Mihrab of the Madrasa al-Halawiyya
To the west of the Great Mosque, Aleppo, Syria
Madrasa, Hegira 543 / AD 1149; mihrab, AH 643 / AD 1245
Abu al-Husayn bin Muhammad al-Harrani (signifying that he is from Harran in northern Mesopotamia). ‘Abd Allah bin Ahmad al-Najjar (signifying that he is a carpenter). Neither of these craftsmen is known.
Zangid/Atabeg and Ayyubid
Nur al-Din Mahmud bin Zangi (d. AH 569 / AD 1174), al-Nasir Yusuf (d. AH 659 / AD 1261). The mihrab was sponsored by the vizier of al-Nasir Yusuf, Kamal al-Din Ibn al-'Adim (d. AH 660 / AD 1262), who was also a historian of Aleppo and a teacher at this madrasa. Execution of the mihrab was supervised by the local governor, ‘Umar bin Ahmad.
The mihrab is a beautiful specimen of Allepine woodcarving. The building to which the mihrab belongs has an important history, as the Madrasa al-Halawiyya was originally Aleppo's great Byzantine Cathedral of St Helena, dating back to the reign of Constantine. During a particularly vicious Crusader siege on the city, the Sunni inhabitants led by the judge Ibn al-Khashshab, reacted by converting four churches into mosques early in the AH 6th / AD 12th century. The addition of a mihrab into a south-facing wall, indicating the direction of prayer, was usually the chosen method of converting a building.
When Nur al-Din Mahmud bin Zangi assumed power over Aleppo, he continued what Ibn Khashshab had begun and transformed the mosque into an important theological college called the Madrasa al-Halawiyya in AH 543 / AD 1149. The inscriptions on the building reveal Nur al-Din's proclivity towards piety, justice and jihad, befitting a period of extensive Crusader warfare.
The mihrab of the Madrasa al-Halawiyya can be found on the southern wall of a small room located next to the madrasa's northern prayer hall. The mihrab, dated to the Ayyubid reign of al-Nasir Yusuf, also has a significant history, as it was commissioned by the famous historian, jurist, poet and calligrapher of Aleppo, Kamal al-Din ibn al-'Adim. It is a masterpiece of Arabic woodwork and calligraphy. The elaborate mihrab is rectangular with a curved central niche. It is approximately 4.5 m high and 3.5 m wide, made of Aleppine pine. The decorative motifs, skilfully carved in interlacing lines, result in a textured surface completely covered with geometric and astral fields that are surrounded by calligraphic and floral banners.
The top of the mihrab's niche is flanked by a pair of raised and carved near-triangular designs containing multi-pointed stars and framed by an Atabeg naskhi calligraphic stream that quotes sura 24 from the Qur'an entitled “the Light". Inside the niche are further Qur'anic inscriptions from sura 56, “the Event”, entitled and executed in Atabeg kufic calligraphy.
The entire mihrab is framed by a 12 cm-wide border inscribed with the extensive titlature of the ruler, al-Nasir Yusuf, which is reminiscent of Nur al-Din's religious and war-oriented style. The inscription, which also mentions the sponsorship of Ibn al-Adim and the supervision of governor ‘Umar bin Ahmad, dates the mihrab's construction to AH 643 / AD 1245. Thus it is a later Ayyubid addition that follows in the spirit of Nur al-Din's architectural patronage of the madrasa almost a century before. Alternatively, it is possible that the mihrab dates originally to the period of Nur al-Din and was piously restored under al-Nasir Yusuf, with the addition of a new frame carrying 13th-century inscriptions.
A similar mihrab is known to have been located in the Mosque of Nur al-Din inside the Aleppo Citadel, but this was destroyed or removed during the French Mandate.
The Madrasa al-Halawiyya in Aleppo was originally a Byzantine cathedral that was eventually transformed into a mosque. During the reign of Nur al-Din, it was renovated as a madrasa to help unify the Sunni community in the face of Crusader invasions. The mihrab, a decorated wooden niche that indicates the direction of prayer in Islam, is a masterpiece of Syrian woodwork. Beautifully carved with astral motifs and Qur'anic inscriptions, it was most probably donated by the famous historian of Aleppo, Kamal al-Din Ibn al-'Adim during the Ayyubid period.
The date of the mihrab's construction is either 643 (1245), as per the inscription on the frame, or it was simply restored in the latter date and originally constructed around 543 / 1149, as per the inscription on the madrasa's portal.
Ettinghausen, R., Grabar, O., and Jenkins-Madina, M., Islamic Art and Architecture 650–1250, New Haven, 2001, pp.231–2; fig. 376.
Herzfeld, E., “Matériaux pour un Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum: Syrie du Nord”, Part 2: Inscriptions et monuments d'Alep, Vol. 2, Cairo, 1954–6, p.217–18.
Al-Asadi, Khair al-Din, Ahya' Halab wa Aswaquha [The Neighbourhoods of Aleppo and its Suqs], Damascus, 1984, pp.179–81.
Al-Ghazzi, K., Nahr al-Dhahab fi Tarikh Halab [The River of Gold in the History of Aleppo], Aleppo, 1923–6, p.216.
Talas, Muhammad As'ad, Al-Athar al-Islamiyya wa al-Tarikhiyya fi Halab [Islamic and Historic Monuments in Aleppo], Damascus, 1957, pp.63–4.
Zena Takieddine, Samer Abd al-Ghafour "Mihrab of the Madrasa al-Halawiyya" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2019. 2019. http://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;sy;Mon01;5;en
Prepared by: Zena TakieddineZena Takieddine
Zena Takieddine is a researcher of Arab history and Islamic art. She received her BA in history (with distinction) from the American University of Beirut, and her MA in art and archaeology (with distinction) from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She has a diploma in art and antique connoisseurship from Sotheby's, London. Her fields of interest include pre-Islamic Arabian epigraphy and the development of the Arabic script, early Islamic art and architecture, Arab miniature painting, the study of intercultural influences between Islamic civilisation and the Christian West during the medieval period, and post-colonial methodology in the study of history and identity., Samer Abd al-Ghafour
Copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: SY 06
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