmar mosque, though it is partially hidden by shops. Its most visible adornments are panels consisting of a keel-arched central section and rectangular panels over the remainder. Each of these panels is recessed and includes a windows, a style first appearing at the Mosque of al-Salib Tala'i. The lintels of these windows are carved in stone.

Part of the Dome before Restoration Work

The plan of the madrasa was reconstructed by Creswell, who found that it was a near duplicate of the earlier ruined madrasa of al-Malik al-Kamil which stood across the street. His plan shows that the two opposing wings on either side of the passage each had their own courtyards, though that of al-Kamil had only one courtyard with two iwans. In al-Shaih al-Din's madrasa, the courtyards each had two vaulted iwans facing each other across the courtyards. These four iwans divided between the two wings served as study areas, each designated to one of the four schools. Teachers actually taught in their own houses. The courtyard in the wing with its back to the street was smaller, while the other larger wing was oriented to Mecca. The qibla orientation of the interior of this larger wing, which followed the street alignment, was accomplished by gradually increasing the thickness of the wall of the qibla facade. Thus, the windows gradually became deep recesses. The lateral sides of each courtyard were occupied by two stories of living units for the students. Today, only the northwest iwan has survived. A doorway just to the left of the passage entrance gives access into the open courtyard, where the remains of the madrasa are evident in the form one of its iwans still standing on the street side. A small, recent mosque was at one time built into it.

This monument represents the architectural and institutional transition between the Fatimid monuments and the subsequent Mamluk complexes. Hence, The 13th century minaret of the madrasa of Al Salih al-Din, also known as Al Salihiyya, has obviously undergone recent restoration. Clean and sparkling, it shows a patchwork of old and new stone, clearly revealing the layers of its history. Missing areas of decoration have been left missing and yet the overall effect is one of a building that is well cared for. This restoration shows the special attention provided by Dr. Nairy Hampikian, an Egyptian-Armenian restoration specialist who worked with the German Institute of Archaeology on its preservation, which was competed in 1995.






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