Mohamed Ali’s Mosque is the most famous feature of Cairo’s Citadel, often mistaken for the Citadel itself. Few people notice the two other mosques right around the corner, that predate it by centuries.
After the Pyramids, Cairo’s Citadel ranks high on the shortlist of historic monuments visited by tourists and locals alike. It is difficult to miss, and its most prominent part is the Mohamed Ali Mosque that has become a symbol of Islamic Cairo. This may not seem unusual; it is, after all, visible from a long way off, which is more than one can say for most of the city’s important mosques. In many ways, it is strange for a poor imitation of a Turkish building constructed in the nineteenth century, to represent over ten centuries of Islamic civilization in Egypt. More so, considering that its founder, Mohamed Ali Pasha, was all too keen to break away from Ottoman rule and make Egypt independent. But if constructing a building in the Turkish style may be a false symbol of Mohamed Ali’s political aspirations, the fact that it was built on the ruins of the old Mamluk Ablaq Palace is telling. Mohamed Ali’s famous massacre of the rebellious Mamluk beys in 1811 cleared the way for his ambitious plan for a virtually autonomous state under his control.
Despite the building’s architectural shortcomings, visitors will inevitably gape at the pseudo-European ceiling of the dome, admire the bronze chandelier and clock given to Egypt in 1846 by King Louis Philippe of France in exchange for the obelisk now in the Place de la Concorde, and stand in awe beneath the slender Turkish minarets, thinking that a masterpiece of Cairene Islamic architecture lies before them. A view of Cairo’s dramatic cityscape will inevitably end the tour, and two important mosques will go unnoticed.
Only a few steps away is a much older, and more typically Cairene building whose main function today is to cast a welcome shadow over the long queues of school children who would otherwise have to swelter in the sun. This solid and seemingly austere structure was built by an incredibly tenacious Mamluk sultan of the fourteenth century, al-Nasir Mohamed, who ruled three times over a period spanning thirty years—not unusual by the standards of the contemporary Middle East but an achievement in an era memorable for its political upheavals and bloody power struggles. The building tells us something about court life of the time: it is large, reflecting the status of its founder, and its plan regular—a privilege facilitated by its location in the royal enclosure at the Citadel and rarely possible in the heavily urbanized city below with its winding alleys and asymmetric plots of land. The two minarets with decorative tile work are among its most striking features—they were probably designed by an Iranian craftsman from Tabriz who built them in the style he knew best. Such cosmopolitanism was typical of Mamluk architecture—there was no harm seen in assimilating ideas from all over the world and ultimately, creating buildings that were innovative but still identifiably linked to local tradition.
Visitors will inevitably gape at the pseudo-European ceiling of the dome and admire the bronze chandelier and clock given to Egypt in 1846 by King Louis Philippe of France in exchange for the obelisk now in the Place de la Concorde.
The interior—arcades surrounding a courtyard—is spatially successful but quite simple, which, in a non-architectural world isn’t a good thing, for it fails to attract both the eye and the camera lens. Had history turned out differently, al-Nasir Mohamed’s mosque would have been a more widely appreciated venue, for its plainness owes something to the fact that the marble panelling that once lined its walls was carted off to Istanbul after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in the early sixteenth century. The ‘stolen’ marble is seen as one of many crimes committed by the Ottomans, who supposedly stripped the Mamluk city of all its riches. Perhaps, but a walk to the northern end of the Citadel can weaken such a claim.
Past several gateways and far from the tourist-beaten track, lies the small but surprisingly rich Ottoman mosque—Cairo’s first—of Suleiman Pasha, constructed only a decade after the Mamluks were overthrown in 1516. The building, in the Turkish tradition that inspired Mohamed Ali’s own mosque almost three centuries later, was in a style foreign to Egypt at the time. Its strength as a political statement should be measured not by its modest dimensions, but by the remarkable height of its Ottoman minaret – intended to tower over the city as a reminder of the new regime, perhaps explaining why the building stands just inside the Citadel wall. But while the general scheme is an Ottoman one, the asymmetry of its ground plan, something that would probably have been frowned upon in Istanbul, is typically Cairene.
What the building lacks in size, it makes up for in ornamentation—almost every interior surface is decorated. Painted Turkish flowers and complex geometric designs compete on the dome. Below, quite ironically, Mamluk-style marble work almost identical to that removed from the walls of al-Nasir Mohamed’s mosque, is to be found in excellent condition. Apparently, while the Ottoman court took its spoils back home, in terms of architecture at least, it replenished the city with a wealth of ideas that were to become the symbols of a new era.
Beyond decoration, and unlike its renowned and widely visited neighbour, Suleiman Pasha’s mosque has much to offer the discerning architectural eye. But the trek is long and usually hot. Besides, only half a busload of visitors can fit beneath its impressive dome, and in the world of postcard sellers and trinket vendors, that makes all the difference.
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Seif El Rashidi is an art historian currently based in London. He specialises in the management of heritage projects involving community engagement, and is currently working for the Institute of Historical Research and the Guildhall Library. He is also co-writing a book about the tents and tentmakers of Cairo. Much of his research and writing is about the Islamic world and its visual heritage.