Mosque/Marasa, Sabil-Kuttab and Mausoleum Complex of Ashraf Barsbay in Cairo, Egypt

Mosque/Marasa, Sabil-Kuttab and Mausoleum Comple

of Ashraf Barsbay


by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza



Dome of the Mosque of Ashraf Barsbay



On the corner of Nahasiyeen (Nahhasin) and Muski streets stands the complex of Ashraf Barsbay. The complex dominates the nearby spice bazaar where heaped mounds of herbs, roots and spices still beckon shoppers. Local inhabitants of the spice bazaar more commonly refer to the monument as "al-Ashrafiya.


A Mameluke 'slave king' of Caucasian descent, Barsbay ruled Egypt for 16 years, bringing stability to a state where a leader rarely lasted five years before being overthrown. By turning the trade in certain spices into a state monopoly, Sultan Barsbay was able to use the profits to finance much of his building work as well as foreign military campaigns. Barsbay maintained a strong navy and conquered the island of Cyprus in 1426, forcing the Lusignans, where were descendents of the Crusader Kings of Jerusalem, to pay him tribute.

His mosque, built in 1425, with its fleur-de-lis crenellation and carved-stone, pepperpot dome, is typical of later Mameluke architecture. It actually consists of the mosque/madrasa with a sabil-kuttab and an attached mausoleum.


This institute was dedicated to the Sufis who wished to study the four rites of Islamic law according to a traditional madrasa structure.




Facade of the al-Ashraf Barsbay Complex





It is built very classically on a cross (cruciform) plan with four-Liwans surrounding a central courtyard. Checking the thickness of the stone at the eastern windows, it's clear that the interior and exterior walls of the mosque are not parallel. By the 15th century, few large sites were left in the city and new buildings had to be fitted into irregular shaped patches of land. But Mameluke rulers, craving order, went to great lengths to achieve an appearance of regularity.


The gilded roof (now sadly decayed) of the western porch still gives an idea of the refinement of decorative art in those times.


Within, the main inscription around the vaulted Liwans is interesting because it is a rare example of a waqf (endowment) deed carved in stone as a perpetual reminder to its overseers as to how the funds reserved for the maintenance and personnel of the complex were meant to be spent.


There are several architectural elements that are noteworthy. These include the ceiling in the northwest iwan, which was partially restored a few years ago and has a rich tapestry of gold and blue, along with the wooden, inlaid minbar.





The Mihrab on the Qibla Wall of the Barsbay complexThe Minbar, or pulpit of the Barsbay Complex



Left: the Mihrab; Right: Minbar of the al-Ashraf Barsbay Complex in Cairo


It has been suggested that there is no mihrab in the madrasa's mausoleum, because accommodating one would have left no room for a window on al-Mu'izz Street, which would have deprived the tomb of its crucial visual contact with the street. The mihrab, a highly decorative feature which underscored the religious character of the mausoleum, is replaced here by the blessings of the passersby.





Decorative Portal Door of the al-Ashraf Barsbay ComplexThe Minaret of the Barsbay Complex



Left: The front door of the Barsbay Complex; Right: the Minaret


The sabil-kuttab is next to the portal entrance at the southern end of the facility's facade. In the long corridor which connects the main entrance with the courtyard, on the left, is an alcove faced with a mashrabiyya screen, which hides the cistern where water for the sabil-kuttab was stored.

By the mosque on the street side is the mausoleum of Barsbay's wife and son, (Barsbay himself is interred in the City of the Dead.). In front of the mausoleum is a room especially created for Quran readers.








Reference Numberr

Al Qahiraa

Sassi, Dinoo


Al Ahram/Elsevierr

None Statedd

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Robinson, Francis


Cambridge University Press

ISBN 0-521-43510-2

Historical Cairo (A Walk Through the Islamic City)

Antonious, Jim


American University in Cairo Press, The

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Islamic Monuments in Cairo, A Practical Guide

Paker, Richard B.; Sabin, Robin; Williams, Caroline


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 036 7

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Thames and Hudson LTD

ISBN 0-500-34133-8