Ibn Tulun’s Mosque, Cairo
A Quick Turnaround
Ibn Tulun’s mosque is the largest (and some would say most impressive) mosque in Cairo, Egypt. It’s so large and impressive, in fact, that one would think it took many, many years for the ancient builders to complete. However, according to al-Maqrizi, an ancient Egyptian historian who specialized in the Ismaili Fatmid dynasty, completion of the mosque took only three years. The historian reported that construction began in 876 AD and was completed in 879 AD. The mosque itself bears an inscription that confirms 879 as the completion year.
The Commissioning of the Mosque
Ahmad ibn Tulun was serving as the Abbassid governor of Egypt when he called for the mosque’s construction. He would hold the post for several years, from 868 to 884 AD., though he would eventually surpass his role as “governor” to become an independent leader.
Tulun is best known for founding the Tulunid dynasty, which would control Egypt from the start of his reign as governor up until 905 AD. When Tulun first began his reign, he was dissatisfied with the small size of Egypt’s capital at the time, al-Fustat. Instead of declaring an existing city as the new capital, he created his own: Madinant al-Quatta’i.
He modeled his new city after major cities in the Byzantine Empire and Persia, as indicated by the palace he built for himself, the public square, and of course, the Mosque. While his city was destroyed in 905 AD, the mosque managed to be the one surviving building. Today, it serves as a testament to Tulun’s power as ruler and to the lofty goals he had for his once-great city.
Who Built the Mosque?
While Tulun is often credited with designing and building the mosque himself, it is unlikely that he was the sole architectural mind behind the massive project, though no other names of involved architects are currently known. It should also be noted that not all of the mosque was completed by the accepted completion date. Some structures, such as the drum dome and the minaret, were completed much later.
As mentioned, Tulun’s original design for his new and powerful city included a personal palace for himself. Before the palace was destroyed, it stood directly behind the mosque. In fact, Tulun could enter the mosque privately through passageways that led up to an area near the pulpit or “minbar” of the mosque from the palace. While the palace and surrounding structures, such as the courtyard, have since been destroyed, most of the mosque’s original design remains intact, barring a foundation that once stood between the inside and outside walls.
Additions and Modifications
Though the original fountain, mentioned above, was destroyed, a new one was added in the thirteenth century. Sultan Lajin commissioned the fountain, which features a distinctive drum dome.
A tall, spiral-shaped tower or minaret, though believed to have been commissioned by Tulan, was also not part of the mosque’s original design. And, because the minaret was constructed later, the exact date of its completion is not known.
Despite the mystery surrounding its construction, the minaret is one of the most popular and distinctive features of the mosque because of its fascinating helical staircase. While the staircase style was not popular in the surrounding areas at the time, it is not entirely original. Most researchers believe that it was modeled after the distinctive staircase at the Mosque of Samarra, located in Iraq. Many believe, however, that Tulan himself came up with the staircase’s design and that its similarity to the one at the Mosque of Samarra is mere coincidence despite research that suggests the minaret may not have been completed until as late as 1296.
Large and In Charge
At 26,318 square meters, Ibn Tulun’s mosque is not only the largest mosque in Cairo, but the third largest mosque in the entire world. It also features an impressively sized enclosure, measuring at 387 by 453 feet. Three sides of the mosque are enclosed by distinctive wings that form small, private courtyards. These courtyards, which serve to give the mosque its square shape, were also designed to provide privacy to Tulun and other officials, as well as to those seeking religious refuge.
Other Impressive Features
Those who take a close look at the mosque will note the arches—26 in total—that line two sides of the courtyard. The arches are unique in that they are not rounded. Instead, they feature sharp peaks. And, hidden within the arches are tiny windows, created to let sunlight into the mosque and to improve ventilation.
Legends Surrounding the Mosque
While there is quite a lot of factual information available about the mosque, many legends surrounding its construction and significance are still passed around today. For example, some insist that the hill on which the mosque is located—known as the “Hill of Thanksgiving”—is where the biblical Noah’s ark landed.
Perhaps owing to the above legend, many insist that the flowery frieze located in the Mosque’s inner arcades came from Noah’s ark itself.
And, though not quite as fantastical as these “Noah’s Ark” beliefs, legend still says that Ibn Tulun designed the famous minaret as a happy accident, stumbling across its design by twirling parchment paper around his finger.
While it is doubtful that there is much, if any, truth to these legends, they stand as proof that people believe the Mosque to be a very important structure. Concerns about veracity aside, the building is very important for the ruler it represents and for the hopes and dreams that he so obviously had for himself and his people. Historians, architectural students, and the very people of Cairo are lucky to have such an ancient and amazing structure still standing so strong today.