First Published: 2017-10-10

Egypt’s mosques: A study in art and faith
Each house of worship has a story, a philosophy of construction and its own special internal and external design.
Middle East Online

By Hassan Abdel Zaher - CAIRO

Girl prays at Ibn Tulun Mosque in old Cairo, Egypt.

Egyptian researcher Mai Hawas has found a novel way of putting a light on Egypt’s rich Islamic her­itage. She is linking the architectural designs of hundreds of mosques with the faith of their designers.

Hawas, the author of “The Influ­ence of the Islamic Sects on the Ar­chitecture of Mosques,” said that, in addition to being places of prayer and worship, mosques are stud­ies in art, history and the beliefs of their builders. In Egypt, which has a history of both Sunni and Shia cali­phates, the past can live on through the ancient blocks of its mosques.

“The interior designs of the mosques, their exteriors and their making speak volumes about the faith of those who built them and the time of their construction,” said Hawas, a researcher studying the ef­fects of Islamic schools of thought on mosque architecture. “Mosques built by Sunnis are in no way simi­lar to those built by Shias.”

Cairo has been called a City of a Thousand Minarets. There are ap­proximately 130,000 mosques in Egypt, most of the oldest are in Cairo. Each house of worship has a story behind its construction, a philosophy of construction and its own special internal and external design.

Hawas, who visited dozens of mosques in Iraq and Iran, said he found something in common be­tween the mosques she toured in those two predominantly Shia countries and mosques in Egypt, especially those built during the Fatimid era (969-1171).

The Fatimid rulers, who were Shias, constructed many mosques in Egypt, most of them carrying the rulers’ fingerprints. Some of the mosques they built, such as the al-Aqmar Mosque in Cairo, reveal a lot about the builders.

Opened in 1125, al-Aqmar Mosque has brazen Shia features. Above its main entrance is a pierced medal­lion where the names of the Proph­et Mohammad and his cousin and son-in-law Ali — the first imam of the Shias — are inscribed.

The names of Mohammad and Ali are not the only distinguishing marks on some of Egypt’s most fa­mous mosques. Shias, Hawas said, did not put too much emphasis on the height of their mosques, unlike Sunni architects who followed.

“This is why the minarets above the mosques built during the Fa­timid era are not very high,” she said. “Nonetheless, most of the mosques have huge entrances that inspire respect and awe.”

Shia mosques are pieces of visual art, boasting distinguishing orna­ments and colours. Mosques built in Egypt by the Fatimid rulers are no exception.

The place where the imam stands to lead the prayer inside the mosques, known as the mihrab, is often decorated with a vibrant mosaic of different types and col­ours. The vaulted iwan — space that opens onto a courtyard — usually has a distinctive square shape, un­like the rectangular one in Sunni mosques.

Shia mosques also tend to have more than one entrance; Sunni mosques usually have a single main entrance.

“Apart from other distinguish­ing features, these can easily give mosque visitors clues into the time of the construction of the mosques as well as the faith of their visitors,” said architect Tarek Waly, founder of the Tarek Waly Centre for Archi­tecture and Heritage. “The sects that prevailed at different histori­cal stages deeply affected mosque construction and the final designs of the mosques.”

Al-Aqmar Mosque has the most distinctive Shia design of all the mosques built during the Fatimid era.

Many other mosques from the period display more ambiguous de­signs, melding Shia design features with more traditional Sunni ones, part of a move to placate Egypt’s Sunni majority.

This can easily be seen in the construction of al-Azhar Mosque in 972. Although it was the first mosque to be constructed dur­ing the Fatimid rule of Egypt, al- Azhar’s design bears scant Shia ar­chitectural design features.

Sunnis, Hawas said, were more interested in the exterior designs of their mosques. This is why most of Egypt’s oldest Sunni mosques have awe-inspiring designs from outside but appear austere inside, in stark contrast to mosques built by Shias.

“The Sunnis were more into tow­ering buildings, which is why most of the minarets of Sunni mosques are very high,” Hawas said. “Most Sunni mosques are also built on eight major pillars, the same num­ber of the angels carrying God’s throne as mentioned in the holy Quran.”

These diverse mosque designs and the ease with which ordinary citizens deal with them attest to Egypt’s special nature — a country that absorbed all the various reli­gious influences and turned them into its own special identity.

Sultan Hassan Mosque, in south­ern Cairo, is the most obvious ex­ample of Sunni design. With its towering minaret, high walls and austere interior, the mosque — built 1356-1363 — is the most representa­tive of the Mamluk period, which came after the Fatimid era.

The mosque contains chambers where the followers of different Islamic schools of thought could gather to study, additional proof of Egypt’s multifaith and tolerant nature.

“This is actually what makes Egypt a great country,” said Nader Abdel Dayem, professor of Islamic antiquities at Ain Shams Univer­sity. “Egyptians have known tol­erance even before the term was coined.”

Hassan Abdel Zaher is a Cairo-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.


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