By Caroline Williams
Photography by Romani Hafez

Sharia al-Mu`izz li-Din Allah, or the Qasaba, is the great artery of Fatimid Cairo. Its importance as a ceremonial way lasted for almost nine hundred years, and the variety of monuments, such as Al-Salih Ayyub’s Madrasa-Mausoleum, still clustered along its length show that it was a favourite building site for those who held power.

The corner of the intricately carved wooden cenotaph.

The remains of the madrasa-mausoleum of al-Salih Nagm al-Din Ayyub can be found on Sharia al-Mu`izz, at the western edge of the Khan al-Khalili. Its medieval façade may be hidden by modern stalls, but a single minaret stands above them, like a raised arm in a crowded room, signalling its location to those seeking its ruins.

Except for the façade and the minaret, most of the madrasa has been destroyed over the many years since its construction. Still, the building remains an important historical monument because it represents a transition, both politically and architecturally, from Fatimid monuments to Mameluke complexes.

The structure also has a vivid story to tell.

Al-Salih Ayyub, son of al-Malik al-Kamil, was the last of Salah al-Din’s dynasty to rule Egypt. He was the husband of the famous Shajar al-Durr (‘Tree of Pearls’), of whom is said that no woman rivalled in beauty and no man in determination. She entered al-Salih’s household as an Armenian concubine and after the birth of their son Khalil she became his wife. Theirs was reportedly a close and stable union, with the sultan remarking, ‘my heart was happy in her company’, but it would not last to old age. During the Seventh Crusade, the French invaded Egypt, with al-Salih dying at the Delta city of Mansoura in 1249 while fighting the French King Louis IX. For Shajar al-Durr, however, al-Salih’s death was not the end of the story.

Only the façade and the minaret survive from the original construction.

In a small boat, and with great secrecy, she sailed up the Nile to a castle on the island of Rauda, where she hid al-Salih’s body. She then concealed the sultan’s death for three months to permit his son and successor, Turanshah, to return from ruling Hisn Kayfa in Mesopotamia and inherit the throne. However, al-Salih’s loyal Mamelukes, who had just defeated the crusaders at the battle of Mansoura, refused to accept Turanshah, an arrogant young man, and murdered him with Shajar al-Durr’s help; they then proclaimed her sultana in 1250. Women had exercised power as royal spouses and regents before her, but to be recognized as a ruler in her own right was without precedent in Arab lands. However, the Ayyubid princes in Syria were not pleased, objecting to her reign, and the caliph in Baghdad is alleged to have sent a scornful offer to the Mamelukes in Cairo, ‘If you have no men to rule you, I will send you one’. Shajar al-Durr ruled for only eighty days before marrying and sharing power with Aybak, the leader of the Mamelukes. ‘Tree of Pearls’ was thus one of the rare female rulers of the Middle East and as such she is unique in Islamic Egypt.

General view of the interior.

Shajar al-Durr’s story, however, ended badly. In 1257, Aybak, having dealt with external and internal opposition, sought to challenge his wife’s position by contracting a marriage with a Zangid princess, but when Shajar al-Durr heard that Aybak was considering another marriage she had him murdered. The slave women of Aybak’s first wife avenged him by beating Shajar al-Durr to death with wooden bath clogs, before casting her body from a tower of the citadel and leaving it to the dogs. After an interval, her remains were retrieved and buried in the tomb she had constructed for herself in the Southern Cemetery near the tombs of the Fatimid saints.

Al-Salih Ayyub built his madrasa in 1242, on the southern edge of the great eastern Fatimid palace after having part of it demolished. His theological institution was the first to teach all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, but today so little remains architecturally that one has to imagine what was there. When visiting, first walk in under the minaret along Harat al-Salihiya. Originally, the madrasa consisted of two blocks of buildings, each containing two arched iwans: one on the north side (where one iwan remains) and one on the south side of the alley (now the site of Khan al-Khalili bazaar stalls).

The minaret of al-Salih Ayyub’s madrasa-mausoleum, a rare survivor of the Ayyubid period.

The minaret is a rare survivor from the Ayyubid period. It is composed of three storeyss: a square base, an octagonal turret and a fluted keel-shaped cap, similar to a mabkhara or incense burner. The minaret’s decoration of blind-keel and open S-curving arches derives from the Fatimid period, while the stalactite collar below the ribbed finial is an innovation of the period. The minaret stands above a richly decorated doorway.

This decoration and that on the façade to the right and the left – keel-arch panels with ribs and cusps, panels of stalactites, and niches with shell-motif hoods – all stem from prototypes originating in the late Fatimid period, which began with the Mosque of al-Aqmar just up the street.

Shajar al-Durr buried al-Salih in a tomb she built and attached to the north end of his madrasa in 1250. This mausoleum contains an early example of a dome supported by a stalactite squinch system, which became characteristic of later Mameluke architecture. A fine wooden cenotaph marks the tomb. The chamber and mihrab were once enriched with slim marble panels, a new decorative style brought to Egypt from Syria by the Ayyubids. Today, the tomb contains a small museum in which a series of photographs detail the 1998 restoration process.

The madrasa-mausoleum is an important monument along Sharia al-Mu`izz, the street once known as the processional way of the Shi`i Fatimids.  It was the first time a secular ruler’s tomb had been given such prominence, and as such it set a precedent followed by the Mamelukes, the next political dynasty.

The building thus represents a transition, both architecturally and politically, between the Fatimid and the Mameluke periods. Fatimid ornamentation was continued and the Fatimid ceremonial-residential area was given a new purpose. By ignoring the qarafa – the old cemetery area – and by burying her husband on this important ceremonial way, Shajar al-Durr was making a new political declaration, and establishing a new memorial centre. With the addition of the mausoleum to the madrasa, al-Salih Ayyub’s monument initiated the idea of a multi-use space and marked the introduction of what was to become a basic Mameluke mausoleum formula: a tomb adjoining a theological school and/or a Sufi residence.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 2, 2011