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Ibn Tulun Mosque

Ibn Tulun Mosque is the oldest mosque in Egypt and all of Africa. It is also the largest mosque in Cairo at 26,318 sq m. It is the only remaining landmark from the City of Qata’i’ that was established in 870 as the capital of the Tulunid state in Egypt.

It’s known for its unique architectural style that attracts engineering students from all over the world. In the 12th century, the mosque was a shelter for pilgrims from North Africa heading to the Hijaz.

a window at the ibn tulun mosque
Between the walls surrounding the mosque and the mosque itself are empty spaces called zeyada that were reportedly designed to keep out the noise as the people inside the mosque prayed. (Image Credit: ConnollyCove)

Who was Ahmed ibn Tulun?

Ahmad Ibn Tulun was born around 835 A.D. He was one of the Turkish commanders in Samarra, Iraq. His intelligence and courage attracted the attention of the Caliph, and in 868, he was sent to Egypt as governor by the Abbasid caliph. Then he established himself as an independent ruler by evicting the caliphal fiscal agent and taking over Egypt’s finances and establishing a large military force loyal to himself. 

He reformed the tax system in Egypt and repaired the irrigation system, and took other measures to help the country prosper.

He founded the Tulunid dynasty that ruled Egypt and Syria between 868 and 905, and as a symbol of his rule, he built a new capital, al-Qata’i, north of the old capital Fustat. At the centre of the new capital, he built his palace and mosque.

An adorned doorway leading to the courtyard of the ibn tulun mosque
The mosque used to be attached to Ibn Tulun’s palace with a door next to the minbar allowing him directly enter the mosque. (Image Credit: ConnollyCove)

Design of the Ibn Tulun Mosque

Ibn Tulun Mosque was built by Ahmad ibn Tulun based on the designs created by Egyptian architect Saiid Ibn Kateb Al-Farghany, the same engineer who designed the Nilometer, in the Samarran style that was common in the Abbasid era. The mosque’s original inscription slab identifies the date of completion as between 878 and 879. It is said that he requested a mosque to be built on a hill so that if “Egypt were to be flooded, it would not be submerged, and if Egypt were to be burned, it would not burn”, so he spared no expense, spending 120,000 dinar to build it. 

It was built on a hill called Gebel Yashkur or The Hill of Thanksgiving, which is said to be where Noah’s Ark docked after the flooding abated, and that it is where God spoke to Moses and where Moses confronted Pharaoh’s magicians. So, this hill is where prayers are answered.

The mosque used to be attached to Ibn Tulun’s palace with a door next to the minbar allowing him directly enter the mosque. 

Between the walls surrounding the mosque and the mosque itself is empty spaces called zeyada that was reportedly designed to keep out the noise as the people inside the mosque prayed. Some also said that this space was rented to sellers who would sell their products to people exiting the mosque after prayers.

arabic text written into stone at the ibn tulun mosque
Ibn Tulun Mosque was built by Ahmad ibn Tulun based on the designs created by Egyptian architect Saiid Ibn Kateb Al-Farghany, the same engineer who designed the Nilometer (Image Credit: ConnollyCove)

The mosque is built around a courtyard, with covered halls on each of its four sides, the largest of which faces the qibla, or the direction of Mecca. In the middle of the courtyard is an ablutions fountain, added during the era of the Mamluk sultan, Hosam al-Din Lajin in 1296.

The interior ceiling of Ibn Tulun mosque is made of sycamore wood, while the arch has a window and is designed with geometric designs.

The mosque’s minaret has a spiral staircase around the outside and is modelled after the minarets of Samarra in Iraq, and it also appears to be influenced by the design of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. The staircase of the mosque extends up to the tower at 170 feet.

The main mihrab of the mosque is concave and made of marble, stucco, brick, and different coloured mosaics. There are six mihrabs all in all. 

In the Middle Ages, several houses were built right outside the walls of the mosque. Two of the oldest and best-preserved homes are the “house of the Cretan woman” (Bayt al-Kritliyya) and the Beit Amna bint Salim, which was built a century apart and were separate at one point, but a bridge at the third-floor level was added, combining them into a single home. The house is now a museum that is open to the public as the Gayer-Anderson Museum, named after the British general R.G. ‘John’ Gayer-Anderson, who lived there until 1942.

The mosque has been restored several times from the Fatimid era in 1077 to 2004.

The mosque’s unique structure made it a great backdrop to several films, including the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me.

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