Muhammad Ali’s mosque, a Cairo landmark and a piece of art

February 26, 2017
The Muhammad Ali mosque inside the Salaheddine Citadel in the Egyptian capital Cairo. (AFP)

Cairo - Though it is not the oldest Islamic monument in Cai­ro, the Alabaster mosque, also known as Muham­mad Ali’s mosque, is the city’s most famous Islamic land­mark, erected proudly on the high­est spot of the Egyptian metropolis inside the ancient Saladin citadel.
“It is an exquisite piece of art. I have never seen anything that beautiful in my life,” said Clarissa Jabari, a 21-year-old artist from Colombia. “I have travelled almost everywhere in the world but this place has something special about it. Not only in terms of physical beauty but also for its spiritual sig­nificance.”
When Muhammad Ali Pasha, the strong Albanian commander who ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1849, built the mosque in the courtyard of the citadel, the move was seen as a show of defiance against Istanbul, the seat of Ottoman rule.
At the time, it was not permissi­ble for the sultan’s viceroys to build mosques with two large domes. This was only reserved for the mosques built by the sultan him­self.
However, Muhammad Ali, known as the builder of modern Egypt, invited a Turkish architect to construct the mosque in 1830, insisting on building a copy of the two-domed Sultan Ahmed or Blue mosque in Istanbul.
Muhammad Ali did not live to see the building completed. His re­mains were transferred by his suc­cessors to a tomb to the right of the mosque’s entrance, which leads to its main section.
Hussein al-Darderi, a historian who guides visitors around the monument, said: “Muhammad Ali was keen not to follow Istanbul’s line at the political level but was obsessed with Turkish architec­ture. “This can be seen very clearly here in this mosque. The Turkish influence is so palpable in every corner of this place.”
The monument was mainly con­structed with limestone but the lower parts of its walls and fore­court are faced with alabaster. It has a rectangular shape and it is divided into two parts — the prayer section and the courtyard.
The space dedicated for prayer is square and has a roof with a central dome that rests on four large arches supported by huge piers.
Abdel Khaliq Moukhtar, a senior Antiquities Ministry official, said the mosque is especially impor­tant because, apart from keeping Muham­mad Ali in memory, it shows elevated artistic standards preva­lent during its construction.
“Besides, this mosque acquires its importance from the seminal political and military events that took place at the Saladin citadel it­self,” he said. “The citadel was the centre of power for hundreds of years, which was why Muhammad Ali was keen to build his mosque in it.”
Four half domes are built around the main central dome of the mosque and four domes cover the corners of the prayer area.
“The central dome is unique both in size and shape and it is so similar to those existing in Istanbul’s mosques, having six medallions around it,” Darderi said. “One of the medallions has the word ‘Allah’ inscribed on it, another bears the name of the Prophet Mohammad, while the four remaining ones carry the names of the four caliphs: Abou Bakr, Omar, Othman and Ali.”
While mosques usually have a single pulpit, Muhammad Ali mosque has two in the prayer area. One is wood ornamented with gild­ed decorations and the other is mar­ble. The second was placed in the mosque by King Farouk, a grandson of Muhammad Ali, in 1939.
To the right of the mosque’s en­trance, visitors pass Muhammad Ali’s imposing mausoleum of white marble covered with floral motifs before stepping into the spacious courtyard — 54 metres long and 53 metres wide — surrounded by arched naves raised on pillars and roofed with small domes.
In the middle of the courtyard, the ablution fountain is octagonal and covered with a large leaded, domed canopy resting on pillars with natural ornamentation.
The ornate details of the mosque make it a popular site for tourists visiting Cairo, including Jabari, who was moving around the place in total admiration.
She said she knows Turkish ar­chitecture by heart, having lived in Turkey for a long time “but this place is actually different, even if it was built to look like some of the mosques of Turkey”.