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Metamorphoses of a mosque

By Amina Elbendary

In 1267 Al-Zahir Baybars, the fourth Mameluke sultan and the real
founder of the Mameluke dynasty that ruled Egypt and Syria for more
than three centuries, gathered his top advisers: the atabek Faris Al-Din
Aqtay Al-Musta'rib and the wazir Bahaa Al-Din Mohamed Ali Ibn Hanna.
He wanted to build a mosque, he told them, and instructed them to seek
a suitable location for it. They suggested the royal camel-grounds. The
sultan refused such an offence and generously offered his polo field
instead. On 12 June he took them along to Qaraqush square, in Al-
Husayniya, north of Cairo, to arrange the matter.

But why did the sultan choose a site outside "Cairo proper"? After all,
Husayniya, lying on the road to Syria and the pilgrimage route, was at
that time loosely populated. Was he looking for a large site to allow for
a big monumental building without having to confiscate any land or
demolish any existing structures? Was the building of a mosque
intended to promote the urban development of a new quarter? Or did he
choose that particular area so that "his" mosque would be close to the
zawya of his close friend, the Sufi Sheikh Khidr, also in Husayniya?

Al-Husayniya did grow and develop

considerably throughout the early Mameluke
period, with a total of 10 mosques erected
there between 1250 and 1340. It was also
the quarter where Mongol refugees -- mostly
converts to Hanafi Islam -- were settled in
1262 and 1296, giving it the popular flavour
it retains till today. And the mosque did
become the centrepiece of the quarter, so
much so that the area is now referred to as
"Al-Dahir," a corruption of Al-Zahir's name.
But it hardly needed a mosque to spur that
development, that of Al-Hakim being a mere
750m away.

We may never know the precise reasoning behind Baybars's decision but what is clear is that he
knew exactly what he wanted it to look like. The door was to look like that of Al-Madrasa Al-
Zahiriya, and the dome would be as large as that of Al-Shaf'i mosque. The symbolism was, of
course, intended. The Shaf'i madhhab (one of the four schools of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence) has
traditionally been the most prevalent in Egypt. Its founder, Al-Imam Al-Shaf'i, had settled in Egypt,
where he died in 820. The school of fiqh which he founded was especially influenced by Egyptian
customs and norms. Indeed, the "Imam's" tomb and mosque have long been venerated by
Egyptians. The Mamelukes, however, like the majority of Turks, were followers of the Hanafi
madhhab. So of course, once the mosque was completed, Baybars appointed a Hanafi to the
position of khatib. Perhaps the mosque meant to rival the Imam Al-Shaf'i in architecture as well as
in fiqh.
The portals and the dome are, however, the only elements that Baybars specifically intervened in
designing, and even these are replicas and not original designs. The rest of the plan is very similar
in design and size to that of the Fatimid Al-Hakim mosque, built 250 years earlier. It drew
considerably on indigenous traditions of building and design. However, some modern scholars, R
Stephen Humphreys among them, argue the mosque looks more like a fortress, and consider it a
symbol of "Sunni Islam militant and triumphant."

While one cannot ignore the historical context in which the mosque was built, one need not over-
read into the symbolism of the structure as Humphreys did. Al-Zahir Baybars was in the process of
establishing the first formal slave-dynasty in the mediaeval Middle East. Faced with the dual threat
of the Mongol invasions from the East and the Frankish Crusades from the West, the Mamelukes
established their authority and legitimacy by setting themselves up as the protectors of Sunni
Islam. For Baybars, constructing a mosque was part of establishing his authority as a legitimate
Muslim ruler. To argue that it looks like a fortress -- when it doesn't resemble contemporary
fortresses, as Jonathan Bloom showed -- is perhaps pushing modern symbolic analysis too far.

Raw materials for the building of the mosque were collected and imported from all corners of the
empire. Marble columns and wood were taken from the Citadel of Jaffa, which the sultan
conquered from the Crusaders. The marble was used in the encrustation of the mihrab and the
wood in the construction of the maqsura.

Baybars provided for the mosque by setting up the rest of the square as waqf (pious endowment),
the income from which would cover its maintenance and running expenses. The sultan could not in
his wildest dreams have imagined what it would eventually come to. Indeed, the eclectic history of
the Baybars mosque -- similar to other mosques, like Al-Hakim's for instance -- emphasises that
the idea of mosque as museum -- as well as the idea of "museum" in the first place -- is a very
modern one. The cultural and aesthetic ideals that seek to preserve historic buildings as tourist
sites -- as "museum pieces" -- are decidedly 20th-century ideas. The mosque of Baybars went
through many metamorphoses before it was to reach that stage.

Historians and chroniclers mention that prayers were held at the Baybars mosque continually up
until the early 16th century, i.e., till the end of the Mameluke period. The Ottoman conquests turned
Egypt from a seat of sultanic power to a mere province. Under those circumstances the mosque
was too big for the provincial government to maintain; it fell into disrepair.

The late Mameluke and early Ottoman periods were also ones in which the population of Egypt
was severely decimated due to successive waves of plague and famine as well as internal
disorder. The decimation of the population affected the urban structure of Cairo, leading it to shrink
to its primordial parameters. Prayers were conducted in fewer mosques. Perhaps this might be one
reason why mosques like Baybars's, which fell outside the central parameters, were abandoned.

Whatever the reasons may be, the mosque of Baybars became an army store house where
supplies such as tents and saddles were kept during the Ottoman period. According to the famous
historian Abdel-Rahman Al-Gabarti, the French Expedition used it as a fortress and barracks for its
soldiers. In the 19th century, during the rule of Mohamed Ali Pasha, it became an army camp and
bakery, and then later a soap factory.

Interestingly enough, the marble columns brought from Syria were to make another journey. In
1812, according to the wishes of the famous Sheikh El-Sharqawi, some of the marble columns and
stones of the mosque were used to build the Riwaq Al-Sharaqwa of Al-Azhar mosque. It is even
rumoured that some of the columns were used in building Qasr Al-Nil.

It was the British occupation forces who used the mosque as both a bakery and a slaughterhouse
-- hence the still-popular name for it: Madhbah Al-Ingiliz (the English slaughterhouse). The
mosque lost this latter function only in 1915.
The metamorphoses took their toll on the mosque. What survives of it is in dire condition; only the
skeleton of the original building remains. Yet the remains do suggest how grand the whole
structure once was. The mosque covers an area of 10,000 square metres enclosed by a 10m-high
wall. Parts of the destroyed courtyard have been turned into a garden, at times open to the public.
Yet the different mutations of this building over its long history prove that the idea of the sacredness
of buildings -- as opposed to their functions -- as such is a relatively modern one; a mosque could
very well be turned into something so profane as a slaughterhouse. By restoring the building to its
original function as a mosque, the Ministry of Culture is also turning it into a "museum piece," yet
another mutation in its long history.


Mohieddin Ibn Abdel-Zahir, Al-Rawd Al-Zahir fi Sirat Al-Malik Al-Zahir , Ed. Abdel-Aziz Al-Khuwaytir,
Riyadh, 1976.

Jonathan M Bloom, "The Mosque of Baybars Al-Bunduqdari in Cairo," Annales Islamologiques, 18

(1982), pp. 45-76.

R Stephen Humphreys, "The Expressive Intent of the Mamluk Architecture of Cairo: A Preliminary
Essay," Studia Islamica, 35 (1972), pp. 69-119.

Taqiyyeddin Ahmed Al-Maqrizi, Al-Khitat Al-Maqriziya.

Soad Maher Mohamed, Masagid Misr wa Awliya'uha Al-Salihun , volume 3, Cairo, Supreme
Council for Islamic Affairs, 1976.

Ali Pasha Mubarak, Al-Khitat Al-Tawfiqiya, volume 5, Cairo, Bulaq, 1305AH.

André Raymond, Le Caire, Paris, Fayard, 1993.