Citadel of Saladin

Cairo, Egypt

From Citadel and City of the Dead

City of the Dead
It’s customary in Islam for the dead to be buried next to the family home, in the sort of family plots that were common across the American West. As cities grew in size, however, this became impractical. Cemeteries developed, often with elaborate tomb markers as big as many simple people’s houses. Over time, people started living in these homes, because rent was low or nonexistent, and they could be close to their loved ones. These became known in Arabic by the names of their residential neighborhoods, but foreigners call them “Cities of the Dead.”

Mausoleum of Imam al-Shafahi
Sunni Islamic law has four basic schools of thought, and one of them was founded by al-Shafahi. When he was first buried here, his was just a simple grave. Islam tends to discourage glorifying the dead. There’s even a tradition that says a graveyard should be plowed under after 7 years and used for other purposes (not that anyone actually follows this tradition). But when the Fatamids came to Cairo later, they built this great mausoleum to al-Shafahi and a neighboring madrassa or religious school to encourage local Muslims to consider more seriously the role of Islamic law and learning in their lives. These days, the pendulum has swung the other way, and both al-Azhar and the Salafis are trying to convince local Muslims that praying to a saint for intercession is heresy in Islam, but the tradition continues among the simple people anyway.

Mohammad Ali
No, I’m not talking about the boxer! Mohammad Ali of Egypt was the first Ottoman governor of Egypt who decided that he would spend the rest of his life in Egypt, not just rule it for awhile and return to the bosom of the empire. He brought his whole family with him and installed them in important positions in his government here. Then he designed the siyasa court system to make sure his family didn’t cheat him. He’s generally considered here in Egypt to be the founder of the modern Egyptian state, before the invasion of Napoleon and the colonial era. And somewhere along the way, he decided his family needed a mausoleum, which he located just around the corner from Imam al-Shafahi’s shrine.

From Royal Tombs to Royal Mosques
Next we went the the Saladin Citadel, where our first stop was the Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qala’un Mosque from the Mameluke period. Mosques of that dynasty tend to be large open courtyards, not roofed structures. The Mameluke period is also marked by extensive use of wood, which was an expensive import and a more important sign of wealth than gold. All the colonnades surrounding the courtyard of this building are roofed with wood, and supported by columns with capitals from earlier dynasties. There were more windows and doors around the sides of the mosque, but during the French colonial period they were boarded up so this space could be used as a prison.

The Mosque of Sulayman Pasha is an Ottoman-era mosque in what’s known as the church style. When the Ottomans came to power in Constantinople (now Istanbul), they were hugely impressed by the amazing Hagia Sophia Cathedral, which boasts an unrivaled feat of engineering: the largest freestanding dome in the world for almost a millennium. This, combined with the fact that many of the Ottomans’ early architects had previously been designing churches, led to a movement in Ottoman mosques that used a large, shallow dome surrounded by four smaller shallow domes, like Hagia Sophia. It turns out to also have great acoustics, especially if you place the minbar or pulpit at one of the corners under the main dome, instead of right next to the qibla niche.

In addition, Sulayman Pasha’s mosque is different because he did not include a mausoleum for himself. Unlike previous dynasties, the Ottoman governors didn’t expect to die in Cairo. They served for a limited period of time, and then moved on or returned to Istanbul. Until Mohammad Ali, that is….

The Mohammad Ali Mosque
If this mosque reminds you of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, it’s no coincidence. If you see Louis XIV influence on the details of the mosque, that’s no coincidence, either. Mohammad Ali was very much influenced by European culture and art, and it’s very much in evidence in his mosque.

From Citadel and City of the Dead

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