The Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hassan

Sultan Hassan is shown here on the left, with a large dome,
while the Mosque of al-Rifa’i on the right.

 

One of my favorite places in Cairo is the mosque and madrasa of Sultan Hassan, which was built between 1356 and 1359 A.D.

 

Located at the base of the Citadel of Cairo, across a narrow street from the much more modern but equally massive Mosque of al-Rifa‘i (built, with a lengthy pause, between 1869 and 1912) where the last king of Egypt (King Farouk [d. an exile in Rome, in 1965]) and the last shah of Iran (Mohammed Reza Pahlevi [d. an exile in Cairo, in 1980]) are buried, Sultan Hassan is a marvelous specimen of Egyptian Mamluk architecture.

 

 

The interior is beautifully decorated.  In the photographs above, for example, you see, on the left, the highly ornamented mihrab of the mosque, the recessed niche that indicates the direction of Mecca and, thus, the proper direction of prayer.  To the right of the mihrab is the minbar or staircase-like pulpit of the mosque, from which the Friday noon sermon is delivered.

 

 

Elegant inscriptions from the Qur’an, written in very large Kufic script (that is, angular, and elongated vertically) against a floral arabesque background, run around much of the interior of the building.  (You can gain an idea of their size, perhaps, from what you can see of them in the first photo of the mihrab and minbar, above.)

 

 

In the very center of Sultan Hassan is an ablution fountain, for ritual washings before prayer.

 

 

It is surrounded by four iwans, or covered recesses.  (See the plan of the building, above.)  One, the principal iwan, is much larger than the three others, which are pretty much of equal size among themselves.  You can perhaps get an idea of them from the two photographs (the first one taken from above, looking down) immediately below:

 

 

This enormous mosque was also designed to serve as Sultan Hassan’s mausoleum (although, after his assassination, his body was never actually placed in the tomb that was designed for him) and as a madrasa or school.  It even included dormitories for the students:

 

Dormitory windows visible looking upwards
in one the building’s interior shafts.

 

The four iwans or covered porticoes were used for the teaching of Islamic law (shari‘a) according to the four different classical or orthodox “schools” of Sunni Islam: Maliki, Hanbali, Hanafi, and Shafi‘i.

 

There is much, much more that could be said about this impressive and instructive building.  But it would be easier if you just came to see it with me sometime.

 

 


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