Complex of Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun (Mausoleum, Madrasa and Hospital)
The complex is located on al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street (Bayn al-Qasrayn) in an area that was formerly part of the Western Fatimid Palace, Cairo, Egypt
Hegira 684 / AD 1285
Amir Alam al-Din al-Shuja'i, who was an expert in architecture and engineering, supervised construction. He mobilised the workforce and forbade them to work in any other place in order to accelerate completion of the building.
Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun (r. AH 678–89 / AD 1280–90).
The complex of Sultan Qalawun is considered to mark the beginning of a phase that pointed to a new architectural design known as a 'complex' that typically included more than one architectural component, and which served a number of functions. This complex is composed of a mausoleum, a madrasa and a hospital (maristan).
The principle façade of this complex overlooks the street and extends 67 m in length, towering to 20 m in height. It is made of stone and comprises vertical arched recesses borne by marble pillars within which are windows decorated with interlaced geometric shapes. The façade also carries an inscription band carved into the stone, in thuluth script, which includes the name of the builder, his titles and the date of construction.
The floor plan of the mausoleum is a square, the sides of which measure 35 m, approximately, in the midst of which are four great granite pillars with gilded capitals, and four brick piers panelled in fine marble and inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The piers and pillars bear arches whose soffits are ornamented with stucco decoration. The piers, pillars and their arches demarcate an octagonal surface in the middle of which is the tomb of al-Mansur Qalawun and his son, al-Nasir Muhammad (who ruled three times: AH 693–4 / AD 1294–5; AH 698–708 / AD 1299–1309; AH 709–41 / AD 1309–40). The octagonal area is roofed by a great dome with an octagonal drum. This area and its dome, is to an extent reminiscent of the Dome of the Rock at the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem (built AH 72 / AD 692). The walls of the mausoleum are characterised by marble revetment inlaid with delicate mother-of-pearl considered to be some of the finest decorative marble seen in Islamic architecture in Egypt. The mausoleum has a mihrab, which is decorated with marble and mother-of-pearl and considered to be one of the largest, as well as most splendid, mihrabs amongst Islamic monuments in Egypt.
The madrasa consisted of a central open courtyard surrounded by four iwans: the two large iwans are the qibla iwan (southeastern) and the iwan facing it. The two small iwans are on each of the sides. Nothing remains of the madrasa except the qibla iwan, distinguished by its unique façade. The qibla iwan overlooks the courtyard by means of three arches, the biggest of which is in the middle. In the madrasa the four Sunni schools of Islamic religious jurisprudence (fiqh), as well as medicine were taught; practical medicine was taught at the maristan.
The maristan was one of the reasons that the complex was built, since it is mentioned that while Qalawun was in the Sham region (Bilad al-Sham was the traditional Arab name for the region that today contains Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine), he became ill with what could have been fatal sickness. The doctors treated him with medicines brought from the Nur al-Din Mahmud Maristan in Damascus, which cured him. When he was recovered Qalawun visited the hospital and was greatly impressed with it. He made a vow to God that he would build a similar hospital in Cairo. Qalawun chose to build the maristan on the site of the hall that belonged orginally to Sitt al-Mulk, a daughter of the Fatimid Caliph, al-Aziz bi Allah, but which later became a possession of Mu'anisa Khatun, a daughter of al-Malik al-‘Adil al-Ayyubi. The hall was situated at the end of the complex and consisted of four iwans.
When it was operational the maristan provided doctors of all specialisations, nurses and the necessary furnishings, instruments and medicines. Little remains of the hospital today but for a few ruined parts, such as a section of the eastern iwan consisting of a marble fountain and a shadirwan (wall fountain), which once had fine marble decoration that resembled that in al-Aziz Palace (Zisa) in Palermo, Sicily, the construction of which was completed between AH 561 and 570 / AD 1166 and 1175.
The complex contains a minaret that was restored in AH 703 / AD 1303 by Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun, following an earthquake in AH 702 / AD 1302. The minaret bears an inscription giving the date of renovation. The minaret is composed of three stories: the first and second stories are square in form, while the third storey is circular, consisting of decoration composed of interwoven arches. Some contemporary historical sources mention a great resemblance between the decorations seen here and the ornamentation of the architecture of al-Andalus, such as that seen in the Giralda, 'the Tower' (originally a minaret but greatly altered; built in AH 578 / AD 1184) in Seville, Spain.
This is considered to be the first example of a Mamluk architectural complex including a number of different buildings. The complex comprises a mausoleum, a madrasa, a mosque and a maristan (hospital). It was erected on the site of part of the Fatimid Eastern Palace. The madrasa taught the four Sunni schools of fiqh (jurisprudence) and medicine; practical medicine was taught in the maristan. The maristan was established on the model of Bimaristan Nur al-Din in Damascus, where Qalawun was treated and cured before his rise to power.
This building was dated based on an inscription band along the length of the façade, which includes the name of the sponsor and the date of construction. It is also based on a foundational text that is carved on the lintel of the principle entrance to the building, which bears the name of the builder and the date when building commenced (AH 683 / AD 1284) and the date of its completion (AH 684 / AD 1285).
Creswell, K. A. C., The Origins of the Cruciform Plan of the Cairene Madrasas, Cairo, 1922.
Herzfeld, E., “Studies in Architecture”, Ars Islamica, 1942.
Al-Pasha, H., Mawsu'at al-'Emara wa al-Athar wa al-Funun al-Islamiya [Encyclopaedia of the Architecture, Archaeology and the Arts of Islam], Cairo, 1999.
Salem, al-Sayyed Mahmoud Abd al-Aziz, Al-Ma'adin al-Masriya – Nazrah a'mma 'an aslaha wa tatawuriha mundu al-Fath al-'Arabi hatta al-Fath al-Othmani [Egyptian Minarets: A General View of their Origins and Development from the Arab Conquest to the Ottoman Conquest], Cairo, 1991.
Shafi, F., Al-'Emara al-Arabiya fi Masr al-Islamiya [Arabic Architecture in Islamic Egypt], Cairo, 1853.
Tarek Torky "Complex of Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun (Mausoleum, Madrasa and Hospital)" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2022. 2022. https://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;eg;Mon01;15;en
Prepared by: Tarek TorkyTarek Torky
Tarek Abdel Aziz Torky holds a BA in Islamic and Coptic Antiquities from Cairo University (1982). He is currently Head of the Statistics Department at the Information Centre of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and reporter of the committee set up to prepare for the celebrations of the centennial of the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. As Expo Curator for the Discover Islamic Art project in Egypt he prepared the database information for the Egyptian monuments included in the project and participated in formulating the dynastic and cross-dynastic exhibitions. He has participated in the first phase of the Islamic Art in the Mediterranean project as product manager and prepared the texts and photos for the catalogue Mamluk Art: the Splendour and Magic of the Sultans (MWNF, 2001). In 2002 he obtained a scholarship for Med. Master on new technologies for valorisation and management of Mediterranean Cultural Heritage in Ravello, Salerno.
Copyedited by: Majd Musa
Translation by: Amal Sachedina (from the Arabic).
Translation copyedited by: Mandi GomezMandi Gomez
Amanda Gomez is a freelance copy-editor and proofreader working in London. She studied Art History and Literature at Essex University (1986–89) and received her MA (Area Studies Africa: Art, Literature, African Thought) from SOAS in 1990. She worked as an editorial assistant for the independent publisher Bellew Publishing (1991–94) and studied at Bookhouse and the London College of Printing on day release. She was publications officer at the Museum of London until 2000 and then took a role at Art Books International, where she worked on projects for independent publishers and arts institutions that included MWNF’s English-language editions of the books series Islamic Art in the Mediterranean. She was part of the editorial team for further MWNF iterations: Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean Virtual Museum and the illustrated volume Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean.
True to its ethos of connecting people through the arts, MWNF has provided Amanda with valuable opportunities for discovery and learning, increased her editorial experience, and connected her with publishers and institutions all over the world. More recently, the projects she has worked on include MWNF’s Sharing History Virtual Museum and Exhibition series, Vitra Design Museum’s Victor Papanek and Objects of Desire, and Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s online publication 2 or 3 Tigers and its volume Race, Nation, Class.
MWNF Working Number: ET 15
Islamic Dynasties / Period
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