Sultan Hassan Mosque -- an eminent edifice.
By Salwa Samir - The Egyptian Gazette
That's how archaeologist Hany Salah, who works at the mosque in question, started his interview with the Egyptian Mail. "It is the most wonderful Islamic edifice in the world," he believes.
The mosque and madrassa (school) of Sultan Hassan are a massive Mameluke era compound located near the Citadel in Cairo. Its construction began in 1356 and took six years to build. At that time the mosque was considered remarkable due to its fantastic size and innovative architectural features. It covers 8,000 square metres and is 42 metres high.
The mosque was designed to accommodate places of learning for all four Sunni schools of thought; Shafi'i, Maliki, Hanafi and Hanbali.
In 1347, Sultan Hassan ascended the throne at the age of 13. He was murdered by his army commander in chief, a Mameluke, who was thought to be loyal. After his assassination Sultan Hassan's body was hidden and never found; the mosque therefore never served its original purpose.
When entering the awe-inspiring edifice one feels plunged into timelessness, even the air is different.
After crossing a dark passage, one reaches stairs that lead to the mosque proper. Needless to say you remove your shoes at the entrance and place them on a shelf. Female visitors are asked to pick a scarf from a large tray. The floor is covered with colourful clean carpets.
From the vestibule you turn left. Don't forget to look upwards and see the distant ceiling from which beautiful lamps are suspended. You feel as if you entered a magical cave.
Emerging from the dimly lit corridor you gasp when seeing the magnificent courtyard open to the sky. You feel truly transported into the Mameluke era; there is not a trace of modern Egypt to be seen. In the centre is a large ablution fountain completed in 1362.
Each side of the courtyard has an arched recess known as Iwan. Their huge sizes are different and leave no space for the cells of the madrassas to overlook the courtyard.
Each one of the four iwans represents a Sunni school, and each madrassa has four floors.
The students used to live and study there. Each school has its own entrance between the iwans and its own smaller courtyard with ablution fountain and iwan.
The Mihrab in the main courtyard is decorated so beautifully that one might want to spend much time enjoying its artwork. There are two recessed windows and oculi above the Mihrab.
The Minbar (stairs with pulpit) next to the Mihrab (prayer niche) is made of marble. A small bronze door leads to the staircase.
Both the Minbar and the Mihrab are among the most lavishly decorated examples of their kind. Lamps hang from the high ceiling, and looking past them from the Qibla Iwan through the arches into the courtyard is an unforgettable experience.
Back to Hani Salah, the archaeologist. He explained that the Maliki Madrassa had recently been opened to the public and would host daily religious and archaeological seminars from 5 to 7pm.
"These venerable premises are now used to raise the awareness about archaeology and religion. There are also lessons in Arabic calligraphy.
"Soon there will be social and educational activities for orphans and the poor living in the area," he elaborated.
When US President Barack Obama visited Cairo in 2009, he spent half an hour in the Sultan Hassan Mosque, which made it famous all over the world. But according to Salah this wasn't enough: "The media really should pay more attention to this marvellous edifice instead of only focusing on the Pharaonic sites.
"Do you know that there are similarities between Tutankhamun, the famous Egyptian Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, and Sultan Hassan?" he asked.
"Both ruled Egypt at a very young age. Tutankhamun was nine when he ascended the throne and Sultan Hassan was 13. Both ruled Egypt for ten years and were murdered. We don't hear much about their breakthroughs and innovations, but they left the most wonderful Pharaonic and Islamic architecture - a tomb and a mosque!"
The Sultan Hassan Mosque is located below the Cairo Citadel in Rifai Street. The nearest metro station is Mohamed Naguib. The mosque is open daily from 8am to 5pm, even on religious holidays. Tickets cost LE25
Copyright Eltahir House 2012
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