Cairo, Egypt, is home to a rich tapestry of historical mosques dating back to the early Islamic era and the Fatimid period. These architectural wonders not only stand as places of worship but also as living relics of the city’s illustrious past.
From the venerable Amr ibn al-As Mosque, one of the earliest Islamic monuments on the African continent, to the resplendent Mosque of Ibn Tulun, renowned for its unique spiral minaret, Cairo’s mosques offer a captivating journey through time.
Al-Azhar Mosque, a revered center of Islamic scholarship, and the enigmatic Al-Hakim Mosque, beckon visitors with their stories. Meanwhile, the Lulua Mosque, the Juyushi Mosque, and the Aqmar Mosque reveal the architectural grandeur of the Fatimid dynasty.
Join us as we embark on a virtual exploration of these hallowed sites, delving into their history, architecture, and cultural significance. If you want to read about the Cairo mosques from the mamluk era, or mosques built during the ottoman rule, we have more articles.
Amr ibn al-As Mosque
The Mosque of Amr ibn al-As, also known as Taj al-Jawame’ or the Crown of Mosques, stands as a historical and architectural marvel in Cairo. Originally constructed between 641 and 642 AD, this revered mosque served as the nucleus of the newly established capital, Fustat.
Notably, it was the very first mosque ever built in Egypt and the entirety of Africa, attesting to its profound historical significance.
Over the course of centuries, extensive renovations and expansions have transformed the mosque, but its significance endures. At its zenith, it ranked as the fourth largest mosque in the Islamic world during the twentieth century.
The mosque’s location itself is steeped in history, as it was originally chosen based on the presence of a dove’s egg, according to tradition.
This iconic mosque has witnessed numerous rebuilds, extensions, and renovations, with contributions from various rulers and governors, including the addition of four minarets and prayer niches.
Despite the passage of time and natural disasters like fires and earthquakes, the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of Islamic architecture and spirituality in Cairo.
Today, it remains an active place of worship, open to both devoted congregants and curious visitors eager to explore its rich history and architectural evolution.
The Mosque of Ibn Tulun
The Mosque of Ibn Tulun, situated in the heart of Cairo, stands as a testament to both its historical and architectural significance. It holds the distinction of being one of the oldest mosques in Egypt and the entire African continent, preserving its original form over the centuries.
Covering an expansive land area, it ranks as the largest mosque in Cairo, showcasing ancient Egyptian architectural styles adorned with intricate decorations crafted from carved stucco and wood. This remarkable mosque has also become a popular attraction for tourists.
The mosque’s storied history dates back to its commission by Ahmad ibn Tulun, a ruler from the Tulunid dynasty, during his rule from 868 to 884. Designed by the renowned Egyptian architect Saiid Ibn Kateb Al-Farghany, it was constructed on the hill known as Gebel Yashkur, often associated with the resting place of Noah’s Ark, according to local legend.
The mosque served multiple purposes, including offering shelter to pilgrims traveling from North Africa to the Hijaz in the 12th century.
Built in the Samarran style typical of Abbasid constructions, the mosque features a spacious courtyard surrounded by covered halls. Despite its enduring history and multiple renovations, including the addition of a distinctive minaret with a spiral staircase, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun remains a symbol of Islamic heritage and architectural grandeur in Cairo.
The Al-Azhar Mosque, also known as “The Resplendent Congregational Mosque,” holds a unique and venerable place in the heart of Cairo. Established in 970, just two years after Cairo became the capital of the Fatimid Caliphate, this mosque has stood the test of time, witnessing over a millennium of history.
The name “Al-Azhar” is believed to be derived from “az-Zahrāʾ,” which means “the shining one,” a title given to Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Initially named “Jāmiʿ al-Manṣūriyya” after the previous Fatimid capital, the mosque eventually adopted its current name, reflecting its splendor and historical significance.
Over its long history, Al-Azhar has undergone various architectural transformations, influenced by different periods and rulers. The mosque’s original structure featured columns from various historical eras, from Ancient Egypt to Roman rule, and its stucco exterior showcased elements of Abbasid, Coptic, and Byzantine architecture.
The mosque’s role in education is equally remarkable. Al-Azhar University, integrated within the mosque, has been a renowned center for the study of Sunni theology and Islamic law. It’s the second oldest continuously operating university globally, after Al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco.
Throughout the centuries, Al-Azhar faced periods of neglect and resurgence. Under the Ayyubid dynasty, it lost prestige due to its Shiite Ismaili origins, but the Mamluks reversed this trend by investing in expansions and renovations. Subsequent rulers exhibited varying levels of support, reflecting the complex relationship between political authorities and the mosque.
Today, Al-Azhar Mosque remains a symbol of Islamic Egypt, highly revered in the Sunni Muslim world. Its architecture bears witness to Egypt’s rich history, while its role as an educational institution continues to shape the religious and cultural landscape of the region.
The Mosque of al-Hakim, also known as al-Anwar or ‘the Illuminated,’ stands as a historic jewel in Cairo. Named in honor of Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the sixth Fatimid caliph and 16th Ismaili Imam, this magnificent mosque has a rich history that spans centuries.
Construction of the mosque commenced in 990 AD under the patronage of Caliph al-‘Aziz Billah but was later completed in 1013 by al-Hakim himself, giving the mosque its name. Located in the heart of Islamic Cairo, the mosque boasts a rectangular layout surrounding an open courtyard with intricate arcades.
Over the centuries, the Mosque of al-Hakim experienced periods of neglect and diverse usage, from housing prisoners during the Crusades to functioning as a school during Nasser’s presidency. In 1980, a significant restoration effort led by the Dawoodi Bohras brought the mosque back to its former glory, reopening it for religious use.
The mosque’s architectural marvels include two remarkable minarets. These towering structures were originally built in 1003 and later encased in massive bastions in 1010.
The mosque’s interior is adorned with Kufic inscriptions, many of which have been meticulously preserved or restored, showcasing the deep religious and artistic significance of the structure.
Throughout the years, the Mosque of al-Hakim has been a testament to the rich history of Egypt and its enduring cultural heritage. As it continues to stand tall, recent restoration efforts ensure that this luminous gem will continue to shine for generations to come, attracting visitors and devotees from around the world who seek to admire its architectural beauty and historical significance.
The Lulua Mosque
The Lulua Mosque, also known as al-Lu’lu’a Mosque, stands as a historical treasure in Cairo, with roots dating back to 1015-16 during the reign of the third Fatimid caliph, al-Hakim. Situated near the southern cemetery of the Muqattam Hills, this mosque is perched atop a promontory of limestone, reflecting its ancient Egyptian quarry origins.
Al-Hakim, who was known for his architectural contributions to Cairo, built the Lulua Mosque with an ornate and lustrous exterior, earning it the name “the pearl.”
The mosque exhibits distinctive Fatimid architectural features, such as projected portals, domes over mihrabs, keel-shaped arches, and stucco decorations. Inscriptions adorned its façade, adding to its grandeur.
Throughout history, the Lulua Mosque underwent periods of refurbishment, with the first recorded renovation occurring in the 16th century. However, it faced significant damage when its façade and vaults collapsed in 1919.
In the late 1990s, the Dawoodi Bohra community from India, whose religious lineage traces back to the Ismaili Islam of the Fatimid Caliphate, undertook a comprehensive refurbishment, restoring this architectural gem to its former glory.
The mosque’s unique design, including multiple qiblas, triple-arched entrances, and its integration with the surrounding limestone terrain, makes it a noteworthy example of early Fatimid architecture.
The Juyushi Mosque
The Juyushi Mosque, also known as the Mosque of the Armies, stands as a historical marvel in Cairo, its origins tracing back to 1085 during the reign of the Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Mustansir Billah.
This architectural gem was commissioned by Badr al-Jamali, the Amir al-Juyush or “Commander of the Armies,” who served as the powerful vizier to al-Mustansir.
The Juyushi Mosque, though often referred to as a mosque, is unique in that it is the most complete surviving mashhad, a commemorative shrine, from the Fatimid period. Its construction features a small courtyard with a prayer hall, a minaret, and rooms surrounding the central space.
The entrance to the prayer hall showcases classic Fatimid architectural elements, including keel arches flanked by smaller arches and stucco decorations adorning the mihrab (niche symbolizing the qibla).
One remarkable feature of the mosque is the minaret, which is one of the earliest examples in Egypt with multiple tiers of different designs. Its rectangular and square sections culminate in a dome, adorned with muqarnas, a distinctive stalactite-like sculptural element.
The inscriptions on the mosque reveal its historical and religious significance, citing Quranic verses and celebrating the construction ordered by Badr al-Jamali during 1085. Over the years, the mosque underwent various renovations, with some historical details, including Ottoman-era decorations, being lost during modern restoration efforts.
The al-Hussein Mosque
The al-Hussein Mosque, also known as the Mosque of al-Imam al-Husayn, stands as a revered religious site in Cairo. Originally constructed in 1154 during the Fatimid period, the mosque gained prominence due to its association with Husayn ibn Ali. Some Shia Muslims believe that Husayn’s head is buried on the mosque grounds, giving it immense religious significance.
The history of the mosque is steeped in tradition. It was “rediscovered” in 1091 during the Fatimid period, leading to the construction of a new mosque and shrine under the orders of Badr al-Jamali, the grand vizier under Caliph al-Mustansir. Afterward, Husayn’s casket was transferred from Ashkelon to Cairo in 1153.
In subsequent centuries, including the Ayyubid period, the mosque underwent reconstructions and faced destruction. The surviving Ayyubid minaret stands as a testament to its historical resilience.
To commemorate the site of Husayn’s burial, a zarih was built in Mumbai and later installed in the mosque in 1965. The mosque also underwent extensive renovations and restorations over the years, with major work done in 1996 and again in 2022.
Architecturally, the mosque reflects a blend of influences, from its original Fatimid structure to the Ayyubid minaret and the Gothic Revival and Ottoman styles introduced during Isma’il Pasha’s reconstruction in 1874.
Today, the mosque features three large canopy umbrellas to protect worshippers from the elements. While non-Muslims are not allowed inside, it remains a significant religious and historical site, drawing visitors who admire its architectural beauty and historical importance.
The Aqmar Mosque
The Aqmar Mosque, also known as “the moonlit mosque,” stands as a remarkable testament to Fatimid architecture and historic Cairo. Built in 1125-6 by the Fatimid vizier al-Ma’mun al-Bata’ihi, this mosque occupies a prominent location on what is now al-Mu’izz Street, once the ceremonial heart of Cairo, close to the former Fatimid caliphal palaces.
The construction of the Aqmar Mosque took place during a turbulent period in the Fatimid Caliphate, shortly after the First Crusade. Vizier al-Ma’mun al-Bata’ihi initiated various reforms and architectural endeavors, including the mosque itself. However, his tenure ended tragically, with his arrest and execution in 1128.
Notable for its innovative design, the Aqmar Mosque features a unique floor plan. The façade is particularly remarkable, covered in lavish decoration, symbolizing Fatimid legitimacy and Shi’i ideology.
A pierced medallion with inscriptions, a window grille with symbolic significance, and carved door panels laden with meaning are some of the distinct features adorning the façade.
The mosque’s interior boasts a courtyard with Kufic inscriptions, but much of its original decoration has been replaced over time. The minaret, added during a later restoration in the 14th century by Mamluk amir Yalbugha al-Salimi, showcases intricate stucco work and arabesques.
The Aqmar Mosque remains a pivotal monument in Cairo’s architectural history, appreciated for its unique design elements and rich historical context, making it a must-visit for those interested in the city’s heritage.
Mashhad of Sayyida Ruqayya
The Mashhad of Sayyida Ruqayya, also known as the Mausoleum or Tomb of Sayyida Ruqayya, is a significant Islamic shrine and mosque in Cairo. Erected in 1133 CE, this architectural marvel serves as a memorial to Ruqayya bint Ali, a revered member of Prophet Muhammad’s family. Notably, it is one of the few well-preserved Fatimid-era mausoleums in Cairo.
While designed as a tomb, it is uncertain if Ruqqaya bint Ali is actually buried here, as historical records suggest her burial in Damascus. In Pakistan, it is believed her mausoleum is Bibi Pak Daman in Lahore.
Sayyida Ruqayyah, along with Sayyida Nafisah, is regarded as a patron saint of Cairo. The shrine’s origin is attributed to a dream experienced by the Fatimid caliph al-Hafiz, who ordered the construction of the Mashhad following the dream’s revelation. It was completed in 1133 CE.
The mausoleum showcases exceptional Fatimid architecture, featuring a triple-arched portico, intricately carved stucco mihrabs, and a masterful central mihrab adorned with exquisite calligraphic and arabesque designs. The dome’s design foreshadows later Islamic architecture in Cairo, featuring superimposed niches.
Today, the Mashhad continues to serve as a mosque and oratory, where people pray for Sayyida Ruqayya’s intercession. It has undergone recent restoration efforts to preserve its historical significance.
The Mosque of al-Salih Tala’i
The Mosque of al-Salih Tala’i, commissioned in 1160 by Tala’i ibn Ruzzik, the vizier of the Fatimid Caliphate, is located just south of Bab Zuweila, within Cairo’s ancient walled city. It stands as a historical monument reflecting the Fatimid era.
Tala’i ibn Ruzzik, a competent vizier, played a stabilizing role in the declining Fatimid Empire. Despite the caliphate’s abolition in 1171, this mosque remains a significant Fatimid legacy. It was initially intended to house the head of Husayn, a revered martyr among Shi’a Muslims, brought to Cairo from Ascalon in 1153.
Throughout its history, the mosque underwent changes, including a Mamluk-era restoration after a 1303 earthquake. Notably, bronze facings and wooden mashrabiyya screens were added during this period. The minbar from 1299-1300, one of Cairo’s oldest, still stands.
The mosque’s distinctive features include a raised platform and a front entrance portico with five arches. Its exterior showcases keel arch-shaped recesses, blind arches, carved moldings, and Kufic Arabic inscriptions. Chamfered corners with muqarnas and original crenellations enhance its appeal.
Inside, a courtyard with keel-shaped arches surrounds the mosque. Ornate elements like wooden tie-beams, Kufic inscriptions, stucco window grilles, and reused pre-Islamic column capitals adorn the space. While the original mihrab was updated during the Mamluk era, the adjacent minbar reflects exquisite craftsmanship.
The Mosque of al-Salih Tala’i stands as a historical gem, offering a glimpse into Cairo’s grand past and the architectural legacy of the Fatimid era.