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The al-Azhar Mosque (970)

Al-Azhar is today the most celebrated of all Cairo’s medieval mosques, more because of its historic and reli­gious importance than its aesthetic value. It was the first mosque built in Fatimid Cairo and the first theological college, and has played a continuous role in the history of the city from its foundation to the present day. The mosque of cAmr, though important as Islam’s first mosque in Egypt, did not retain its role though the centuries.

Plan of the al-Azhar mosque (Creswell).

Plan of the al-Azhar mosque (Creswell).

Like the mosque of cAmr, al-Azhar was established as the central mosque of a new urban foundation. It does not carry the name of its founder, the Fatimid Caliph al-Mucizz. Al-Azhar is an epithet meaning “The Flourishing”. Some medieval sources call it simply the Great Mosque (jamic) of Cairo.

Caliph al-Mucizz li-Din Allah, after conquering Egypt and founding al-Qahira, assigned his general and vizier Jawhar al-Siqilli the task of building al- Azhar. The first prayers were held in the mosque in 972, and in 989 it acquired the status of a college with the appointment of thirty-five scholars to teach the Ismaili Shia theology to which the Fatimids adhered. A hostel was built for them near the mosque.

Following the mosques of cAmr, al-cAskar, and Ibn Tulun, al-Azhar was the fourth congregational mosque in Egypt. After the Ottoman conquest, when the Mamluk colleges (madrasa) were in decline, al-Azhar became the center of Islamic scholarship in Egypt and one of the principal theological universities of the Muslim world.

Because of its importance, the mosque of al-Azhar, like the mosque of cAmr, has undergone a series of enlargements and restorations throughout its history. Today, all styles and all periods of Cairo’s history are represented in its architecture.

The original mosque of al-Azhar was much smaller than the present building, and it was not at the exact center of the capital. Al-Qahira itself did not occupy much more than one square kilometer. The great Fati­mid palace complex dominated the entire city. Al- Azhar is at a short distance from what was the main avenue, Bayn al-Qasrayn (lit., “between the two palaces”).


The Original Mosque

As reconstructed by Creswell, the mosque origi­nally had only three arcades around the courtyard; today it has four. This plan was common in North African and Andalusian architecture. The arcades are all carried on pre-Islamic columns with Corinthian capitals. Its original arches are round. The sanctuary had five aisles parallel to the qibla and a transept with an aisle wider and higher than the rest that runs perpendicular to the main wall, thus enhancing the prayer niche to which it leads from the court­yard to the prayer niche.

There were three domes, one over the prayer niche and the two others at the corners of the qibla wall, but none has survived. This feature of three domes in the sanctuary was also found in North African architecture and must have been introduced to Egypt by Fatimid craftsmen. The two other arcades had only three aisles each. The mosque is said to have had a ziyada.

The original minaret was a small construction stand­ing above the main entrance and built of brick.

Of the original mosque the arcades, part of the stucco decoration, including the conch of the prayer niche and a few window grills have been preserved.


Fatimid Additions

Imam Hakim Door

Imam Hakim Door

In 1009 the Caliph al-Hakim restored the mosque, donating a new wooden door which is now in the Cairo Islamic Museum. In 1125, the Caliph al-Amir donated a wooden prayer niche, now also at the museum. The most important Fatimid works, however, were carried out during the rule of the Caliph al-Hafiz li-Din Allah (1129-49), who added an arcade around the courtyard to give the mosque four arcades, the fourth composed of only one aisle on the northwestern side. The arches of this new courtyard facade differ from the original arches. They are called keel arches, as their profile resembles a ship’s keel pointing upwards. Al-Hafiz also added a dome in front of the transept. It is hidden to the viewer from the courtyard by a screen wall (pishtaq)—a portion of the facade wall taller than the rest which is meant to enhance the entrance to the sanc­tuary through the transept. This dome is richly decorated in carved stucco.


Fatimid Decoration

Original decorations include the conch of the prayer niche and the stucco inscriptions and arabesques on the arcades. The conch of the prayer niche is decorated in a style very similar to that of the two unidentified prayer niches at the mosque of Ibn Tulun, which could be either Tulunid or Ikhshidid. This decoration is not in pure Samarra style, but is combined with the scrolls of palmettes typical of Byzantine decoration. Slightly ornate curved Kufic script frames the various arches of the prayer niche, windows, arcades and panels.

It appears that different periods of Fatimid decora­tion are represented in the stuccos of al-Azhar, but scholars have not yet sorted them out. On the wall fac­ing the prayer niche, a naturalistic representation of a palm tree is repeated. Windows with geometric grills framed with bands of Kufic inscriptions appear to date from the foundation of the mosque. The stucco decora­tions added by al-Hafiz adorning the walls and the dome are quite different from the original style, which is not surprising, as they were done more than a cen­tury later. The dome in front of the transept is decorated with a ring composed of lobed arches poin­ting toward the center. These arches carry ornate inscription bands. Interestingly, one of the stucco grills of the transitional zone of the dome of al-Hafiz includes bits of green and yellow glass, the earliest known exam­ple of such a window decoration. This late-period Fatimid decoration shows a more ornate type of Kufic script and more composition in surface designs, involv­ing less repetition of patterns.


Ayyubid and Mamluk Restorations

Salah al-Dln, who followed the Shafici rite in which only one congregational or Friday mosque within an urban agglomeration is allowed, cancelled Friday prayers at al-Azhar and permitted them only at the mosque of al-Hakim, which he no doubt preferred because of its larger size. He also removed the Fatimid silver belt from the prayer niche. The mosque of cAmr continued to serve as al-Fustat’s congregational mosque during Salah al-Din’s reign.

Under the Mamluks, the Ilanafi rite had priority, and Sultan al-Zahir Baybars reestablished the Friday sermon at al-Azhar in 1266. He also replaced the minaret at the entrance with a higher one, and carried out other restorations.

The 1303 earthquake, significant in Cairo’s architec­tural history because of the restorations of monuments that followed, also damaged al-Azhar. Amir Salar restored the prayer niche and redecorated its spandrels. It was he who also added a beautiful prayer niche on the exterior wall of the mosque of cAmr, which we now know only from early photographs. Both of Salar’s prayer niches are decorated in the same style, with a row of niches filled with stucco geometrical ornaments and surmounted by delicate arabesques, a device we see also at the smaller Lajln prayer niche at Ibn Tulun.

Sultan Barquq found al-Azhar’s minaret too short, and in 1397 replaced it with a taller one in stone. Its structure, however, was defective, and it had to be destroyed a few years later. Sultan al-Mu’ayyad built another minaret in the same place in 1424, but it also leaned and had to be removed. Sultan Qaytbay, whose architects were more skillful, ordered several restora­tions at al-Azhar, in 1468, 1476, and 1495. Among these were the main portal and the minaret above it, both fine examples of the golden age of stone carving that characterizes Qaytbay’s architecture. Sultan al- Ghurl built a huge minaret in 1510, also near the main entrance. It has a double bulb and its shaft is decorated with pieces of blue faience.

In addition to restorations of individual structures, new buildings were added regularly to al-Azhar, for example the three madrasas of the Mamluk period. The madrasa of Taybars on the right side of the main entrance has not survived in its original architectural form, but it has a magnificent prayer niche with carved and inlaid marble, one of the finest in Cairo, with representations of trees in mosaics in the spandrels.

The madrasa of Amir Aqbugha, built in 1340 on the left side of the entrance, has its original portal, a mina­ret, and qibla wall decoration, including glass mosaics in the prayer niche and window recesses, where a vase and stylized plant motif is repeated. Both these madra­sas are on the site of a former ziyada of the mosque.

The madrasa of Jawhar al-Qanqaba3i, built in 1440 on the northern side of the sanctuary, is fully preserved in its original architectural form, along with its decora­tions and a carved stone dome covering the mausoleum of the founder.


Ottoman Restorations

In the Ottoman period, a long series of restorations and enlargements were made at al-Azhar. The most important of these was Amir cAbd al-Rahman Katkhuda’s enlargement in 1753, when the area of the mosque behind the original prayer niche was widened. He added a new facade, the one we see today, with its double round arches and the typical Ottoman cypress tree carved above them. He also had three minarets built, two of which have survived on the southern and eastern walls. On the southern facade, he added a por­tal similar to the Gothic portal of al-Nasir Muham­mad’s madrasa at the Nahhasin mosque. He rebuilt the facade of the Taybarsiyya and erected for himself a mausoleum dome on the southeastern corner of the enlarged mosque. Still more additions and restorations were carried out in the nineteenth and twentieth cen­turies.


Minor Structures

Over the centuries, al-Azhar acquired several maqsuras, one of them built by the founder Jawhar, and more than one prayer niche. There was a talisman to prevent birds from nesting in the mosque. Water- wheels served the fountains and latrines with water stored in cisterns.

There was a kitchen attached to the mosques where meals were prepared that were provided by charitable donations. At one time a large number of poor people were attached to the mosque and lived there on an almost regular basis. In 1415 a count was made of 750 such people, representing all the provinces of Egypt, along with foreigners. Orders were given to expel them from the mosque along with all their furniture and effects, as it was reported that forbidden things were going on in the mosque. Later, however, al-Azhar was surrounded by living quarters for a multitude of students and poor visitors.

Like the mosque of cAmr at al-Fustat, al-Azhar at al- Qahira led the calls to prayer to be followed by the other mosques. It therefore had a number of sundials and a number of astronomers serving the mosque for the calculation of prayer times.



Courtyard at al-Azhar Mosque

Courtyard at al-Azhar Mosque

Al-Azhar has been famous above all as a teaching center for Muslim theology. This tradition was begun soon after its foundation, with the teaching of Shica theology. Salah al-DTn’s overthrow of the Fatimids led to the abolition of Shi’-a teaching in Egypt, and Sultan al-Zahir Baybars introduced Shafici teaching when he restored the mosque. Later, Sultan Hasan added the Hanafi rite, and eventually, all four rites were rep­resented at al-Azhar.

During the Mamluk period, many madrasas in Cairo taught law and theology, but their decline after the Ottoman conquest raised the status of al-Azhar to its role of primary seat of Muslim learning in Egypt. Under the Ottomans (1517-1914), who, like the Mamluks before them, adhered to the Hanafi rite, the head of al-Azhar nonetheless remained a Shafic i scholar, in common with the majority of the Egyptian population. In the Ottoman period, students came from all parts of the Ottoman Empire and the rest of the Muslim world to study at al-Azhar. The rulers and members of the ruling establishment were generous in endowing al-Azhar. Several kuttabs, primary schools for boys, were also attached to the mosque.

Today, Cairo’s al-Azhar University is a modern university where all topics are taught. It is housed in buildings in the vicinity of the mosque.

Architectural Details

Architectural Details


  • Abd al-Wahhab. Masajid, pp. 47 ff.
  • Creswell. The Muslim Architecture of Egypt (M.A.E.). Oxford University
  • Press, 1952-60. I, pp. 36 ff. Flury, Samuel. Die Omamente der Hakim und Ashar Moschee; Materialen
  • zur Geschichte der aelteren Kunst des Islam. Heidelberg, 1912. Maqrizi. Khitat, II, pp. 273 ff. Mubarak. Khitat, IV, pp. 17 ff.

Text by Doris Behrens-Abouseif. Photographs added later by

About the Author
Professor Doris Behrens-Abouseif (Ph.D (Hamburg) HABIL (Freiburg)), is Nasser D. Khalili Professor of Islamic Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University. She has previously taught Islamic art and architecture at Universities in Egypt (American University of Cairo), Germany (Universities of Berlin, Freiburg and Munich), and the United States (Harvard University). She is a specialist in Mamluk and Ottoman arts of Egypt and Syria and in social history. Her research interests include urbanism and waqf history, Islamic cultural history and concepts of aesthetics, the decorative arts of Islam and later Islamic painting. Her recent publications include: Topographie medievale d?Alexandrie in C. Decobert and J-Y Empereur (eds.), Alexandrie Medievale II, (Cairo, 2002), pp. 1-13; Sultan al-Ghawri and the Arts, Mamluk Studies Review 6 (2002), pp. 69-75; Trois Planches de Pascal Coste in D. Panzac and A. Raymond (eds.), La France et l?Egypte ? l?epoque des Vice-Rois (Cairo, 2002), pp. 101- 110; and Mamluk and Post-Mamluk Metal Lamps, (Cairo, 1995).
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