Later Masjid Architecture in the Arab World and Africa

views updated

Later Masjid Architecture in the Arab World and Africa


The Development of Regional Styles . The disintegration of the khilafah, which began with the independence of western North Africa (modern Morocco and Algeria) as early as 740, continued thereafter at an increasing pace and led to the development of regional architectures, even though Islam remained unified in religion, law, and expressions of spirituality under the banner of Sunnism, reflecting the popular understanding and will. By 900 the political unity of the khilafah was largely broken. From 945 until 1152 the khalifahs did not even rule in Baghdad, and their brief temporal restoration from 1152 to 1258 was purely local and lasted only until the Mongols destroyed the khilafah with the sack of Baghdad. Different styles of architecture developed under the patronage of regional rulers who claimed various degrees of independence from the khalifahs and wanted to show their independence by stamping their monuments with a signature style. Because these regional styles underwent gradual development over a long period, it is impossible to point to a specific date when any of them began. But generally they began to appear after 900. The regional styles that emerged before 1500 include what can be broadly called the Iranian, Egyptian (or Syro-Egyptian), North African-Andalusian, and Indian. Mostly subsequent to 1500, far more divergent styles appeared on the edges of the Islamic cultural regions, including the Turkish, West African, and Malay-Indonesian styles. Many other sub-styles were either derived from one of these regional styles or existed between two or more of them.

Egypt, Syria, the Hijaz, and Yemen . After the early phase of khalifal unity, Syria remained politically subordinate to Egypt through most of the medieval period. Independent Egypt was successively ruled by the Tulunids (868–905), the Ikhshidids (935–969), the Fatimids (969–1171), the Ayyubids (1171–1250), and the Mamluks (1250–1517), and Syria was usually subject to these same rulers. Each of these dynasties contributed to the development of an independent architectural tradition. The Hijaz—the birthplace of Islam in the western part of the Arabian peninsula—was also politically and architecturally dominated by Egypt at this time, and Egyptian architecture seems to have been the main influence in Yemen as well, although local traditions also persisted there. Islamic architecture and decoration in

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

Egypt were influenced by the origin and background of its rulers, with tastes in architecture changing along with the rise of new ruling dynasties, each with its own political affiliations and ethnic background. At first the Iraqi influence of the Abbasid khilafah (750–945) prevailed. There are no remains from this period in Egypt, apart from a few windows in the Masjid of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As. The Iraqi influence can still clearly be seen in the early masjid of Ahmad Ibn Tulun, founder of the Tulunid dynasty, who seceded from Abbasid control in 868. Later, the North African influence became prevalent with the advent of the Fatimid rulers from Tunisia in 969. Ruling Egypt for two hundred years, they exerted a strong North African influence on the architectural style and its decoration. From the thirteenth to the beginning of the sixteenth century, Anatolian/Syrian influences were predominant. The rulers of that period, the Mam-luks, had been brought in from the Turkic world of Central Asia and Anatolian Turkey as military leaders and took over the rule of Egypt in 1250. They also established themselves in Syria.

Abbasid Architecture . During the Iraqi phase of Egyptian architecture, the building material of choice was mud brick, in conformity with what was available in Iraq. Later, almost all major examples of public architecture were constructed of stone, a material readily available in Egypt. The Masjid of Ibn Tulun, built in 876–879, is a huge arcaded structure with an enormous courtyard, much like the Great Masjid at Samarra’ in Iraq. The Masjid of Ibn Tulun has the same layout, with outer walls measuring 162 by 162 meters and inner walls 140 by 122 meters—about 17,000 square meters, enough for nearly 30,000 worshipers. It was built with the same materials as the masjid in Samarra’ and has similar decorative elements, stylized floral patterns and intricately interlacing circles and other geometric shapes. The minaret was an exact copy of the minaret in Samarra’ until it was partially rebuilt in the twelfth century after suffering damage in an earthquake.

Fatimid Architecture . When Egypt came under the rule of the Fatimids in 969, the new dynasty launched an impressive building campaign. In effect, the city of Cairo was founded by the Fatimids. Originally it was the royal headquarters, with two lavishly decorated and furnished palaces that faced one another and that gave to the main thoroughfare the name Bayn al-Qasrayn (Between the Two Palaces). This road still exists as the main north-south street in the heart of medieval Cairo, but all traces of the palaces have disappeared. The royal quarter was incorporated into the still growing city.

Fatimid Masjids . The Fatimids built many masjids, which vary in size from quite large to quaint and small. All Fatimid masjids follow an arcaded plan. The best known of the structures they commissioned, which is still in use, is the Masjid of al-Azhar, first constructed in 970–972 and often rebuilt and expanded. From the start, it was meant as both a congregational masjid and a teaching institution, perhaps modeled on the earlier Nizamiyyah madrasahs of Iraq. With its traditional plan of columned sanctuary and large courtyard, the al-Azhar Masjid was easily suited for use as a school. Each of the notable scholars was assigned a specific column at which he sat during teaching hours and around which his students sat in a circle. Thus, al-Azhar Masjid became the original site of al-Azhar University, said to be the oldest surviving university in the world. As is the case with all public religious structures, the decoration of al-Azhar Masjid is based on geometric and stylized floral patterns. At first al-Azhar Masjid had an arcade on only one side of its courtyard, but under the Fatimid Khalifah al-Hafiz (1129–1149), arcades were added to the other three sides, and a dome was constructed over the entrance to the sanctuary area. On its interior, the dome is beautifully decorated with designs carved in the stucco. Originally, the stucco was painted and gilded. The inspiration for this dome came from the design and decoration of the Fatimid masjid at al-Mahdiyyah, in Tunisia, from which the dynasty had originally come. The other surviving Fatimid masjids in Cairo include those of al-Hakim (built 990–1003), al-Juyushi (1085), al-Aqmar (1125), and al-Salih Tala’i’ (1160). The Masjid of al-Salih Tala’i‘ has wonderful

screens made of turned wood on the front porch of the main facade. Moreover, this masjid has room beneath it for shops, and the revenue generated from renting them was used for the upkeep of the masjid. This use of space is one of the earliest examples of a common practice found in the Muslim world, that of the waqf, or endowment. A patron usually designated a plot of land or the revenue from trade to the upkeep of a masjid. The many surviving waqfiyyah documents attest to the care patrons took to ensure the maintenance of masjids for years to come. Such a document specified in great detail the amounts of money that were to be spent and how, the jobs that had to be filled at all times, and the wages for the muezzin, the imam, and others. Later, in the cases of madrasahs, waqfiyyahs specified the number of teachers, their wages, and the stipend for students. Care was also taken to provide meals for students and water for passersby to drink or for ablutions before prayers. The practice of endowment continued into modern times, when it was largely replaced by government appropriations.

Fatimid City Walls . In addition to masjids, the Fatimids built a great stone wall around the city of Cairo (1087–1092). Like other medieval cities, Cairo needed a wall with gates for protection against invaders and against robbers at night. Three gates from the Fatimid wall have survived in good condition, two on the north end of the Fatimid city and one on the south. It is fascinating to visit the surviving portions of the wall and gates and marvel at the beauty of the stone architecture. A narrow spiral staircase in the north wall is particularly amazing because each stone had to be cut precisely to fit.

Fatimid Tombs . Though memorial funerary architecture eventually became prominent, construction of elaborate memorials began late in Egypt and the rest of the Muslim world. The earliest domed tombs commemorate past religious figures, and once that practice became accepted rulers sought similar commemoration. The earliest surviving domed tomb in Egypt, that of Yahya al-Shabih (circa 1150), dates from the Fatimid period. Earlier domed tombs in Egypt have not survived, and there are a few commemorative domed memorial structures that apparently do not contain graves. One such structure, the Masjid of al-Juyushi, dates from 1085, earlier than the earliest domed tomb in Egypt.

Ayyubid Architecture. The Ayyubid dynasty, which followed the Fatimids in 1169, also left some magnificent buildings in Cairo, including the citadel of Salah al-Din (known in the West as Saladin), built 1183–1184, as well as masjids and mausoleums. The best-known Ayyubid mausoleum was that of Imam Shafi‘i (built in 1211), honoring the early jurist and founder of one of the four main Sunni schools of thought (762–820).

Mamluk Architecture . The most glorious period of Egyptian Muslim architecture is undoubtedly that of the alien Mamluks, who ruled Egypt for almost three hundred years (1250–1517), although this impression may be partly owing to the fact that so many structures have survived from the Mamluk period. These buildings are predominantly masjids, largely because of the stipulation against tearing them down. The Mamluks also built homes, palaces, baths, hospitals, madrasahs, mausoleums, and caravanserais (known in Egypt as wakalahs). The earliest Mamluk monuments were commissioned by the ruler al-Zahir Baybars (1260–1277), the founder of the Mamluk state in Cairo. What has survived of the masjid he constructed reveals that it was a large arcaded masjid (built 1266–1269), almost a copy of the Fatimid masjid of al-Mahdiyyah in Tunisia. Baybars’s masjid is the last of the great arcaded masjids constructed around a large courtyard to be built in Egypt. After this time, Egyptian masjids were generally constructed as roofed buildings without open-air courtyards. This change represents a retreat from the effort to get worshipers to attend Friday congregational prayer in a few large masjids rather than in many smaller neighborhood ones. It is probably connected to the growth and increased crowding of cities, as illustrated by the fact that Baybars had to build his large masjid outside the city walls. The next major building effort from which structures have survived was that of Sultan Qala’un (1279–1290), who left an impressive complex of buildings, including a masjid, a mausoleum, and a hospital. Few traces of the hospital have survived, but the masjid and the mausoleum are still in existence. The mausoleum, in particular, is in a good state of preservation. Like the Dome of the Rock, it has large columns supporting a central dome, and its stucco, mosaic, and marble decorations also attest to influences from earlier buildings. Both the square shape of the lower part of the minaret of the Masjid of Qala’un and its stucco decoration attest to the persistence of some North African influence, even after the downfall of the Fatimids. Since the time of the Fatimids, mausoleums had been erected both as independent structures and as attachments to a religious complex. After Qala’un, they became almost a required accoutrement of power; not only the sultans but also nobles built them. Indeed, only a few Mamluk religious structures were built without attached mausoleums. Although prophetic teachings (hadiths) disapproved of the proximity of masjid to mausoleum, such structures expressed the hope of a patron that worshipers would also visit his tomb and pray for him. In addition to the development of the royal tomb as an elaborate architectural form, there were other interesting trends in masjid construction during the reign of Qala’un. One of the most significant developments of this time was the shift from the arcaded masjid of the past to the iwan-style masjid developed in Iran. While the iwan style had been known before, it came into general use in Egypt only from the period of Qala’un. Most of the later Mamluk masjids in Egypt were built with four vaulted halls opening onto a courtyard. Yet, the form of architecture remained distinct from the Iranian style because it did not adopt most other details of Iranian architecture but represents instead a distinct local style. Two iwan-style masjids of the Mamluk period are especially notable. One is the Masjid of Sultan Hasan (built 1356–1361), which was constructed as a school as well as a tomb for the sultan, who was never buried in it, and of course as a masjid for worship. The other is the Mausoleum of Sultan Qa’itbay (built 1472–1474) in the Northern Cemetery, with its exquisite, delicate proportions and ornate decoration. Dozens of other beautiful Mamluk foundations survive as well.

Mamluk Architectural Trends . Enough Mamluk architecture has survived to allow scholars to trace the evolution of design from one epoch to another. At first,

brick was the primary building material, as in Ibn Tulun’s Masjid. Shortly thereafter, stone replaced brick for most parts of buildings except domes. Gradually, domes were also built of stone. The first stone domes were simple ribbed domes, similar to and probably influenced by the brick domes of Iran. Then intricate patterns were introduced. By the fifteenth century, complex arabesques carved in varying depth had become prominent features of domes. Many domes, such as that crowning the Mausoleum of Qa’itbay, are breathtaking in their beauty. That dome—large, elongated, and elegant—attests to the prowess of the medieval architects and artisans. The dome is completely formed of large interlocking stones, the surface of which was artfully transformed into a carpet-like design of intertwining geometric forms and naturalistic floral forms. The tall, slender, elegant minaret is also well proportioned. The whole building is decorated inside and out with delicate designs carved in the marble and the wood used as surface materials. The building is considered a model for much modern masjid construction in Egypt. Qa’itbay was an avid builder. During his reign as many as eighty separate structures were erected, including the citadel he ordered built in Alexandria on the site where the famous Pharos lighthouse, since fallen into ruin, had once stood.


Nurhan Atasoy and others, The Art of Islam (Paris: Unesco, 1990).

Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom, The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250–1800 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

Abbas Daneshvari, ed., Essays in Islamic Art and Architecture: In Honor of Katharina Otto-Dorn (Malibu, Cal: Undena, 1981).

Martin Frishman and Hasan-Uddin Khan, ed., The Mosque: History, Architectural Development and Regional Diversity (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1994).

George Michell, ed., Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning (New York: Morrow, 1978).

Henri and Anne Stierlin, Splendours of an Islamic World: Mamluk Art in Cairo 1250–1517 (London & New York : Tauris Parke, 1997).

About this article

Later Masjid Architecture in the Arab World and Africa

Updated About content Print Article Share Article