The Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hassan

The Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hassan

by Seif Kamel

Overall view of the Sultan Hassan Mosque and Madrasa

I was excited about visiting the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, which I have seen many times from outside but never ventured within. It was a school, or madrasa, but for the first time in Cairo, the madrasa had also the status of a congregational mosque for Friday sermons. There are many interesting stories about this mosque, which is considered to be Cairo's finest example of early Mamluk architecture. In fact, many guide books refer to it as the finest ancient mosque in Cairo, and has been praised as one of the major monuments of the Islamic world. This monument is best seen in the morning, when the sun lights up the mausoleum and the western iiwan.

Sultan Hassan Mosque as seen from the Citadel

The founder of this gigantic monument was Sultan Hassan, the son of the great Mamluk Sultan, Al Nasser Mohamed Ibn (son of) Qalawoun. Sultan Hassan actually ruled Egypt twice. The first time was in 1347 when he was only 13 years old, but he was dethroned by the other Mamluk princes and generals. His second rule of Egypt began in 1356 and lasted until 1361. He was not a glorious and impressive sultan, but more of a puppet manipulated by powerful amirs, such as Amir Sarghatmish.

Al Nasser Mohamed, his father, was responsible for many monuments around Cairo, including his mosque in the Citadel and his Madrasa in Ben El Qasrien. Qalawoun was also a great builder, but the Sultan Hassan Mosque remains the most important monument of this period. Sultan Hassan imported engineers from throughout the world to build his great monument.

Mosque of Sultan Hassan by David Roberts

The mosque is located near the Citadel, specifically in Salah El Din Square, sometimes referred to as Qala's Square. It once overlooked the fields of the Hippodrome, and it also overlooked an area below the Citadel that was used for festivities and sporting events such as polo during the Mamluk Period of the 14th and 15th centuries. Being very near the Citadel and therefore the center of Mamluk activity made the mosque all that more important.

Plan of the Sultan Hassan Mosque and Madrasa

Plan of the Sultan Hassan Mosque and Madrasa

This mosque is also considered one of the largest, not only in Cairo but in the whole Islamic world. It is a massive structure measuring some 150 meters long and 36 meters high. It's tallest minaret is 68 meters tall. It was meant to house some four hundred students. Work was begun on the Mosque in 1356, funded by rather dark resources, money from the estates of people who died in the Black Death that struck Cairo in 1348. It was not a very popular policy amongst the people of the time, and is one of the reasons that Sultan Hassan gained a reputation for being greedy. Under the supervision of Price Hohammad Ibn Baylik Al Muhssani, its construction cost an average of 20,000 dirham every day for some five years, a sum that would be considered a lot even today. It is reported that Sultan Hassan said he would have abandoned the project but for the shame it would bring if people said that an Egyptian sultan was not able to complete a mosque he had started.

The great portal, showing unfinished panels along its sides

About five years into its construction, one of the minaret collapsed killing more than three hundred people. This was thought to be a bad omen and to make matters worse, in 1361, Sultan Hassan was murdered, two years before the mosque was actually completed in 1363. Once again, he was attacked by the other Mamluk elite. He escaped from the Citadel and hid someplace in Cairo. He was later discovered and imprisoned, never to be seen again. The mosque was almost complete by that time, and was later finished by one of his functionaries named Bashir Al Gamdar.

The facade of the mausoleum in the complex

Knowing about all this intrigue and seeing its huge facade made me even more excited and eager to explore this huge monument. The guide books say that one must purchase tickets to visit the mosque, but I was told that this was no longer necessary by the tourist police who are posted all about the monument. I began my tour by walking around in the corridor between it and the Refa'e Mosque. This is a purely medieval adventure, with these two ancient mosques to either side and the Citadel looming at the end of the corridor. No wonder this is one of the most popular tourist sites in Islamic Cairo.

The mosque is free standing and has three facades. The fourth, western side has a large commercial complex and other dependencies belonging to the waqf (foundation) of Sultan Hassan which financed the foundation. Originally, the dome, which is not the original one, was described as bulbous, built of wood and covered with lead as in the dome of Imam Shafi'i. The current dome is more recent and is considered a misinterpretation of the original design.

A view of one of the minarets of the mosque

The original plan of the complex called for four minarets. One was built at the portal, but it collapsed before the second was erected, and the plan to build minarets at the portal was abandoned. One of the two original minarets has survived, and is the highest of medieval Cairo at 84 meters. A second minaret is of more recent vintage. The original minaret is octagonal throughout, like the minarets of other contemporary mosques. Its shaft also is decorated with geometric patterns made of inlaid stone, and its top is composed of a bulb on eight columns. Its silhouette is massive compared to others of the same period.

As seen from the Citadel, the Sultan Hassan mosque of today is quite irregular. The domed square of the mausoleum protrudes on three sides and is also particularly high, at over thirty meters. At its top is a projecting stalactite cornice in carved stone running along the facade, which has no parallel in any other Cairo mosque.

Upper level windows in the Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hassan

Each of the facades of the mausoleum is adorned at the center by a medallion with a bull's-eye in the center and framed by interlaced bands in two colors. Two rows of windows run along the facades. The upper ones are inserted in recesses crowned with stalactites that are in turn surmounted by a shallow conch in a similar fashion to the portals. Like the medallions, interlaced bands also decorate the conch. Once adorned with faience mosaics, with traces still evident, the lower windows are inserted into recesses that have a stepped pyramidal profile. The traces of mosaics are telling, indicating that the craftsman imported from Tabriz during the reign of Sultan Hassan's father must have stayed for several decades. The southern facade has eight horizontal rows of windows, each two corresponding to one story of the student cells. This gives that facade the appearance of almost a modern high-rise, a treatment not seen in any other medieval building in Cairo. The northern facade, with the mosque's main portal, also contains a number of windows.

Windows for the madrasa cells lining the facade

The horizontal mass of the facade is given extra emphasis by its division in to thin vertical bays which end in the bold honeycomb cornice running along the top of its walls. The black basalt stone embedded in the facade appears in other buildings of this period and is perhaps symbolic of the black stone at the Ka'ba in Mecca. The corners of the facades are braced with finely carved columns with stalactite capitals The twisted carved motif on the shaft of the columns are reminiscent of Byzantine tradition.

The entrance to the mosque cannot be missed, as it is the largest portal of any pre-modern Cairene Mosque-Madrasa complex in Egypt. It is located on Al-Qal'a street. Beside the entrance is a floor plan along with some historical information about the structure written in both Arabic and English. This is a nice place to pause and notice several points about Mamluk architecture in general and about this building in particular. The view, looking back at the length of the facade as it stretches towards the Citadel, is an excellent example of how Bahri Mamluk architecture was intended to dominate the urban skyline.

The facade with the angled portal

The portal itself is offset, from the center of the facade and at an angle from the rest of the wall of about thirty degrees. It is dominated by a cascade of dripping stalactites surmounted by a fluted half dome. The tremendous height of the portal is emphasized by the spiral cut pilasters, as well as by the vertical panels on each side of the porch. The architecture of the portal has sometimes been compared to the Gok madrasa in Anatolia build during the rule of Saljaq, because of the medallions flanking the stalactite vault, the carved bands framing it and the panels filled with geometric patterns. It would have been even more similar under its original plan to have two minarets built at the portal. Doubtless, either the craftsman who designed the facility were of Anatolian origin, or had at least visited the mosques in Anatolia. According to Maqrizi, craftsmen from all over the world worked on the mosque of Sultan Hassan.

Ornamentation at the top of the portal

The carved bands adorning the portal are not continued above, and the stages of work can thus be seen. The carvings below are completed and the patterns above them are incised but not carved out, showing that work began on the lower part and moved upwards. The uppermost part of the portal is devoid of decoration and seems to be lacking its facing.

Interestingly, the design of these panels presents Chinese flower motifs such as chrysanthemums and Chinese lotus flowers. While these patterns are common on 14th century Mamluk minor-art objects, this is the only known example in architecture. Note that this does not imply that Chinese craftsmen worked on the mosque, but only that the craftsmen were familiar with Chinese art motifs. The 14th century was a period of considerable trade between the Islamic world and the Far East, promoted by the opening of land routes between the Mediterranean and China. Chinese porcelains and silks, very sought after in Egypt, surely inspired artists in Cairo to expand their decorative repertoire with these exotic designs.

The great portal of the Mosque of Sultan Hassan

There is a narrow, very curious carved panel with architectural designs such as a Gothic portal and a domed structure with gabled roof of Western, probably Byzantine origin, to the right of the entrance. It may even represent a type of craftsman's signature.

The huge door of the main portal is not its original one, which was taken by Al Mu'ayyad to use in his own mosque near Bab Zuwelia. One must, as at all mosques, leave their shoes behind. Inside, the grounds of the mosque were very clean Indeed, this was the first mosque in Egypt I have ever seen where men were cleaning with an vacuum. However, before passing through into this sanctuary, one should gaze upward and and note the stalactites over the entrance, making one feel like one has entered a magical cave, passing through to an otherworldly experience.

Corridor leading ot the sahn

Just before the vestibule, there is a handsome inlaid marble inscription and two marble niches inlaid with geometric designs. There, the conchs are decorated with stalactites as in Anataolian prayer niches. The vestibule contains a large stone bench that may have been used by Quaran readers, Above it are medallions with inlaid geometric patterns and carved stone niches. The interior entrance hall of the mosque is quite remarkable with its dark red and brown Mamluk decorations. The dome is also amazing and very high and rich with ornaments. There are influences of the workmanship of artists having come to Cairo from Anatolia and Western Persia (Tabrz) in the first half of the 14th century. The lantern hung from the coming is truly amazing. The whole mosque is lit by numerous small lamps making a marvelous scene.

The Ablution Fountain and a view of two of the iwans

From the vestibule, I turned to the left and started walking in the dimly lit corridor with its double bended passageway, which empties into the magnificent Sahn, the open courtyard, of the facility. This passage runs beneath the student living quarters.

Inside the dome of the fountain in the sahn

A view of the sahn showing seveeral iwans

Inside the Sahn, one finds oneself emerged in the Mamluk era. Here, the walls are massive and there is no part of modern Cairo visible. Although the exterior of the building is of stone, the interior is of brick covered with stucco except for stonework finishing details. Here, the magnificent manipulation of voids and solids give the courtyard its souring thrust towards the sky. The area measures 34 meters long and 32 meters wide and completely paved with marble, which is modern. In the center is a large ablution fountain that was completed in 1362. It was not always an ablution fountain. Originally it was merely decorative, but was altered and repaired, and now actually dates to the Ottoman Period. It is covered by a wooden dome supported on marble columns. Around the base of the dome is a band of inscriptions from the Koran. The dome of this fountain, which is supported on eight marble columns, is bulbous in shape, and may in fact be a replica of the original missing mausoleum dome.

On each side of the sahn are recesses with arched supports known as iwans, which open upon the courtyard. They are of unequal size, and so great in size that they leave no space for the cells to overlook the courtyard. Each of the four iwans represents one school (or legal rite) of Sunni Islam, consisting of Shafite (Shafi'i), Malakite (Maliki), Henefite (Hanafi) and Hambelite (Hanbali). The floor of each iwan is covered by carpets of different color to differentiate them. The walls of the sahn and the Iwans are marvelously ornate, with lamps hanging from lines looming far above. One of the main reasons that Sultan Hassan built the complex was to host the teaching of all sects of Sunni Islam. However, the Madrasa was not that popular at the time for two reasons. First, after Sultan Hassan was killed in 1361, the complex was not completed exactly in the way he envisioned. In fact, it remained closed for another fifty years. And perhaps because of this, only a few well known scholars actually taught in this Madrasa. Many others preferred to lecture and take up teaching posts at other colleges in Cairo. Nevertheless, it was here in these iwans where the sheikh or teacher would sit upon a stool or a platform while his students sat cross leged all around him.

Doorway to the Minbar

The ceilings of these iwans are very high, and behind the four iwans, the building is divided into four parts for the four sects of Sunni Islam. Inside these buildings students use to live and study. Each of these madrasa are entered by a door between the individual iwans, and inside each has its own courtyard with their own ablution fountain, quibla oriented iwan, and four or fives stories of rooms. Some of these cells are larger than others, and a number of latrines are included in the living quarters. Interestingly, this is the only Cairo madrasa that locates most of the cells on the street side because of the huge iwans that leave no space for windows on the courtyard side.

A view of the Mihrab, Minbar and Dikka

The Henefite madrasa, which is the largest one on the right as you face the quibla, is particularly worth visiting. One should note the doorway to this section, with its ablaq courses of black and white marble, the colored mosaic decoration, the joggled voussoirs on arches and lintels and the dripping stalactites on the cornice, which are all standard elements of doorway ornamentation during this period. The next largest madrasa was that of the Shafi'i rite on the left side of the sanctuary. At the time, the Shafi'i rite was the one most Egyptians followed during the period.

An overview of the Qibla Iwan

Back in the main courtyard, I was drawn to the main, eastern iwan, known as the Qibla Iwan because here payers face the direction of Mecca. Not only is this the largest of the iwans, it is the largest vaulted hall of the medieval Muslim world. The use of polychrome marble paneling is one of the most characteristic features of Mamluk decoration and here the mixture of soft colors in flat rectangles contrasts strikingly both with the dusty plastering of the walls and with the deep relief carvings of the inscriptions. The style of the columns that flank the decorations indicates that they may have been trophies from Crusader buildings in Palestine.

The dikka

The Mihrab is so beautifully decorated that one might spend hours blissfully enjoying the artwork. Here, there are two windows in recesses and oculus above the Mihrab. Muslims believe that the Mihrab is their gate to Mecca, and this one has gold decorations and is an excellent example of the finest Mamluk art during this period. There is also a high Mastaba, known as a dikka (dikkat al-muballigh), still shinning with its gold plating, where the readers or changers of the Quran would sit. It is adorned with remarkable columns composed of different colored stone.

The Minbar of the mosque

Situated next to the Mihrab is the marble Minbar, the pulpit from which the Imam stands. Here, there is a small bronze door that leads to the staircase. These ornately decorated doors open from the center and have some golden verses of the Quran inscribed along its upper edge. Here, the Imam would climb the stairs and sometimes sit or stand while delivering important lectures during prayer time beneath the Minbar's carved bulb dome. Both the Minbar and the Mihrab are among the most lavishly decorated examples of their kind. Here, there are also three lamps hanging from the high ceiling. Looking through the arches into the sahn from the Qibla Iwan and seeing it through these lamps is a stunning scene.

On the walls of the Qibla Iwan are monumental Kufic letters executed in stucco that are set against a Chinese lotus blossom background with fine, subtle patterns. There is a similar band in the iwan of the Hanafi madrasa, but there is nothing else similar in Cairo architecture. The Quranic verse that is quoted here is from Sura 48, which begins:

One of the ornate doors in the Qibla Iwan

"In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Surely we have given thee a manifest victory, that God may forgive thee thy former and thy latter sins, and complete His blessing upon thee, and guide thee on a straight path, that god may help thee with mighty help"

There are several bronze doors nearby, leading to various rooms, that are masterpieces of medieval metalwork. On either side of the mihrab, doors lead into the mausoleum. The door on the right is particularly interesting, made of bronze inlaid with silver and gold. It is original and of exceptional workmanship. The design of the door combines central star ahapes with small polygonal satellites, a design which is also popular in woodwork. The inscription in the silver at the base is in Thuluth script, which was much in favor during the Mamluk Period. Thuluth means third, and in this script the letters are three times as high as they are wide.

stalactite pendentives

The Mausoleum, with its 21 square meter dome, is located behind the Qibla Iwan, which is unusual in Cairo. Only two other mosques are configured similarly. Usually, if the mausoleum is attached to the quibla wall, it is set to one side so that worshipers do not pray toward the founder's bomb. This is the largest mausoleum in Cairo. It was intended as the tomb of Sultan Hassan but instead it contains the bodies of two of his sons, named Al Shehab Ahamd and Ishmael. Sultan Hassan was not buried here because his body was never recovered.

In many respects, the decoration inside the mausoleum is similar to that of the Qibla Iwan.. The Quran inscriptions on the walls above the marble paneling are in Thuluth script, done all in white. The are from the Throne verse of the Quran:

"God, there is no god but He, the Living, the Everlasting.
Slumber seizes Him not, neither sleep;
to Him belongs all that is in the heavens and the earth.
Who is there that shall intercede with Him save by His leave?
He knows what lies before them and what is after them,
And they comprehend not anything of His knowledge save such as He wills.
His Throne comprises the heavens and earth;
the preserving of them oppresses Him not;
He is the All-high, the All-glorious."

Interior of the dome within the mausoleum

The high dome of the mausoleum is constructed, like the one in the entrance hall of the mosque, with bricks. This is the most beautiful dome I have seen during my journeys around Islamic Cairo, as well as one of the highest. In the corners wooden stalactite pendentives with niches of lavishly gilded and painted decorations support the dome, which is actually lower than the original one.

The lighting is ascetically pleasing, consisting of a circle of lamps hanging down from the dome and surrounding the tomb in the center. There are many small windows in the walls to let in light and allow fresh are to move about the mausoleum. The tomb itself, but to host the body of Sultan Hassan, is itself surrounded by a small, carved wooden fence. It is oriented towards the Qibla wall. Behind the tomb is another Mihrab that is similar to the one in the Qibla Iwan, also well decorated with gold inscriptions. I believe that this Mihrab was placed here so that people would pray for the sultan or his sons who are actually entombed here. It the back of the mausoleum, to the right and the left, are large ground level windows from which the Citadel can be seen. I felt a bit sad that the builder of this great monument did not find his final resting place here.

The tomb within does not contain the bodie of Sultan Hassan, as it was never found

In addition, the Islamic Museum in Cairo houses a large collection of glass enameled lamps that once hung in this mosque.

The complex also had a mustashfa, a small hospital, on its western side at one time.

Sultan Hassan wanted to be able to see the mosque from his offices in the Citadel, but at the same time, other Mumluk leaders were known to hide there and stage attacks on the Citadel. It was twice used as a fortress. During the reign of Sultan Barquq (1391) dissident amirs used the terrace to hurl projectiles at the Citadel. Afterwards, the Sultan ordered the steps and platform of the entrance destroyed and and the entrance boarded up.

One of the mosque lamps now in the Islamic Museum

Later, another sultan had to send soldiers to occupy the mosque to prevent rebels from entrenching themselves in it. Once again, Sultan Jaqmaq blocked the staircases. Sultan Janbalat took the surprising decision in 1500 to destroy the mosque to prevent its being used for military uprisings, and a team of workers set about the demolition until criticism forced him to stop. In 1517 the madrasa was bombarded by cannonballs when it served as a refuge for the fugitive Tumanbay, the last Mamluk sultan. Finally, during the Ottoman period, the mosque was again involved in warfare. Bullet holes pierced the dome, so weakening it that it was demolished to prevent its accidental collapse. The collapse of one of the two minarets in 1659, taking away part of the buttress with its stalactites, could have also been a consequence of battles. Both the present minaret and the dome date to restorations of 1671-1672. Only during the 18th century was the mosque reopened after having been closed for half a century due to security reasons.