Egypt: Al-Malik al-Kamil Muhammad and his Medersa in Cairo (al kamil Medersa)

Al-Malik al-Kamil Muhammad and his Madrasa in Cairo

by Jimmy Dunn

A view of the ancient iwan of the al-Kamil Madrasa

Al-Malik al-Kamil ("the perfect prince") Muhammad took control of Egypt in 1218 upon the death of his father, al-Malik al-'Adil (The brother of Salah al-Din, better known in the west as Saladin), in 1218, and was immediately faced with a renewed European crusade. It is perhaps interesting to some, therefore, that al-Kamil is said to have admired the Coptic Christians, and for many years afterwards, even up into modern times, the Copts of Cairo looked on him as their favorite Muslim patron. When St. Francis of Assisi was on his way to Palestine he visited al-Kamil's court and they discussed religion.

In many ways, Al Kamil was more subtly romantic than his famous uncle, Saladin. It was al-Kamil whom Richard Coeur de Lion knighted on Palm Sunday in 1192, in what Hitti calls "the romantic excesses of the time."

A view directly into the iwan

At this point in history, Cairo was the capital of the sultanate, but the task that faced the new head of this dynasty was less easy, as those over whom he had to impose his authority were now his own brothers and his cousins in Aleppo. The ruler of Damascus resented Cairo's preeminence, and therefore, when the new crusade arrived in Palestine, sent by the papacy to recapture Jerusalem under the reluctant command of Emperor Frederick II, who was also king of Sicily, al-Kamil took measures calculated to reassert his preeminence. Under the Treaty of Jaffa which he signed with Frederick II in 1229, Jerusalem was restored to the Christians, with the exception of the Muslim places of prayer built on the former esplanade of the Jewish temple, and without the right to fortify the city. Basically, it was under joint control of Muslims and Christians, and the treaty scandalized Christians and Muslims alike, or at least the more extreme ones. But perhaps more interesting, as well as difficult to discern, was the character of his apparent friendship with Frederick II. To the Christians it was admirable, but to the Arabs it was infamous. However, what al-Kamil really was, explaining some of his dealing with both the Copts and Frederick II, was a moderate thinking statesman.

Al Kamil was certainly a builder. It was he, in fact, who finished the first Citadel, no doubt according to Ibn Gubayr, using crusader prisoners of war to do so. However, that was completed prior to his elevation to Sultan.

A view from the side of the al-Kamil Madrasa fragment from the side

Today, the Madrasa of al-Kamil Ayyub, sometimes called the Kamilya Madrasa, is only a fragment situated directly opposite Qasr Bashtak on the west side of Mu'izz Street. There is only preserved a part of one iwan. Yet it is one of the oldest of these schools, dating to 1229 AD. It was built by the order of Sultan al-Kamil, and it represents his only remaining memorial in Cairo.

The original complex was was created to train scholars in the traditions of the Prophet Mohammad, and during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries AD, it was the most respected center for such studies in Egypt. It was, at that time, the second largest of its kind in the world, after that of Zinki in Damascus, and during the Mamluk era, its architecture inspired some of the finest works of of the period in Cairo. However, after a famine struck Egypt between 1403 and 1404, it suffered a catastrophic reduction in revenues and began a prolonged decline.

Today, its only real interest is due to its age and the scarcity of Ayyubid Period relics. The doorway and windows belong to an Ottoman Period restoration of 1752, as does the mosque through which one walks. In order to visit it, one must turn left in the ablutions courtyard of the more modern mosque, and then make a right into a vacant lot beyond. From there, the arched vault of the iwan is visible to the right.