The Sarghatmish Madrasa in Cairo

The Sarghatmish Madrasa in Cairo

by Seif Kamel

Seif ad-Dim Sarghatmish was a Mamluk who's who was originally acquired (Mamluks were by definition, slaves) by Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad. As was the custom at the time, he was called al-Nassiri as a tribute to his mater. He grew up in the corps of jamdars, or "keepers of the wardrobe." Sarghatmish, who was known to be a very handsome man, came to prominence during the reigns of al-Nasir's minor sons (specifically Sultan al-Muzaffar Haji), when he took an active part in the battles waged on their behalf. He was one of the principle agents of Sultan Hasan's return to power, and afterwards, virtually ruled the country on Hasan's behalf. However, Hsan tired of this, and had him imprisoned and then murdered in 759H. (1358). He was buried under the dome of his Madrasa.

A view of the Sarghatmish Madrasa from above

This madrasa is located on Saliba Street just behind the Ahmed Ibn Tulun, a more famous mosque in Cairo. The Gayer Anderson museum is located to one side of that mosque, while the Sarghatmish Madrasa is located on the other side.

Saliba Street is a rather narrow lane with lots of traffic but it was easy for me to find a parking space near the madrasa, though I still had an enjoyable 10 minute walk along the street that is packed with Islamic monuments. The redevelopment of the Citadel under Sultan Al- Nasser Mohamed led to the transformation of this zone into an urban area, and Saliba Street became a major thoroughfare. Princes built town houses, palaces, mosques and schools in the area. What I enjoyed most about the Madrasa was its quiet atmosphere. I was among only three visitors that were in the facility at the time.

Saliba Street

The Mosque and Madrasa of Sarghatmish are attached to the northeast wall of the Ibn Tulun Mosque. Originally, houses were built here, but in 1356 they were destroyed by Prince Sarghatmish so he could build his mosque and madrasa.

The Sarghatmish Madrasa is a good example of the type of the type of Islamic foundation established in the mid-14th century by Mamluk emirs in support of higher Qur'anic studies, prophetic traditions and jurisprudence.

One of the beautiful lanterns in the Madrasa of Sarghatmish

This school was built especially for the teaching of the Hanefite rite of Islam and it was a major merging place for the rite's leaders. They mainly came from Persia. This was why Persian architecture can be seen in this madrasa in addition to the Mamluk style. Originally, there were one senior and three junior professors appointed. Sixty students were enrolled, but there was also an orphanage school that was established as an annex. It accommodated forty children, and was directed by a teacher and an assistant who taught them the Quran, calligraphy and arithmetic.

The madrasa from outside is mainly a rectangular in shape with many windows that are covered with white rock screens. The southwest facade facing the Ibn Tulun Mosque has shops beneath it, but the main facade is on the west side, with a stalactite portal and a minaret. On the main facade are two, black mashraheya windows that are very beautiful and well crafted.

Facade of the madrasa showing one of the wonderful windows

Projecting onto the street on the southwestern side of the building is a mausoleum that does not adjoin the prayer hall, so that it can face the main street. The dome of the mausoleum has an unusually high drum, with the remains of an inscription band and a cornice of stalactites underneath the dome. This is the earliest extant example of a dome with stalactites on the exterior. The transition zone of the dome is not visible from the exterior and the profile of the dome differs from the common type in lacking a pointed top. It is double shelled, with an inner shell very lower than the outer one, a device used in the mausoleums of Samarkand beginning in the Timurid period (early fifteenth century).

A view up the minaret of the madrasa

The minaret is placed to the left of the entrance. It is built of white and red stone and has three stories, the lowest of which is octagonal and surmounted by a cornice that supports the first level. This first story has been reduced to just a base set on inclined or prismatic triangles. The second story is also octagonal and terminates with a similar stalactite cornice, supporting the second level. The third story has eight marble columns, bearing the bulb. On the first story, the two-colored inlaid masonry forms a sunrise motif, and a zigzag motif on the second story. On the second story there is only one small decorative balcony where there are usually four, one on every second facet of the octagon.

However, the first thing I noticed was the huge portal of the madrasa that is designed similar to Sultan Hassan's gigantic gates. Otherwise, the portal is similar to others of the era. It differs from other of the same time period in having stalactite pendentive triangles at the two corners between the semi-dome and the rectangular recess. Above the Maxalas (stone benches), on both sides of the entrance, runs a band of inscriptions containing the name of the founder and the date of completion.

Stalactites above the portal of the Sarghatmish madrasa

After one passes through this gate, a small, twisting corridor that has some beautiful lanterns in it leads to the main open air court, or Sahn of the madrasa.The mosque is built according to a cruciform plan. It consists of this open sahn surrounded by four iwans, the largest being the Qibla one, that consists of three bays, the middle one of which is covered by a lofty dome resting on wooden stalactite pendentive. One of these iwans was covered with a large piece of green cloth and was reserved for women.

The great portal of the madrasa

The sahn, paved with colored marble, is amazing especially for its bold, black and white floor and the windows in the buildings all around it. The space between the sides of the four iwans and the corners of the sahn are occupied by students' cells, where they slept and studied. However, unlike the cruciform madrasas of Qalawun and al-Nasir Muhammad, the side iwans are of considerable size and consequently, leave little room on the lateral sides of the courtyard for the student living units. Hence, some of the living units overlook the street, while others open onto the courtyard. This marks the beginning of the tendency to integrate madrasas into urban life.

Situated in the center of the sahn is a domed water fountain, surrounded by eight marble pillars. The only part reaming of the old fountain are the eight marble columns. Actually this is not the original fountain or dome but it is suppose to be a good reproduction of the original one, though the dome itself is very new.

The fountain in the Sahn of the Sarghatmish madrasa

Not long ago, parts of the damaged marble floor of the water fountain was dismantled, restored and replaced. Missing fragments of Qur'anic texts embellishing the Sarghatmish mosque have been replaced, and the authentic white and black marble floor has been cleaned and missing pieces replaced.

The Qibla Iwan that contains the mihrab and the minbar is, as typical, the largest one in the madrasa. The prayer hall has carved marble slabs, some of which are in the Islamic Museum, and others in another mosque in the neighborhood. The decorations on these slabs are floral. One of them has an interesting composition of arabesques with two hands holding a stalk, a lamp and birds. Hasan 'Abd al-Wahhab writes that marbles with animal representations and grapes were found under the floor of the madrasa.

The Qibla Iwan in the madrasa, showoing the mihrab and minbar

One of the slabs near the prayer nichge has a medallion at its center and an inscription with the founder's name as well as a blazon, or emblem, of Sarghitmish, a handkerchief, symbol of his function as jamdar, or amir in charge of the royal wardrobe.

During the Bahri Mamluk Period, the functions of the various amirs were represented in their blazons, or emblems applied to their buldings, residence and objects they used. These blazons symbolized their functions at the royal court. Examples we can see today include a sword on the gate of the sword-carrier Manjaq al-Silahdar, polo sticks carved at the mosque of Amir Almalik al-Juqandar, the polo master, a cup at the madrasa of Iljay al-Yusufi, and the wakala of Qusum, who were cup bearers. The earliest example of a blazon on a Cairo building is a pair of lions facing each other on al-Zahir Baybars' madrasa at Nahhasin. In this case, the emblem represented his name. Baybars can be translated at lion.

one of the blazons next to the minbar

At the back of Qibla Iwan is the mihrab in colored marble, situated in the middle of a marble dado. It is remarkable for two panels of white marble, each of which are engraved with raised ornamentation in the form of a medallion in the center and four quarter medallions at the corners. There are two bands of inscriptions, one in the upper part, and the other in the lower part of each panel, bearing the name of the founder. They therefore echo the brass linings of the doors of some other Mamluk mosques. The mihrab decoration is rather simple but very nicely done.

The dome of the Qibla Iwan

Notably, the dome of the mihrab is the oldest remaining one of a madrasa in Cairo. It was restored in 1940 using old photographs, after having collapsed. A dome over a mihrab is an architectural feature that we have seen in several previous mosques, but not in those built according to the cruciform Madrasa plan. It constitutes a unique feature which distinguishes it from earlier and later ones. This dome does not have a double shell, as the dome of the mausoleum, though it has a similarly high drum. We do not know whether the original dome had a double shell or not. The dome is supported on wooden pendentives and covers the central bay of the prayer hall. Two flat-roofed bays are on each side of the domed area.

A closer view of the minbar in the madrasa

The minbar dates to 1706 and it is constructed from fine brown wood. It has a golden Arabic inscription written above its door. There is also the name of the founder of the minbar given as Ahmed Azban, and the date of the foundation which is written in the Hegry calendar as 1118 H. It is truly a fine piece of Islamic art.

One of the most interesting features in this madrasa is the huge, amazing lanterns that hang all about the iwans. These are made out of pure Egyptian brass and are beautifully adorned. There is one huge lantern in each iwan.

On the far side of the northwestern iwan is a door opening into the mausoleum, in the center of which is a cenotaph of fine craftsmanship. The domed area does not directly overlook the street. Adjoining it is a rectangular space that is cross-vaulted and has windows. A similar device is used at the mausoleum of Baybars al-Jashankir. In both cases, this is explained by the street alignment on one side and the Mecca orientation of the dome and its relationship to the rest of the building on the other side. The mausoleum had a colored marble dado, of which a few fragments remain. Inside the floor is covered with white and brown marble. There is a huge dome above the tomb of the amir, which itself is very plain and un-decorations.

Within the mausoleum

Nevertheless, the dome is very high and beautiful with a huge lantern hanging from its center. This dome was built in 1940 to replace the old one, which was demolished at the end of the nineteenth century. The transitional zone of the dome's double shell differs from that of the prayer-niche dome in being composed of several tiered squinches, as is usual in brick domes.

Lantern and dome of the mausoleum

The exotic character of the domes of Sarghitmish's madrasa might be associated with its dedication to Persian students. Though several similar domes are found at Samarkand in Transoxia, all of these examples are of a later date, built around the year 1400. There is no doubt though that these domes had a foreign prototype and did not belong to a Cairene tradition, for they appear suddenly in Cairo architecture with no signs of a previous evolution. Furthermore, double-shell domes were common in Persia. A common prototype in Persia would have been the origin of both the Samarkand and Sarghitmish domes, though no examples have survived there.

A similar situation is seen in the Ibn Tulun Mosque, where features taken from Samarra mosques have very few surviving precedents, and in the minaret of al-Nasir Muhammad at the Citadel. Its Persian origins likewise cannot be demonstrated in surviving structures. The double-shell dome was built once more in Cairo, at the Sultaniyya mausoleum.

This Saliba Street is full of many other Islamic monuments, making a visit to this mosque and madrasa an interesting one.