The Complex of Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay (Barsbey) In the Northern Cemetery, Cairo, Egypt

The Complex of Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay (Barsbey)
In the Northern Cemetery

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza

The Complex of Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay (Barsbey) in Cairo's Northern Cemetery

We are told that Sultan Barsbay ruled from 1422 until 1438, a relatively long time during this period. He neither drank nor swore, and though he was noted for milking the economy through any number of methods, his reign was one of "extreme security and low prices because revolts and expeditions were infrequent".

The Madrasa and Khanqah of Barsbay, which also contains three mausoleums, was built in Cairo's Northern Cemetery a few years after he built his complex south of the Qalawun complex on al-Mu'izz street at the corner of Sharia Muski (street). Constructed in 1432, it was made to accommodate only about seventeen Sufis, of whom four were students and only ten were housed on the premises. It's madrasa provided training to Sufi students studying the Hanafi rite. This complex, which takes up both sides of the street south of the khanqah of Faraj, once covered a large area but many of its subsidiary structures have now been lost.

The Primary dome over the Sultan's mausoleum

Of the original four domes, the larger and probably earlier one, carved with an undulating star pattern similar to that on the domes of Sultan Faraj, covers the mausoleum of the Sultan which is attached to the mosque. The interlaced star pattern is the earliest example carved on the exterior of stone domes, a shift from the dominant zigzag moldings of other stone domes from this period, including this Sultans monument on al-Mu'izz street within the city. The strictly coherent, two-dimensional geometrical designs were well adjusted to the challenging structure of the late Mamluk dome characterized by a steep rise transitioning to a pointed apex.

Two other domes cover a smaller mausoleum on the building's northern side, and another mausoleum open on three sides on it's eastern side. The eastern dome has a stepped, exterior transition while the one on the northern side has a pyramidal structure at each corner leading from the rectangular to the octagonal section. The fourth dome is now gone. The two smaller mausoleums were built for various relatives of the Sultan and for his amir, Gani Bak al-Ashrafi. Within the enclosure were also a number of other tombs.

Today, the facade we see also includes an unattractive minaret from a later date. The portal was not built using the stalacitite-vaulted style that was popular during the era, but rather with a trilobed vault, including groins instead of stalactites. Together with the stalactite portal, this type of pattern was again used in the late Mamluk and the Ottoman periods.

Primary and secondary domes

Within the structure, a cross-vaulted vestibule communicates through a bend with the prayer hall that is also of a different style than other such buildings of this period. This is an oblong hall some twenty by fifteen meters. The roof is supported by two pairs of columns with classical capitals carrying three arches, each running parallel to the qibla wall so that there are three aisles, rather than the typical cruciform or hypostyle plan found in other contemporary mosques. The central aisle is somewhat lower than the two side aisles. There are windows on both the east and west that illuminate the hall.

Within the sanctuary, the decorations are unusual, with walls that are bare but for the windows with stucco and colored glass, while the floor is richly adorned with inlaid polychrome marbles of high quality. The prayer niche (mihrab) is also of plain stone, while the ceiling of painted wood was probably a restoration of the Ottoman period. The lack of decoration is perhaps a reminder of the ascetic nature of the institution (Sufi school) at a time when decoration elsewhere was becoming increasingly lavish. Even though the pulpit (minbar) has a star geometric pattern of ivory inlaid in wood, it too is unusual in having curved segments. This masterpiece was presented as a gift to the foundation in 1453, and is perhaps the most beautiful Mamluk minbar in Cairo.

The Principal Mausoleum

On the northern side of the mosque, opposite the entrance, the central aisle leads to the door of the primary mausoleum. The plan of the mosque allows a perfect position for the sultan's mausoleum. It is open on three sides, while at the same time attached to the prayer hall. On the interior, the dome's transitional zone is made up of stalactite pendentives, and as always, neither the exterior nor the rest of the interior prepares one for the height of the dome, the ceiling of which seems to disappear into space.

It is possible that Sultan Barsbay used materials from earlier buildings within this mausoleum, for the quality of the marble inlays of the prayer niche, with rows of niches running across the conch are reminiscent of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. This is also suggested by the floor sections of the mosque, which seem to have been originally intended for doors and windows. Sultan Barsbay, who's marble cenotaph sits before the prayer niche (mihrab), is buried in this mausoleum rather than his other mausoleum built in the city proper.

Other Structures

A view of the ruined appartment complex

Next to the mosque and mausoleum to the south are the remains of the student residences (rab'). The foundation deed provides that there were ten of these, but unlike earlier accommodations, these were not single rooms, but apartments in two storied duplexes, each with a latrine. In each of the upper rooms there is a window that looks out upon the main road. On the upper floor, there was also a hall for Sufi gatherings, of which all that remains is a prayer niche. These units appear to have been very comfortable, and it is very likely that the families of the Sufism, who were provided with a whole unit, were allowed to live here as well. In earlier foundation deeds, Sufis were often required to be unmarried, but there was no such requirement in this one.

At one time this complex extended along both sides of the road. Opposite the main structure there was a zawiya for the Rifa'i order, of which only a large domed structure remains. It was restored in 1478. A Zawiya is a relatively small structure where the ideology of one shaykh and his order (tariqa) is practiced and from which it is spread. Zawiyas eventually superseded khanqahs as centers of Sufi learning, and became popular among the religious community. The khanqah here appears to have been independent of any particular order of Sufis.

Domes most often surmounted funerary structures, but this dome is quite different form those on contemporary mausoleums and of course, this building was not used for funerary purposes. The dome is made of brick with a plain exterior surface. The height of the dome is not increased, and rather than the usual pendentives, it is supported by squinches that start within, not above, the rectangular space. Later, these squinches were rebuilt so that today they have a trilobed shape, reminiscent of the portal treatment of the khanqah of Barsbay.

At one time, there was another zaqiya on the same side of the street, but it did not have a dome structure. Having two zawiyas was unprecedented in previous complexes. There were also two sabils (fountains) and other structures including large apartments and various dependencies.

This complex of Barsbay points to a trend in Sufism away from the monastic life and to one less regulated. In prior times, the cells of Mamluk khanqahs were integrated into the body of the cruciform four-iwan complex, which also had a courtyard, a prayer hall and subsidiary iwans, since the introverted nature of the monastic institution did not require a separation between public and private spaces. However, Khanqahs of this period began to prepare its members for professional and administrative positions and therefore less directed towards the mysticism and worship in seclusion that marked Sufism in earlier periods. The integration of the khanqah into the madrasa provided Sufis with a new worldly exposure.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Historical Cairo (A Walk Through the Islamic City) Antonious, Jim 1988 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977-424-497-4
Islamic Monuments in Cairo, A Practical Guide Paker, Richard B.; Sabin, Robin; Williams, Caroline 1985 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 036 7
Islamic Architecture in Cairo: An Introduction Behrens-Abouseif, Doris 1992 E. J. Brill ISBN 90-04-08677-3