Mosque of al-Azhar
Al-Azhar Street in Al-Azhar district, Cairo, Egypt
Hegira 359–61 / AD 970–72
General Jawhar al-Saqalli who conquered Egypt in AH 358 / AD 969 supervised the construction.
The Fatimid Caliph al-Muizz li Din Allah (r. in Egypt AH 358–65 / AD 969–75).
The Mosque of al-Azhar, was the first to be built in the Fatimid city of Cairo, and is the oldest and biggest Islamic university in the Islamic world, attracting students from a multiplicity of nations. The present standing structure does not date back in its entirety to the original Fatimid mosque, the rectangular surface area of which occupied only 70 m x 85 m. Today the building occupies over double that area, the dimensions reaching to 120 m x 130 m, owing to the various additions made at different periods. The ground-plan of the mosque at the time it was built was an open courtyard surrounded by three porticoes, the largest of which is the eastern portico (that of the qibla), which is composed of five arcades. The arcade that overlooks the courtyard is supported by piers, while the remaining arcades are supported on marble columns. The southern and northern porticoes are composed of three arcades. The western side of the courtyard was not originally colonnaded. In the middle of the western wall was the main portal, which used to be crowned by a minaret. In the past there were two other entrances on the north and south walls of the mosque. The present entrance, on the western façade, was built by Amir Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda in the year AH 1167 / AD 1753. Its creation allowed the two Mamluk madrasas: Taybarsiyya and the Aqbughawiyya to be incorporated into the mosque.
The Mosque of al-Azharis the first example of a mosque with a transept aisle in Islamic Egypt. The eastern portico of the mosque is interrupted by a transept aisle with columned arches running vertical to the qibla wall. The ceiling of the transept aisle is higher than that of the qibla portico. The curvatures of the transept arches are decorated with inscriptions in kufic script taken from the Qur'an, and the arches themselves are decorated with leafy vegetal decorative motifs. The arches of the transept aisle, in addition to those extending along the courtyard of the mosque, are all that remains of the original arches of the mosque.
The innovation of the transept aisle in mosque architecture had been seen before in the Umayyad Great Mosque in Damascus (built AH 96 / AD 714) as well as the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia (built AH 155 / AD 772, and renovated in AH 221 / AD 836).
The original Fatimid mihrab in the Mosque of al-Azhar is crowned by a Mamluk dome which dates back to the AH 9th century / AD 15th century; it replaced the original Fatimid dome. There were once two domes in the two corners of the qibla area but they no longer exist. Similar examples of the two-dome style can be seen in the Great Mosque of Kairouan and in the Great Mosque of Susa in Tunisia.
The Fatimid Caliph al-Hafiz li Din Allah (r. AH 524–44 / AD 1130–49) added a single arcade around all four sides of the courtyard of the mosque. This addition was influenced by Maghrebi (North African) mosque design, where they are known as side wings. Similar examples can be seen in the Great Mosque of Kairouan, the Great Mosque of Susa and in the Mosque of Zaytuna in Tunisia.
Various modifications and additions have been made to the mosque throughout its long history: Al-Hafiz li Din Allah undertook the construction of a dome over the entrance of the transept. It is considered the oldest inscribed dome in Egypt and some of its carvings and kufic inscriptions are still preserved. In AH 1167 / AD 1753, Amir Abd al Rahman Katkhuda added a large area enclosed by four arcades behind the qibla area of the mosque. The minarets belonging to this mosque do not date to the Fatimid period; the present minarets are attributed to Sultan Qaytbay in AH 873 / AD 1468; Sultan al-Ghuri in AH 915 / AD 1510 and Amir Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda in AH 1167 / AD 1753.
The Mosque of al-Azhar was built to be the congregational mosque of Fatimid Cairo, specifically designated for the Shi'a congregation – the movement aligned to the Fatimid state – avoiding a clash with those people in Egypt who were Sunni. Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (r. AH 564–89 / AD 1169–93) eliminated the khutba (sermon) in the Mosque of al-Azhar in AH 567 / AD 1171 but later Sultan al-Zahir Baybars (r. AH 658–76 / AD 1260–77) resumed the khutba in the mosque, which flourished in the Mamluk period and became the equivalent of the Great Islamic University. The Azhar Mosque was at the centre of the opposition movement against the French in the latter half of the AH 12th / AD 18th century and today it is a university of religion and modern sciences that has become the destination of students from all over the Islamic world.
The first mosque to be built in Fatimid Cairo and the oldest religious university, it was designated initially to teach Shi'ite jurisprudence (later Sunni). Salaries were paid by the Caliph to its 35 faqihs (jurisconsults) who resided in the vicinity of the mosque. Throughout the ages students from Islamic countries circled around their instructors in the four Sunni schools around its open courtyard.
Dating of the monument is based on evidence of a text inscribed within the drum of the dome to the right of the minbar and the mihrab, which includes the names of the builder and the supervisor of construction, as well as the date of the construction of the dome: 360 (971).
Behrens-Abouseif, D., Islamic Architecture in Cairo: An Introduction, Cairo, 1998.
Berchem, M., van, Une Mosquee du Temps des Fatimides au Caire. Cairo, 1889.
Creswell, K. A. C., Muslim Architecture of Egypt, Vol. I, Oxford, 1952.
Al-Jabarti, Abd al-Rahman, (d. 1240 / 1825), Aja'ib al-Athar fi al-Tarajim wa al-Akhbar [The Wonders of Monuments in Biographies and News], Cairo, 1958.
Zaki, Abd al-Rahman, Al-Azhar wa ma hawlahu min al-Athar [Al-Azhar and Surrounding Monuments], Cairo, 1971.
Tarek Torky "Mosque of al-Azhar" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2022. 2022. https://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;eg;Mon01;3;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 03
Islamic Dynasties / Period
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Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Fatimids | Mosque and Palace
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