The Forgotten Crown of Cairo: The Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun
By Ahmad Amirali
Cairo (al-Muizziya al-Qahira) one of the oldest cities, founded by the Ismaili Fatimid general Jawhar al-Siqilli making it as the new capital of Fatimid dynasty in the 10th century. The worlds 3rd largest and oldest university and learning centre, The Al-Azhar Mosque University was also founded in Cairo by the Fatimid Caliph Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah. Blessed with the thousand beautiful mosques, Cairo is the home of the famous ‘Al-Hussein Mosque’ which was built over the remains of the martyred Shia Imam. However, the architecture piece in which I am going to talk about in this article is situated in the most remote and impoverished area of the Cairo city. The 9th-century mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun, one of the oldest undamaged mosques in Egypt that combines a monumental scale with style and sophistication.
This mosque erected by the Tulunid dynasty that lasted only 37 years. Today, this dynasty is mainly remembered because of this architectural piece left behind. According to the 14th-century historian al-Maqrizi’s Khitat al-Qahira, the mosque was commission by Ahmad ibn Tulun, the Turkic Abbassid governor of Egypt in 9th Century. Its most distinguishing feature, though, is its minaret, twisting from a rectangular base. According to Tarek Swelim (2015), the current steeple is a later recreation of the earlier one probably under the direction of North African artisans, given its Andalusian horseshoe arches. At the pinnacle of Ibn Tulun migrates now stands a regulation crescent, but the original was crown with a copper boat-shaped finial.
Sadly, the decoration lost after 1869. However, its detailed illustrations can be seen in the works of Prisse d’Avennes. These are the imitated remains at the top of the dome of Imam Shafi’i founder of one of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence in the City of the Dead.
At the centre of the Ibn Tulun Mosque’s courtyard is the superb Mamluk-era fountain, with red and white bands around its base supporting a stepped dome. Running around the top of the inner walls are wood-carved verses from the Qur’an, incomplete and now hardly readable. In some ways, the mosque, with its crumbling walls and bird droppings flashing down from the windows, is an abandoned place. But at such moments, the pseudoscience of the architect’s geometric genius brings it brilliantly to life.