Despite the fact that Alexandria was the largest and most important city in Egypt at the time of the Muslim conquest, it never developed into one of Islam’s greatest metropoli. In fact, the surprisingly neglected port city fell into a steep decline after being absorbed into the caliphate, and its surprising lack of major mosques reflects this. The city’s greatest mosque, the Masjid Mursi Abu El-Abbas, was not even built until the 14th century. However, it is one of country’s most beloved and possibly its most beautiful mosques, as it is the site of the tomb of Abu El-Abbas El-Mursi, the greatest Sufi mystic to ever reside in Egypt. The Masjid Mursi Abu El-Abbas is without doubt the most popular mosque in Egypt outside of Cairo, and a must-see for Muslims visiting the city.
The city of Alexandria was one of the great cities of antiquity. Founded by its namesake Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, it became the largest and most important commercial and cultural center in the Eastern Mediterranean region during the Roman period. It was also one of the great centers of Christianity, being home to the Coptic Orthodox patriarchate. The city was conquered by the Islamic caliphate in 641 AD. However, instead of making Alexandria the regional capital of Egypt, the caliphate established a new capital city at Fustat. This may have been due, at least in part, to the immense Christian population of Alexandria and the daunting task of converting the populace to Islam.
After the Muslim conquest, Alexandria fell into a decline from which it never truly recovered. Although it continued to serve as Egypt’s major port, its political and religious importance waned considerably. Many of its great ancient buildings crumbled to dust, often not to be rebuilt until many centuries later. The Great Lighthouse collapsed in an earthquake in the 14th century. Few large mosques or churches were constructed in the city for seven hundred years after Alexandria was absorbed into the caliphate.
Alexandria largely remained a religious backwater until the 13th century, when large number of Muslim refugees and immigrants began arriving from Spain. Spain, which had been one of the great intellectual centers of Islam in the Middle Ages, was slowly being reabsorbed into Christian Europe by the Reconquista. The collapse of the caliphate in Andalusia sent a flood of intellectuals and skilled workers into North Africa, including Alexandria. Among these was Abu El-Abbas El-Mursi, who arrived in 1243 AD.
Although when Abu El-Abbas El-Mursi arrived in Alexandria he was still a young scholar, he soon became renowned both as a Sufi mystic and an intellectual. He and others like him were responsible for the academic and religious renaissance that swept Alexandria in the 13th and 14th centuries. By the time of his death in 1286, he was considered by many to be the greatest Muslim intellectual to have ever lived in Egypt. In 1307 a shrine was constructed over his tomb, becoming Alexandria’s greatest Muslim pilgrimage site. It would be replaced in the 18th century by the Masjid Mursi Abu El-Abbas, one of the most beautiful mosques ever built in Egypt.
The Masjid Mursi Abu El-Abbas is without peer the largest and most magnificent mosque in Alexandria. Almost completely reconstructed in 1775, virtually the entire modern structure dates from the late 18th century and several major restorations in the 19th century. The current mosque is stunning, and despite the numerous reconstructions, renovations and redesigns, surprisingly uniform in style. The white marble façade of the Masjid Mursi Abu El-Abbas is famous for its intricate masonry. It’s best known feature are the highly unusually shaped domes which form a great cluster on the roof.
The interior of the Masjid Mursi Abu El-Abbas is also beautiful, if less so than the exterior. The skylights give the place a more light and airy feel than is available in older mosques. The centerpiece of the prayer hall is the beautifully restored Mausoleum of Abu El-Abbas El-Mursi under the main dome. There are also a trio of lesser mausoleums in the mosque, including those of Gaqmas El Zahry and Abu Al Abbas El Khurzemy, local leaders who contributed greatly to the mosque’s early construction.
The Masjid Mursi Abu El-Abbas absolutely dominates the El-Anfoushi district of Alexandria, about a mile northwest of the Old City and just south of Fort Qaitbay where the ancient Lighthouse once stood. It is open to both Muslims and non-Muslims daily from 9:00am-5:00pm. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.egypt.travel (official tourism website of Egypt)
Despite being an Islamic city for over thirteen centuries, Alexandria has maintained much of its pre-Islamic diverse culture. This is reflected in its lack of major mosques, and though there are many in the city, none can be compared with the vast array of Muslim holy sites in Cairo. Besides the Masjid Morsi Abu El-Abbas, the most prominent Islamic building in Alexandria is the 15th century Citadel of Qaitbay, which stands on the former site of the famous ancient Lighthouse.