Photograph: Muhammad al-RoumiPhotograph: Muhammad al-Roumi

Name of Monument:

Madrasa al-Sahiba


Salihiyya Quarter, Damascus, Syria

Date of Monument:

Hegira 630 / AD 1233

Period / Dynasty:



Al-Sahiba Rabi'a Khatun (d. AH 643 / AD around 1245).


The Madrasa al-Sahiba was founded by al-Sahiba Rabi'a Khatun, the younger sister of both Salah al-Din (Saladin) and Sitt al-Sham. It was dedicated to the Hanbali rite and located in the Salihiyya Quarter at the foot of Mount Qasiyun. The patron Rabi'a Khatun was the wife of al-Malik al-Mu'azzam Muzaffar al-Din Kukburi, Lord (or Sahib) Irbil, hence her title as Sahiba. Upon her husband's death, she moved to Damascus, joined its intellectual circles, and became an architectural patron. She is known to have attended theinauguration lecture at her madrasa, given by Abd al-Rahman al-Hanbali in AH Rajab 628 / AD May 1231. Evidently, the demand on higher learning allowed classes to begin prior to the building's completion in AH 630 / AD 1233.
The madrasa is of rectangular dimensions and is entered from the north. The exterior façade is made mostly of limestone and exhibits a delicate aesthetic quality. It is accentuated by a single row of pink “rawand” stone near the top – a shy rendition of the ablaq motif in which different coloured stones are alternated, usually featuring black basalt. There is pair of windows with tabula ansata lintels on either side of the central portal. Geometric interlacing is featured in the stone that surmounts them. Further to the right of the façade is a pair of closely spaced windows. These too have tabula ansata lintels, above which the masonry features interlocked polygonal blocks and a small, square stone engraved with geometric strap-work and the confession of faith (Shahada; "Ash-hadu-an-La-ilaha-illa-llah”): "I bear witness that there is no god but God” , thus indicating the tomb chamber.
The recessed portal is capped with a three-tiered muqarnas and a gored semi-dome that curves the top cornice of the building. The use of stone for the muqarnas is a particularly Syrian achievement of the early AH 7th / AD 13th century, prior to which brick was the traditional medium for the muqarnas. Such adept masonry may point to a particular school of architecture, probably influenced by northern Syria.
The interior is clearly an axial symmetric four-iwan plan, The courtyard's northern façade is a row of three arches of equal height. The southern, main, iwan has a central mihrab flanked by windows that originally overlooked the gardens of the Yazid, a tributary of the Barada River. Because the madrasa was built on a slope, the north and south iwans are not very spacious. The east and west iwans are roofed by double groin vaults. A founder's tomb lies diagonally and off-centre in the west iwan, assumed to be the burial site of the patron, Rabi'a Khatun. A pair of parallel open archestower higher than the madrasa's walls and offer an increased stature to the interior.
Of the numerous madrasas erected in the Salihiyya district during the Ayyubid period, the Madrasa al-Sahibais still in use today as an elementary school for girls. Generation after generation of al-Salihiyya's inhabitants have attended this school and grown up in identification with popular Ayyubid history.

View Short Description

This madrasa was founded by a female member of Saladin's dynasty, Rabi'a Khatun, and is located in the Salihiyya district north of old Damascus, famous for its many madrasas built during the Atabeg and Ayyubid period (AH 5th–7th / AD 11th–13th centuries). In typical Ayyubid style, this madrasa is architecturally spare: decorative features make their appearance only along the entrance façade, particularly above window lintels, and most intensely around the madrasa's gate, a recessed portal with a stone muqarnas and a lobed semi-dome. Thus building is still functional as a girls' elementary school.

How Monument was dated:

The monument is dated by an inscription in the portal and by historical records, such as that by Sibt Ibn Al-Jauzi (d. 543 / 1256) who records the existence of Rabi'a Khatun's madrasa on the lower slopes of Mount Qasiyun.

Selected bibliography:

Allen, T., “Ayyubid Architecture”, Occidental (electronic publication 7th edition), 2003.
Herzfeld, E., “Damascus: Studies in Architecture”, Part III,Ars Islamica, Vols. XI–XII,1946.
Moaz, A. R., Les Madrasas de Damas et d'al-Salihiyya, Phd thesis, University of Provence, 1990.
Moaz, A. R., “Isham al-Mar'a fi al-'Amara bi Dimashq khilal al-'Asr al-Ayyubi [Female patronage in Damascus during the Ayyubid period]”, Al-Turath al-Arabi [Arab Heritage], Vol. 29, 1987, pp.216–26.
ابن طولون, القلائد الجوهرية في تاريخ الصالحية. (تحقيق محمد علي الدهمان). دمشق 1949-56. ص156.
Ibn Tulun, Al-Qalaed al-Jawhariyya fi Tarikh al-Salihiyya, [The Precious Medallions in the History of al-Salihiyya], (Muhammad Ali al-Dahman, ed), Damascus, 1949–56, p.156.
Al-Nu'aymi, A. Q. (d. 927 / 1520), Al-Daris fi Tarikh al-Madaris [The Study of the History of the Madrasas], Damascus, 1947.

Citation of this web page:

Abd al-Razzaq Moaz, Zena Takieddine "Madrasa al-Sahiba" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2021. 2021.;ISL;sy;Mon01;8;en

Prepared by: Abd Al-Razzaq MoazAbd al-Razzaq Moaz

Abd al-Razzaq Moaz is Deputy Minister of Culture, in charge of Cultural Heritage and Head of EU projects, at the Ministry of Culture, Syria. He was born in Damascus in 1962. He received his BA in History at the University of Damascus in 1985, a DEA in Archaeology from the University of Provence, Aix-en-Provence in 1987, and his Doctorate in Archaeology from the same university in 1991. He was a Scholar at the Institut Francais d'Etudes Arabes de Damas, Damascus, 1991–3 and was a Visiting Scholar at the Aga Khan Progam for Islamic Architecture, Harvard University and MIT, USA in 1993/4, at Granada University, Spain in 1994, at Harvard University (Fulbright Scholar) in 1995 and at Harvard University Urban Planning Department in 1996. He was a lecturer at Damascus University, 1997–9 and Visiting Professor, Harvard University in spring 1999. He was Director General of Antiquities and Museums, Syria, from 2000 to 2002. He speaks Arabic, French and English.
, 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.

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: SY 12


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