Madrasa of Qanibay Amir Akhur

Madrasa of Qanibay Amir Akhur

by Lara Iskander

View of Islamic Cairo showing Sultan Hassan mosque and school and the Qanibay Complex.

View of Islamic Cairo showing Sultan Hassan mosque and school and the Qanibay Complex.

The Mamluk era contributed many and varied creative features to the already diverse and expressive Islamic Architecture. The Mamluk early buildings followed the traditional plans and designs. Nevertheless, innovation being a characteristic aspect of this period, the Islamic architectural reached its most significant achievements during the Mamluk time.

Building designs started to group various purposes in one large impressive complex; religious, educational, social and funerary...

The facade of Qanibay Madrasa

This complex belongs to Qanibay al-Sayfi, who was Amir Akhur Kabir, or grand master of the horses (in charge of the Sultans stables), during the reign of Sultan al-Ghuri. He was also known as al-Rammah the lancer because he famous for his horse-manship and using spears.

The complex of Qanibay Amir Akhur or sometimes known as Madrasa of Qanibay Qura Al- Rammah, brings together a Madrasa, Mosque and a Sabil-Kuttab.

Amir or Prince Qanibay ordered this Madrasa to be built in 1503 A.D. on a hill overlooking the Madrasa-Mosque of Sultan Hasan and Al-Refai Mosque. The complex has a very unique location as it lies in Salah al Din Square opposite Bab al-Azab, one of the city gates. This gate lies next to the Horse market and leads to the Sultans horse stables located in the citadel grounds just off the square.

View of the adjacent Sultan Hassan Mosque and MadrasaView of Bab al-Azab with the Citadel in the background overlooking the square

Left: View of the adjacent Sultan Hassan Mosque and Madrasa
Right: View of Bab al-Azab with the Citadel in the background overlooking the square

View of the complex main staircase entrance overlooking the Citadel square

As most of the important complexes were usually built on main streets, designers were often faced with most irregular plots of land, therefore, creative architectural solutions were required in order to accomplish a successful building.

One of these cases is seen in the Madrasa of Qanibay as it is built on stepped rocky ground.

This conflict was cleverly overcome by erecting the complex on storerooms and the madrasa basement so that the various parts of the facade would be at the same height, hence taking full advantage of the view and at the same time exposing the mosque to the crowds below. For this reason, the building is considered to be a suspended Mosque.

The mosque and madrasa occupy the upper floor while the sabil is on the left of the entrance above which is located the kuttab.

The mosque and madrasa are reached by an exterior staircase on the main south-eastern faade, then through a trilobed vaulted portal.

The main staircase  leading to the madrasa.

The complex projects a long main faade, overlooking the square. It consists of the same elements commonly used in Mamluk architecture such as rectangular niches that differ according to the function behind them.

The rectangular niche of the entrance has two sitting decks on the sides and is topped with calligraphic bands..

It is composed of a trilobed arch crowned by another taking the shape of trefoil leaves

As for the rectangular niche of the qibla iwan, it has two windows in each while the sabil faade consists of a large rectangular window surmounted by four small wooden window screens.

Facade of the complexView of the sabil-kuttab of the complex with a separate entrance.

Left: Facade of the complex
Right: View of the sabil-kuttab of the complex with a separate entrance.

The complex has a bent entrance leading to a vestibule, thus isolating it from the exterior and working as a distribution space to all the elements of the complex. The vestibule has a beautiful wooden ceiling supported on stalactite frieze with colored ornaments.

Ground floor plan of  the complex

Ground floor plan of the complex

The madrasa follows the traditional qaa plan and is marked for the extravagancy and richness of its interior golden decorations. It is composed of an open central durqaa (hall), surrounded by two perpendicular iwans and another two side ones. Facing the qibla iwan, is a stone mihrab worked with various ornaments, a wooden minbar and two bands of Quranic inscriptions. The qibla iwan is roofed by a shallow vault on pendentives while the iwan on the opposite side is covered by a cross vault. Limestone was used for building external and inner walls of the madrasa

View of the madrasa Qibla Iwan and the Mausoleum.

The mausoleum occupies the corner of the adjacent building to the qibla iwan. It can be reached from the durqaa through the southeast door. The internal walls are cladded with marble and it has a mihrab facing it with two side wall cupboards.

The mausoleum dome rests on four pendentives decorated with seven rows of muqarnas (stallectites) and a drum containing sixteen arched windows topped by the calligraphic text. This dome has amazing arabesque carving patterns and floral forms seen from the outside.

View of the minaret seen to the left of the entranceView of the Mausoleum dome

Left: View of the minaret seen to the left of the entrance

Right: View of the Mausoleum dome

The minaret, located to the left of the entrance as a landmark, consists of two pedestals one on top of the other separated by rows of stone muqarnas which carry the balconies.

This minaret, the oldest of its kind, is a twin-topped minaret rather than the usual one head, a style that appeared in the end of the Mamluk era. Thedouble type minarets were also used afterwards in Al- Ghuri mosque and Al-Azhar mosque.

The Qanibay minaret has a square lower and middle section. The upper section is composed of two rectangular bodies with an arched recess on each side. Both are surmounted by a Mamluk dome ending with a post and crowned by a spherical bulbiformdomes and crescent.

View of the Complex dome and the double minaretDrawing of the Double Minaret by Prisse d'Avennes

Left: Drawing of the Double Minaret by Prisse d'Avennes
Right: View of the Complex dome and the double minaret

Prince Qanibay Qura Al-Rammah was known to be fond of architecture and construction. He also built a madrasa in Al-Naseriyya. Prince Qanibay died in 1515 A.D. and was buried in the Madrasa of Qanibay.

The complex was first restored in 1895, and then in 1939 by the French Commission for the conservation of Arab Monuments. Now, the interior is currently being restored again

View of the overall complex

View of the overall complex


  • Mamluk Art: The splendour and magic of the Sultans. Museum with no frontiers.

  • Principles of Architectural design and urban planning during different Islamic eras: Organization of Islamic Capitals and Cities.


Last Updated: June 28th, 2011