Cairo’s Sultan Hassan mosque stands as symbol of unity
Cairo - When it was built almost 800 years ago, Sultan Hassan mosque in southern Cairo was a symbol of Muslim unity.
The mosque, which was constructed between 1256-63, has four sitting rooms where the followers of the four schools of Sunni Islamic thought — Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali — would assemble, study and debate Islamic issues.
It was meant for the mosque, considered the most compact and unified of all Cairo’s monuments, to be a meeting place, a role it filled for years.
“Gathering the followers of the four schools of Islamic thought was a very important step at the time of the construction of the mosque,” antiquities expert Mukhtar al- Kasbani said. “This move was meant to prevent friction and division among the followers of these schools.”
Nothing remains of the four schools and the nature of relations between them is changing with current Islamic thought becoming more encompassing of different interpretations and ideas.
There is a small school for teaching children the Quran and principles of Islam. Nevertheless, the awe-inspiring mosque is unparalleled Islamic art.
The mosque, of Bahri Mamluk origin, is built of stone. Its courtyard opens from each of its sides into a separate sitting room and each of the rooms is an enormous vaulted hall.
Sultan Hassan, the Mamluk ruler who ordered construction of the mosque, was assassinated two years before the structure’s completion.
From the outside, the mosque is very impressive, with its cornice and the protruding verticals of its facade, even though it stands in the shadow of the massive Saladin citadel. Upon entering the mosque, one gets an impression of height, especially from the towering doors decorated in a Mamluk fashion.
Even during the Mamluk era, building space was at a premium. Thus, the outer walls are somewhat askew to fit the available lot but mosque designers still had a wonderful way of creating the impression of uniform cubistic effect inside.
It was said that the construction of the mosque nearly emptied the vast treasury of the state. The mosque covers 7,906 sq. metres. Its walls rise 36 metres and its tallest minaret is 68 metres.
“I have admired this place since I was young,” said Ahmed Abdel- Hadi, a mosque preacher and an Islamic theology researcher. “It embodies everything that is beautiful in Mamluk architecture.”
Visitors enter the mosque through a tall portal, a work of art itself. A dark and relatively low-ceilinged passageway leads to a brightly lit courtyard, a standard cruciform-plan.
The courtyard centres on a domed ablutions fountain, believed to be an Ottoman addition. Soaring on four sides of the courtyard are the vaulted sitting rooms, accented by hanging lamp chains and red-and-black rims.
Skillfully fitted between and behind each sitting room is a school, complete with its own courtyard and four storeys of cells for students and teachers.
One of the sitting rooms functions as a sanctuary, containing the pulpit and the mihrab, a niche in the wall that indicates the direction that Muslims should face when praying.
To the right of the pulpit is a bronze door, exquisitely decorated with radiating stars in gold and silver, which leads into the mausoleum of Sultan Hassan. Its location benefits from prayers to Mecca and overlooks the sultan’s stomping grounds on the nearby Saladin square.
The mausoleum, covered by a restored dome, is exquisitely beautiful, particularly in the morning when the rising sun filters through grilled windows.
Such beauty has functioned as a magnet for people from all parts of the world, from the very rich to the very poor and from the very important to the most ordinary.
When he visited Egypt in 2009, US President Barack Obama and then secretary of State Hillary Clinton were keen to visit Sultan Hassan mosque.
Sameh al-Saban, 37, was one of many ordinary people drawn to the mosque. Saban said he used to go to the mosque as a visitor but he now works as a tour guide and is keen to include it in his list of must-visit Cairo sites for foreign tourists.
“The people who come here are always dazzled by the history and beauty of the place,” Saban said. “It is the pride of all Islamic sites in Cairo.”