Mausoleum of Imam Shafi’i
The Mausoleum of Imam Shafi’i is located on Imam Shafi’i Street in Imam Shafi’i Square in the al-Qarafa al-Sughra (the Small Cemetery), Cairo, Egypt
Hegira 608 / AD 1211
Al-Nasir Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (also known as Saladin; r. AH 564–89 / AD 1169–93) undertook the erection of the tomb only; the dome built after this was commissioned by Sultan al-Kamil Muhammad ibn al-Adil (r. AH 615-635 / AD 1218–38).
The mausoleum was erected for Muhammad ibn Idris ibn al-'Abbas ibn 'Uthman ibn Shafi'i, known by the name of Imam Shafi'i. Shafi'i was born in Gaza in AH 150 / AD 767, he grew up in Mecca and studied under Imam Malik, who was the founder of the Maliki School in Suni'i fiqh (jurisprudence). Shafi'i then founded his own independent school of law (Shafi'i) and travelled to Egypt in AH 198 / AD 813, holding classes in the Amr ibn al-'As Mosque from where a number of distinguished Egyptian scholars emerged. He died in AH 204 / AD 819 and was buried in the same tomb as the children of Ibn 'Abd al-Hakam, in al-Qarafa al-Sughra.
Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi undertook construction of the grave of al-Shafi'i in AH 572 / AD 1176. This was the first building to be erected on the grave of al-Shafi'i. In AH 574 / AD 1178, the work on the wooden cenotaph, which was placed above the tomb was completed. This is decorated with panels of geometric ornamentation carved with extraordinary skill. Qur'anic verses and accounts of the life of the Imam are written on it, as well as the name of the craftsman, 'Ubayd al-Najjar, in kufic and in Ayyubid naskhi script.
In AH 608 / AD 1211, the mother of al-Malik al-Kamil ibn al-'Adil died and was buried in the tomb of al-Shafi'i, and her son erected a dome to cover the tomb. A large part of the mausoleum, which was built by al-Kamil, still stands. As for the present wooden dome, the muqarnas and the marble decorations, they are renovations, which the Mamluk sultan, Qaytbay (r. AH 872–901 / AD 1468–96) undertook in AH 885 / AD 1480. The Mamluk sultan, Qansuh al-Ghuri (r. AH 906–22 / AD 1501–16) also renovated the mausoleum, and in AH 1186 / AD 1772, the Ottoman governor, Ali Bek al-Kabir undertook the restorations of the wooden dome of the mausoleum in addition to the polychrome decorative carvings, which covered the interior walls, the muqarnas and the dome.
The mausoleum occupies a square whose sides measure 15 m. The walls are 2.75 m thick. It is close to 20 m in height from the ground. The lower walls are built of stone and the remaining upper part from brick. The southern wall of the mausoleum consists of three mihrabs, the biggest one of which is in the centre. They are lined with polychrome marble frames and their peaks are adorned with wooden carvings. Sultan Qaytbay added a fourth mihrab in the eastern corner of the same wall to correct the direction of the qibla. The dome which covers the mausoleum is a grandiose one, which is considered one of the most beautiful in Egypt. It towers over the floor of the mausoleum at a height of about 27 m. At the four corners of the square ceiling are three rows of muqarnas squinches, which form a transitional zone from the square to the dome drum. The muqarnas is made from wood and is decorated with inscriptions in naskhi script. The muqarnas squinches are flanked by windows with stucco interlaced work which are fitted with coloured glass. The dome is composed of two layers: the inner wooden layer, and the outer layer which is covered with lead and which was renovated to this form by Sultan Qaytbay. In the middle of the mausoleum is the cenotaph which was placed on the grave of Imam Shafi'i as well as the tomb of al-Malik al-Kamil's mother.
The outer façades of the mausoleum consist of three storeys of which the dome forms the highest. Fixed on the pinnacle of the dome is a small copper boat. An original part of the building, the reason for its presence has been the subject of debate. Many different reasons for its presence have been suggested, some believe that it is there to hold water and grain for pigeons, while others are of the opinion that perhaps it is a symbol for the learning of Imam Shafi'i, considering him as a sea of knowledge.
The middle storey recedes inwards by approximately 70 cm from the lower level. Its façade is decorated with a row of arched recesses in the form of fluted shell niches which resemble the decorations on the façades of the Madrasa of al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyubi and that of al-Aqmar Mosque in Cairo. Between the arched recesses are circular and polygonal decorative forms, topped by a frieze of geometric decoration that is crowned with serrated crenellations decorated on their outer surface. Each of the four sides of the facade on the lowest storey is set with a window flanked by an arched niche.
Imam Shafi'i was the founder of the fourth Sunni school of jurisprudence. He held classes in Amr ibn al-‘As Mosque in Egypt in the AH 2nd / AD 8th century and was buried in the Small Cemetery in Cairo. Salah al-Din (Saladin) built a tomb for him some 300 years later with a wooden cenotaph above it decorated with fine geometric ornamentation. The wooden dome of the mausoleum is one of the largest and most beautiful in Egypt. A small copper boat is fixed to its pinnacle, which some say was filled with grain and water for pigeons, while others say it is a symbol of his learning, considering him a sea of knowledge.
This building was dated based on a foundation inscription on top of the wooden lintel of the western window of the dome, which includes the name of the monument's founder/sponsor and the date of its construction.
Abd al-Wahab, H., Tarikh al-Masajid al-Athariya [History of Historical Mosques],Cairo, 1994.
Creswell, K. A. C., The Muslim Architecture of Egypt, Vol. II, New York, 1959; reprinted 1978.
Wiet, G., “Les Inscriptions du Mausolée de Shafi'i”, Bulletin de l'Institut de l'égypte, No. 15, Cairo, 1933, pp.167–85.
Zaki, Abd al-Rahman, Qala'a Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi wa ma hawlaha min al-Athar [Citadel of Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi and the Monuments Surrounding it], Cairo, 1971.
Tarek Torky "Mausoleum of Imam Shafi’i" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2021. 2021. https://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;eg;Mon01;6;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 06
Islamic Dynasties / Period
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Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Atabegs and Ayyubids | Religious Life
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