Cairo is one of the great cities of the Muslim world and, thanks in large part to geography, one of the best preserved. It boasts some of the oldest post-Umayyad architecture in the Middle East, including one of the most intact Abbasid-era mosques, the Masjid Ibn Tulun. Ahmad ibn Tulun, a prominent Abbasid governor of Egypt in the 9th century, intended the mosque to be the centerpiece of a new provincial capital city. While little else of his efforts remains, the Masjid Ibn Tulun is still in active use, and has remained a major landmark of Islamic Cairo for the better part of eleven hundred years. The Masjid Ibn Tulun is part of the Historic Cairo UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city of Cairo began as a small Roman settlement on the east bank of the Nile River. Predominantly a military outpost guarded by the Babylon Fortress, its strategic position near the confluence of the Nile Delta made it a natural target for invading Muslim armies in the 7th century. The Babylon Fortress was conquered and occupied by the Islamic Caliphate in 641 AD, becoming the first major Muslim outpost in Africa. Shortly afterwards, Umar, the second Rashidun caliph, established the new city of Fustat just north of the Babylon fortress. Fearing the difficulty of ruling from Alexandria with its very large Christian population, Umar moved the Egyptian capital from Alexandria to Fustat.
Despite the fact that Fustat remained a relatively small city compared to Alexandria for many decades, it became the center of political and religious life of Egypt, a designation which it has retained ever since. The first mosque in Egypt, the Masjid Amr Ibn Al-As, was built just after Fustat was founded. But throughout the Umayad period, Fustat’s main raison d’etre was as a military outpost. It was not until the arrival of the Abbasids that Fustat began to grow into a major metropolis. They built yet another new capital further north, Al-Askar, but over time this would become little more than an extension of the earlier city.
During the 9th century, Egypt increasingly became one of the most powerful provinces in the caliphate, and thanks to the relocation of the Islamic capital to Baghdad, increasingly independent. In 868, Ahmad ibn Tulun became regent of Egypt. An energetic and ambitious ruler, he immediately set about breaking Egypt away from the authority of the caliphs in all but name. As part of his plans he expanded Fustat even further, intending to make it one of the empire’s grandest cities. He built a new capital, Al-Qattai, which would also be absorbed into Fustat. As its centerpiece he founded the Masjid Ibn Tulun, at the time the largest and most magnificent mosque yet built in Egypt.
The Masjid Ibn Tulun was completed in 879 AD and was Ahmad ibn Tulun’s greatest architectural legacy. It was also the only major building of his that survived beyond the 10th century. In 905, the Abbasids of Baghdad reasserted their authority in Egypt, retook Fustat and destroyed the entire Al-Qattai district except for the mosque. Thanks to their forebearance, the Masjid Ibn Tulun survives as one of the best examples of Abbasid-era architecture in the entire Middle East. Ahmad ibn Tulun was laid to rest in his namesake mosque, making it the first major mausoleum shrine in the city.
For all of its great age, the Masjid Ibn Tulun holds its own against the city’s newer and generally more grandly built mosques. Nevertheless it is the city’s largest and effectively the oldest intact mosque, with virtually the entire structure dating from the late 9th century. Over the years, numerous buildings have been constructed adjacent to the mosque, beginning with Ahmad Ibn Tulun’s original palace. Although there are some traces of these buildings, very little remains. A few medieval homes which probably belonged to wealthy patrons of the mosque have been left intact for historical reasons.
The mosque itself is very large, nearly a perfect square, with most of the space taken up by an expansive courtyard, compared to which the prayer hall is relatively small. The centerpiece of the mosque is a beautiful old domed fountain which was added in the 13th century. The unusual minaret with the exterior spiral staircase was probably also added at a later date as well. The entire structure was renovated in 2004.
The Masjid Ibn Tulun, which once stood on the northern outskirts of Fustat, is now solidly within the heart of Cairo, in the district known as Islamic Cairo, about a quarter of a mile west of the Citadel. Both Muslims and non-Muslims may enter, though the latter may face some restrictions, especially on Fridays and during Muslim holidays. The mosque is open daily from 8:00am-5:00pm (open later hours in the summer). The cost of admission is EL6.00. Web: www.egypt.travel (official tourism website of Egypt)
The number of other sites of Islamic interest in Cairo is staggering. There are dozens of major mosques and hundreds lesser mosques, madrassas, shrines and the like scattered all over the city, especially in the district known as Islamic Cairo. In addition to the Masjid Ibn Tulun, the highlights of Islamic Cairo alone include the Citadel and the Masjid Muhammad Ali, the Madrassa Al-Azhar, and the Masjid Sayyidna Al-Hussayn. Other important mosques include the Masjid Amr Ibn Al-As, the oldest mosque in the city, the Masjid Al-Muayya, the Masjid Rifai, the Masjid Qijmas El-Ishaqi, the Masjid Qaytbay, the Madrassa Sultan Hassan, and the Blue Mosque. The Tomb of Shagarat Ad-Dur houses the body of one of the few ruling queens in Islamic history.