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Artistic Treasures

Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo.

By Muhammad Habib /Haj and Umra magazine/Jeddah/June 2009

The mosque and madrasa of Sultan Hassan in Cairo are one of the largest Islamic religious buildings in the world.

Egypt undoubtedly is an ancient country, full of artistic treasures. Two such are the mosque and madrasa (religious school) of Sultan Hassan and the Abu Al-Abbas Al-Mursi Mosque.

The mosque and madrasa of Sultan Hassan in Cairo are one of the largest Islamic religious buildings in the world. Built between 1356 and 1363 by the Mamluk ruler Sultan Hassan, the scale of the mosque is so colossal that it nearly emptied the treasury according to the Sacred Destinations website.

The structure measures 150 metres in length and covers an area of 7,906 sq m. Its walls rise to 36 m and its tallest minaret to 68 m.

Visitors enter the complex through a tall portal that is itself a work of art. A dark and relatively low-ceilinged passageway leads to the brightly lit sahn, a standard cruciform-plan open courtyard.

The courtyard centres on a domed ablutions fountain, which was probably an Ottoman addition. Soaring on four sides of the courtyard are vaulted liwans (sitting rooms), accented by hanging lamp chains and red-and-black rims.

Each liwan is devoted to one of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence. Skillfully fitted between and behind each liwan is a madrasa, complete with its own courtyard and four stories of cells for students and teachers.

One of the liwans also has the mihrab (niche) and mimbar (pulpit). It is distinguished from its roughly-plastered counterparts by soft-hued marble inlay and a band of Kufic script.

To the right of the mimbar in this room is a bronze door, exquisitely decorated with radiating stars in gold and silver.

Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is a huge city of more than 12 million people spread in all directions.

The city didn't begin with the pharaohs; they quartered themselves in nearby Memphis and Heliopolis.

What makes Cairo unique is that each new ruler, rather than destroying what he found, simply built a new city next to the old one. Thus one can follow the progression of history by walking through the various districts of Cairo. Each district retains a distinct identity, not only in its buildings, but also among its residents and their way of life.

The Abu Al-Abbas Al-Mursi Mosque is the most historic and most beautiful mosque in Alexandria. Built in 1775, it is named after Abu Al-Abbas Al-Mursi, a Spanish scholar, who was born to a wealthy business family in the Andalusia region of Spain in 1219. He was well educated, and was also known for his honesty and for his help to the needy.

He and his family left Spain for Tunisia in 1242. He later went on to Alexandria, a popular destination of many Muslim scholars at the time.

Abu Al-Abbas lived in Alexandria for 43 years as a scholar and teacher until his death in 1286.

The mosque was periodically restored over the centuries by rulers. Most of the present structure dates from 1775, when the Algerian Sheikh Abu El Hassan El Maghreby built a much larger mosque on the site. It was fully renovated in 1863.

People study inside Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo

The mosque was again beautified in 1943 when the Midan El Masajed, or Mosque Square, was built. It covers an area measuring some 43,200 square metres and includes five other mosques centered around the Abu Al-Abbas Al-Mursi Mosque.

The walls of the cream-coloured mosque stand 23 metres high and are dressed in artificial stone, while the minaret (tower), situated on the southern side, rises to 73 metres. It has an Ayoubid design, with four sections. The first section is about 15 metres high and square in shape. The second one is four metres high with eight sides. The third level is about 15 metres high with 16 sides, while the uppermost level is 3.25 metres high with a circular shape. The top of the minaret is covered with brass and has a crescent moon finale.

The mosque has two main entrances - on the north and the east. The stairs of the entrances are made of Egyptian granite.

The main part of the mosque, internally, is an octagon, with sides measuring 22 metres. The internal walls are also dressed in artificial stone. The entire space of the mosque covers an area measuring 3,000 square metres. The ceiling, supported by sixteen columns, is made of Italian granite, which in turn support arches, and soars 17.20m overhead. The ceilings are decorated with arabesque.

The columns are solid, or monolithic, including their capital and base. They are octagonal in shape, measuring 0.85 metres in diametre and 8.60 metres in height. In the centre of the ceiling is an elevated skylight with eight sides known as a Shokhsheikha that is 24 metres above floor level and 51 metres sideways.

President Obama visits Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo 2009

Each side of the skylight actually has three windows of coloured glass in arabesque designs, set into aluminum frames. This skylight is surrounded by four domes, which have an inner and outer layer. The inner one forming the ceiling stands 22 metres high, and are five metres in diametre. The upper domes measure 7.5 metres in diametre and stand 11 metres above the lower domes. Thefloorsarepavedinwhitemarble.

The doors, mimbar and windows are made of joined and finely carved teak, citronia and walnut. The mimbar is 6.35 metres high, capped by a dome, and has Qur'an verses written at the top in French gold. The mihrab of the mosque stands at the base of the mosque's minaret. It is flanked by two columns of Egyptian granite measuring three metres in height. At the end of each column, the name of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) is written in the Ku-fic style of Arabic calligraphy. The kalima "There is no god except Allah and Mohammad is His prophet," is written twice, also flanking the mihrab.

The mosque has a special worship area for women with a private entrance. The mayda, an ablution area, with lavatories, is on the western side of the mosque with its own entrance overlooking the square.

Founded by Alexander in 331 BC, Alexandria became the capital of Greco-Roman Egypt.

Since the 19th century Alexandria has played a new role, as a focus for Egypt's commercial and maritime expansion. Lawrence Durrell described it as "The capital city of Asiatic Europe, if such a thing could exist."

Alexandria, the Pearl of the Mediterranean, the charming city, presents to every visitor the fragrance of the past rich in history, civilization and culture. It is the city that has attracted the greatest men of letters in the world.


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