Ibn Tulun Mosque is the oldest best preserved mosque in Egypt. It is named after the Emir Ahmed Ibn Tulun, a soldier among the troops of Samara who was promoted to rule Egypt between 868 and 883AD.
Following the tradition of Muslim Caliphs, first work of Ibn Tulun was to establish a new capital known as Qataia (869AD) between Cairo and Fustat.
In its centre, he built a palace complex, a hippodrome, and a large mosque which became known by his name. According to the inscription found in the mosque, it was completed in May 879AD.
Western sources, quoting Al-Maqrizi, claim that the architect of the mosque was an Egyptian Christian who proposed to employ piers to substitute the large number of columns, necessary to support the roof span of this mosque’s magnitude3. Fikri (1961AD) dismissed this as another attempt to connect successful Muslim work to Christian origin. He argues that firstly, it is well known that Ibn Tulun lived in Samarra all his youth and he clearly was influenced by its prestige especially its Great Mosque of Al-Mutawwakil (848AD).
This can be seen in the numerous common features of the two mosques. The first of these is the use of piers constructed of bricks, instead of columns, to carry the arcades and the roof. Secondly, is the use of the same materials of construction such as brick and plaster. Thirdly is the spiral shape of the minaret and its location outside the perimeter of the mosque. An Egyptian Christian architect could not have by chance employed these features independently of Samarra. Fikri quoted Al-Maqrizi himself, in the same source, reporting another different story about the circumstances of the construction of the Mosque. He reported that Al-Qudhai narrated that Ibn Tulun asked for advice about : “the construction of a building that would stand the fire if the whole of Egypt was to be consumed by it, and stand a flood if the whole of Egypt was to be submerged by it.” He was told to build with plaster, ash and red brick, and not to erect any columns of marble as they do not stand well against fire. So he built it following their advice and made it and its minaret a copy of Samarra’s mosque.”
(captions in the following photographs represent views of the photographer and not those of the author of this post)
Changes and Modifications
The mosque was kept in its original state and most of the works carried out were mainly to restore the damage caused by fire or natural decay. Historical sources indicate that the mosque witnessed the following changes:
- In 980 a fire consumed the fountain which was in the center of the mosque, and has never replaced.
- In 1077 and according to an inscription, al-Mustansir Bellah restored one of the gates.
- Four mihrabs made of plaster were added to the mosque. The first of these was in 1094, two belonged to the Fatimid dynasty and a fourth was erected in the 13th century .
- In 1296 the Sultan Lageen restored the mosque and tiled its floor.
The Plan in brief
The mosque has a square shape 162 meters long, making it one of the largest mosques of Cairo (figure 1). It consists of three main sections. The prayer hall (figure 2) is a rectangle of six aisles running parallel to the Qibla wall. These aisles are divided by five arcades of pointed arches, each one is carried on 16 piers of brick and covered with plaster. On the center of the Qibla wall, there is the main Mihrab which is a niche of pointed arch flanked on both sides by two attached columns. Four other smaller Mihrabs which were added later appear on the sides of the main mihrab, two on each side.
The courtyard “Sahn” is a square extending south of the prayer hall. It is surrounded by covered porticoes, each consisting of two aisles of pointed arcades raised on strong piers and overlooking its open center where a fountain and an ablution basin stand.
The third section consists of the extensions, of 11 meters each, along the northern, eastern and western sides of the mosque. These open extensions which ring the mosque on three sides work as buffers between the streets’ bustle and the religious space inside.
The mosque is accessed through a total number of 42 doors, half of which belong to the original mosque. The minaret in its famous spiral shape, in the form of Al-Malwiya of Samarrra, was built outside the enclosure wall opposite the Qibla.
Mosque Architecture and its contribution
In addition to its historic importance, Ibn Tulun mosque is considered as one of the leading buildings having a significant impact on the development of architecture beyond the Muslim boundaries. Its architectural richness exceeded the expectations of medieval architects, especially Europeans, henceforth becoming a show case for them to imitate and admire. The main architectural qualities of this mosque can be briefly summarized in the following:
- The systematic adoption of piers to carry the arcades and the roof as an alternative to columns was the first recorded instance. This was the first use of piers outside Samara . The mosque employed some 160 piers of rectangular shape of about 2.5 meters height and about 1.25 meters width. They reach the same height of 5 meters all around the mosque (figure 3). Such a feature could not have been achieved by the use of columns, which varied greatly in height and size and would have created problems in raising the arches to the same crown level. These piers were decorated at the corners with built in columns made of brick and plaster. Above them and between their arches a set of arched windows were opened to reduce the pressure of the thrust and provide extra light and air.
- The other feature was the systematic use of pointed arches which is regarded as the first recorded example although the pointed arch appeared earlier in Abbassid architecture in Ukhaidir Palace (Iraq, 778), the Alqsa Mosque (above), Ramlah Cistern (789) as well as Jussaq Al-Khaqani Palace (Samarra, 836). However, the mosque of Ibn Tulun remains the first building where the pointed arch was used constructively and systematically (figure 4). This was at least two and a half centuries before it was introduced to Europe. Rice confirmed in his book as he wrote “The pointed arch had already been used in Syria, but in the mosque of Ibn Tulun we have one of the earliest examples of its use on an extensive scale, some centuries before it was exploited in the West by the Gothic architects”. According to the same theory, Ibn Tulun Mosque was also the means through which the pier was transmitted to Europe. The transfer of these motifs to Europe is manifest through the 11th century strong links the Fatimids had with Amalfitan and Venetian traders who often visited Cairo and this monument.
Decorative elements of the Mosque and its contribution
The internal decorative works are found mainly in the frames and crowns of the piers, arches and windows. These are in the form of a band consisting of series of curved lines, flower buds and diamond shapes. On the architrave of arcades and windows, is found a delicate combination of floral and geometrical patterns which show a great similarity to the one developed in Samarra. Such patterns were traced to Sassanian and Hellenic influences. According to Richmond they represent the earliest example of Arabesque, a pattern which became a prominent theme in most Muslim decorative art.
Calligraphy works took the form of decorative strips covering the wooden rail of higher sections of the walls. They also decorate the internal frames of windows and the area above the Mihrab .
The external walls of the Mosque were crowned with curious ornamental battlements in the form of a chain of little human figures (pigmies) defending the roof. Sources indicate that these provisions were also appreciated by Medieval European visitors, becoming later a prototype of Gothic pierced and crested parapets.
Ibn Tulun Mosque is a rare example where Europeans openly admitted its influence on the development of many features of their architecture. Elements such as the pointed arch, the pier, and wall battlements formed the essential ingredients of the birth of Gothic architecture, which led Europe to the Renaissance. It is time that this mosque should a prime position in the historic and architectural achievements of Muslim civilisation. It is another evidence of the precocity of both the Medieval Muslim mason and his patron.
1The oldest mosque of Egypt is the Mosque of Amru Ibn Al-Aas built in Fustat in 642.
2The Tulunids, formed a dynasty that lasted nearly forty years (868-905).
3Reference to one of the stories narrated by Al-Maqrizi who claimed that ibn Tulun was told that the mosque would require some 300 columns to carry the proposed roof span. Such a number would be difficult to collect and transport. Ibn Tulun postponed the construction work to search for an alternative solution. Al-Maqrizi added that one of the Emir’s prisoners, who happened to be a Christian, heard of the incident and came up with the pier idea. The Emir welcomed the suggestion and immediately freed the prisoner, offered him prizes and asked him to build the Mosque.
5Although the use of an early version of the pier appeared in Ribat of Sussa (821), Jussaq Al-Khaqani in Samarra (836), then in Great Mosque of Sussa (850) and Abu Dulaf (Samarra 859/60), but in Ibn Tulun it became for the first time a coherent architectural unit of the architectural system of the mosque.