Cairo’s Sultan Hassan mosque stands as symbol of unity

Sunday 24/07/2016
The Sultan Hassan mosque and Madrassa in Cairo.

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.”