The Khanqah and Mausoleum of Sultan Faraj Ibn Barquq

The Khanqah and Mausoleum of Sultan Faraj Ibn Barquq

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza

A gopod exterior view of the Khanqah and Mausoleum of Sultan Faraj Ibn Barquq

A Khanqah was a sort of monastery or lodge for the Sufis, who espoused in the mystic, esoteric approach to the Muslim religion and for which seclusion and asceticism played an important role. The Khanqah and Mausoleum of Sultan Faraj Ibn Barquq (1382-1399 AD) was built by, Sultan al-Nasir Faraj, in order to fulfill his father's desire to be buried near the tombs of the Sufis in Cairo's Northern cemetery. This complex was begun in 1400 and completed in 1411 AD near the sufis' tombs and the mausoleum of Anas (1382), who was the father of Sultan Barquq. Sultan Barquq was the first of the Circassian or Burgi Mamluks to be buried in the desert next to the tombs of the venerated Sufi Shaykhs. Today this tomb is one of the major monuments of Cairo as well as one of the three outstanding structures of the Northern Cemetery.

Groundplan of the complex

The northern cemetery is on the eastern, desert boundary of the old Fatimid city of al-Qahira, and during the reign of Sultan al-Zahir Baybars, there was a hippodrome located in this area where various chivalric sports took place. That Sultan was a great soldier himself and, being fond of such activities, encouraged his amirs in these contests. However, under al-Nasir Muhammad, this hippodrome was abandoned and the amirs began to build religious and funerary structures on its site.

It was here that Sultan al-Nasir Faraj built this khanqah, with the intention of urbanizing the site, but before his plans could be realized, he died. He was described by the fifteenth century historian, al-Maqrizi as "the most tragic king of Egypt". Sultan Faraj took the throne at the age of ten, and was only twenty-three when he was deposed and killed in Damascus. The khanqah took so long to complete (eleven years), that during its construction the sultan was dethroned twice and traveled to Syria seven times to quell disturbances. His reign was really one of continual strife among the amirs and as such was really a history of their rivalries, and one wonders how, amongst these circumstances, he could have produced such a magnificent complex.

One of the mausoleum's great stone domes

Originally the complex was planned as the center of a large residential area that was to include kitchens, living areas, and subsidiary establishments such as baths, bakeries, grain mills, a market place, rooms for travelers and small streets. One must remember that medieval Muslim cemeteries were never solely a place of the dead, for palaces and other residences were also built so that the rich could visit their dead in comfort. In addition, the religious foundations and major tombs always had residences of some nature associated with them for the founders and their families, as well as for Sufis and students.

Though the latest inscription on the building is 1411, according to Maqrizi, the khanqah was actually inaugurated in 1410, when forty Sufis were appointed to it. There is no foundation deed to the structure that we know of, so it is not clear to what extent the khanqah also functioned as a madrasa.

Exterior view of one of the structures great portals

With its twin minarets, twin mammoth domes, and twin sabil-kuttabs at either end of the long facade, this monument is a good example of the massive Bahri style that carried into the mid-Burgi period. One can climb both minarets, from which there is a splendid view, not only of the necropolis but of the surrounding areas.

One of the most interesting aspects of this structure is that, unusually for this period, there was plenty of space and no restrictions of prior development in the area, so the architects could afford to design a very symmetrical structure of considerable size. Hence, this freestanding building has four interesting facades. On its southwest corner is a trilobed portal next to a sabil-kuttab to its left, and there is another portal on its northern facade, as well as a second sabil-kuttab on its western corner. While these portals are not identical, both have a conch (recess with a rounded top) on stalactites and the round blazon of the founder.

On the northern side of the complex there is an arcade that starts on the left side of the portal and leads almost to the mausoleum of Barquq's father, Anas, who he had brought from Circassian and provided a position in his government. It once connected the two establishments. It is thought that this arcade may have been intended as a musalla, which is an open prayer place for the dead. According to Islamic law, the dead are not to be brought inside the mosque when the funeral prayers are said.

An inscription on the khanqah's arcade

An inscription on the khanqah's arcade

Around the top of the facade is a tiraz band and on the eastern side there are two huge, stone domes that surmount the twin mausoleums and flank a smaller, ribbed brick dome that stands above the prayer niche. Though not readily visible from the street, smaller, shallow brick domes, which were more common in Syria or Anatolia than in Egypt, also surmount the bays of the arcades. The outside domes are the largest and earliest Mamluk stone domes in Cairo, with a diameter of over fourteen meters. Only the wooden dome of Imam Shafi'i exceeds their size, but just barely. A zigzag (chevron) pattern adorns their exterior and they have an unusual transitional zone. Like the minaret of Bashtak (1336) which received a similar treatment on the transitional zone between its square base and the octagonal shaft, instead of being simply stepped, these domes are carved with one step concave and the next convex creating an undulating pattern.

Transitional entrance corridor to the courtyard

One of the twin minarets

Reaching skyward, the two minarets on the northwestern facade are identical. Their lower section are in the shape of a rectangle, while the receding and circular second story surmounts the lower story without the usual transition of an octagonal shaft. The plan of these minarets, which have intersecting lines carved on the middle of their shaft, follow closely those of Baybars al-Jashankir, together with the northern minaret of al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque at the Citadel.

View along the riwaq in the courtyard

Within, this structure takes the form of a hypostyle mosque on stone piers. The domed mausoleums flank a sanctuary on the eastern end. This was the first hypostyle mosque plan to have living units attached to it. When mosques were being replaced by a combination madrasa-mosque, or even a madrasa-khanqah-mosque complex, at first, it was the madrasa plan that was maintained. Here, we find a new architectural combination that more resembles a congregational mosque. While madrasas usually adopted an extroverted four-iwan plan with the students' cells looking out onto the streets, khanqah architecture generally adopted an introverted scheme to ensure the necessary seclusion for the Sufis. However, many of the residential units of the Khanqah of Faraj have their windows facing outward towards the desert and the adjoining cemetery.

View along the riwaq in the courtyard

From the vestibule into the corridor that leads to the courtyard, one steps over an ancient pharaonic slab. The shafts that pierce the ceiling of this long corridor provide both light and air circulation. Only the remains of an ablution fountain remain in the central courtyard. On the four corners of the courtyard are arched recesses with doors with round arches adorned by zigzag voussoirs exactly like those of Barquq's madrasa. The riwaqs, which have only one aisle, front the residential cells. The arcades have pointed arches that support their roof composed of the small brick domes covering the bays.

View of the courtyard with the minarets visible

Stairs in the northwest corner of the courtyard lead to the upper floors. On the way up one passes a complex of rooms, passageways and cubicles that look down upon the roof. In these now deserted chambers the Sufi dervishes once studied, chanted and slept. There was also an upper floor of cells on both lateral sides, but these no longer exist. More cells are on the northern side of the building, and there are dependencies (baths, grain mills, etc.) on the south side. On the the upper story, the porch of the kuttab (over the sabil, or fountain) near the front entrance is a pleasant place to sit, and one can also get a feeling for the adjoining cemetery.

Another view of the courtyard in the direction of one of the mausoleum domes

Another view of the courtyard in the direction of one of the mausoleum domes

Interior of one of the domes within the mausoleums

Strikingly simple, only the windows of the sanctuary are decorated with stucco grills and colored glass, while elsewhere there is no marble and no painted wood. The platform at the edge of the sanctuary is a dikka, from which the Quran was chanted. The prayer niche, flanked by two smaller prayer niches, is of plain stone. An interesting carving of a mosque lamp adorned the marble column to the left of the main niche. Next to the plain mihrab, the stone pulpit, or minbar, carved with panels in various geometrical and floral patterns that splendidly imitate wood carvings was added by Sultan Qaytbay in 1483. It has a portal with stalactite cresting and a carved bulb at the top, not unlike its counterpart at Sultan Hassan Mosque. At the upper step a lamp flanked by a pair of candlesticks is carved behind the seat of the preacher (khatib).

The interior of the second great dome

The northern mausoleum is the tomb of Barquq and his son, Faraj, along with the latter's son, while the southern mausoleum is that of Sultan Barquq's two daughters, the ladies Shiriz and Shakra. The body of their nurse lies in the corner. Both chambers have entrances covered by wooden lattice screens with geometric patterns not unlike the wooden window screens in Barquq's Bayn al-Qasrayn complex. Upon entering either chamber, one may be unprepared for the soaring effect of the interior. Unlike the khanqah, the mausoleums are richly decorated with marble dadoes. However, eye level ornamentation, as is usual for Egyptian religious structures, is rather plain while the upper level decorations are more ornate, so that the viewer's attention is drawn upward, towards heaven. The interior of the domes are painted with red and black patterns to simulate inlaid marble, which would have been too heavy in these domes. The domes are supported on penentives carved with stalactites, a common feature of Mamluk period. The use of triangular pendentive rather than squinces led to a different device for the windows of the transitional zone, which became standard and are found at the madrasa of Iljay al-Yusufi. It consisted of a triple-arched window below three bull's eyes, one over two.






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