The Madrasa of Umm al-Sultan Sha'ban (Shaban)

The Madrasa of Umm al-Sultan Sha'ban

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza

The Madrasa of Umm al-Sultan Sha'ban (Shaban)

The Bahri Mamluk Sultan Sha'ban ruled Egypt between 1376 and 1381 AD, and was a grandson al-Nasir Muhammad by his son, Husayn, His mother was Khawand (Lady) Baraka, a very wealthy and religious woman. His mother is better known to Mamluk history then his father, or perhaps Sultan Sha'ban himself. After the death of Husayn in 1362, Lady Baraka married Ilgay al-Yusufi, whose monument is in the Suq al-Silah.

The Madrasa of Umm al-Sultan Sha'ban (Shaban) that Sultan Sha'ban built at Tabbana between Bab Zuwayla and the Citadel was dedicated to her (or at least, its foundation). However, considering that the Sultan was still a child when the building was constructed between 1368 and 1369, we may assume that Lady Baraka was actually the founder of this school. Sultan Sha'ban himself began building a combination khanqah, madasa and mosque at the foot of the Citadel, but when he was murdered in 1376, this complex was left unfinished so he was instead buried in this facility.

It was not altogether unusual for a woman such as herself, and within Muslim societies, to erect such a facility. Many royal ladies of the Mamluk courts were often very wealthy, and sometimes even powerful figures in the state. For example Shajarat al-Durr, another woman founded a madrasa, and others were responsible for the foundations such as for the madrasa of Fatima Khatun (1283/4), who was the wife of Qalawun, the khanqah of Umm Anuk (1363/4), who was the wife of al-Nasir Muhammad, the mosque of Sitt Miska (1340), who was merely a housekeeper at the court of al-Nasir Muhammad, the mosque of Fatima al-Shaqra (1469), the mosque of Khadija bint Dirham wa Nisf (1520), the mosque of Asalbay, who was the wife of Sultan Qaytbay at Fayoum (1499), and the mosque of Malika Safiyya (1610), who was an Ottoman princess.

Tradition holds that the madrasa was built during Lady Baraka's pilgrimage to Mecca and Madina, which during the Mamluk period was a way in which female members of the court expressed their piety. Upon her return sometime between 1369 and 1370, she provided the endowment for the facility to commemorate her pilgrimage.

Quran with Muhaqqaq and Kufic script from the Madrasa dating to 1369, now in the Cairo National Library.

This particular Madrasa, a religious school, was founded for both the Shafi'i and Hanafi rites and is the only royal foundation on the main artery leading from the Citadel towards Bab Zuwayla. The facade is unusual, with the portal side of the building aligned with Sharia Tabbana (Tabbana Street). It then makes a 45 degree turn to the back.

The entrance portal is rather unique in Cairo, though typical of Saljuq Anatolia. Rather than having a conch (shell shaped recess) above the stalactites, there is instead a deep stalactite vault with a triangular profile. This nine row muqarnas (stalacite) tier was originally painted cobalt blue and gold. The frame around it is adorned with flat relief carving, originally painted in gold, red and blue. All around the entrance extensive use was made of ablaq, or striped masonry. It is possible that an architect from that area might have come to Cairo to work on the Mosque of Sultan Hasan, and at the same time designed this portal.

The entrance portal to the madrasa

The minaret of this facility is also somewhat unusual, including its placement not on the vault or corners of a monumental portal, or at the corner of a facade wall, but rather in the middle of the facade. Its upper section is octagonal with zigzag carving. The minaret is one of the very earliest examples of a carved shaft rather than one of inlaid masonry ablaq decoration. It sits on the left side of the portal. Next to it are two unequal domes built of ribbed stone that surmount two mausoleums, with the larger of the two domes situated to the left of the portal, while the smaller dome is at the corner of the building. The two domes flank the prayer hall, and from the street one cannot see all three of the elements at one time.

Almost all mosques of this period had a sabil, or fountain for the thirsty, though not all of these have survived the ages. Here, the sabil sits behind a large window to the left of the portal in the corner between the main and a side street. The window is covered by a screen of mashrabiyya wood in beautiful geometric designs. To the right of the portal, a watering trough was provided for animals. It was surmounted by an arcaded loggia that was a primary school for boys (Kuttab). Muslim law does not allow children inside the mosque, so the kuttab was always in a separate structure. Here, children were taught reading and writing, together with a basic knowledge of the Quran. Like the Sabil, that was a charitable service provided by the mosque. This kuttab is accessed from the vestibule of the main structure.

Within the primary structure, a bent entrance gives way through a long passage to the cruciform style madrasa, with its four iwans, even though only two madhhabs (rites). This layout is rather awkward, the result of the street orientation of the mosque and the two mausoleums. Within, there is little of the original decorations that remain, except for some marble in the small sanctuary, some decorative stone on the east wall and the remains of a painted wooden ceiling in one of the side iwans. The iwans are not vaulted, but have ceilings made of wood. The mihrab is richly and beautifully decorated though it has been apparently reworked somewhat with various decorative stone. The half dome at the top has a zigzag pattern of light gray marble and the mihrab is flanked by two hexagonal columns also of light gray marble with incised floral reliefs.

Flanking the qibla iwan are the two, domed mausoleums, each of which have windows opening onto the qibla sanctuary. They are covered by fine wooden shutters with large polygons of bone in carved leaf forms alternating with small ones of mosaic inlay. Neither tomb is lined with marble cover, having walls that are rather plain. Under the larger dome closest to the minaret is the mausoleum of Lady Baraka and one of her daughters. It has a prayer niche between two windows overlooking the street. In front of it is an irregularly shaped room that was probably utilized for storing large Qurans or for special Quran recitations. Surprisingly, the smaller southern mausoleum, located in the corner of the building, could not accommodate both a prayer niche and a window onto the main street, so a window was given preference. Therefore, the graves of Sultan Sha'ban and his son, al-Mansur Hajji, occupy one of the very few mausoleums ever built without a prayer niche. There was no Quranic law that required the separate burial of men and women, but by the end of the fourteenth century, this had become the custom.

Interestingly, neither of these domes surmount the usual triangular pendentives or several tiers of squinches of this period. Rather, they are set upon plain squinches in the form of an arch at each corner. However, this is not a unique treatment, for we also find this feature in the domes of the Mosque of Aqsunqur (1347), built of brick and in the mausoleum of Tankizbugha (1362) in stone. This is actually an archaic architectural feature used in the transitional zone during the early Fatimid period, such as in the dome of al-Hakim.






Reference Number

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See Also:

Historical Islamic Mosques in Egypt

Last Updated: May 19th, 2011