Cairo is blessed with many beautiful mosques. Close to the Coptic area is the mosque of Amr ibn al-As, where Muslims still pay homage to the Arab general who conquered Egypt in 640. Further north in Islamic Cairo the Fatimids built the popular Al-Hussein mosque over the remains of the martyred Shia imam. Tourists are often taken to the Citadel to see Muhammad Ali’s 19th-century Ottoman-style creation. But my favourite lies in what is these days a poor area of the city and which, for the two hours we spent there one afternoon in cool December, was empty of visitors. It deserves better. The mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun is one of the oldest intact mosques in Africa – one that combines monumental scale with austere elegance.
The ninth-century Tulunid dynasty lasted a mere 37 years, and is remembered only because of the mosque it left behind. Ahmad ibn Tulun, the son of a slave, was raised in the splendour of Abbasid Samarra (now in Iraq) before rising through the ranks and going on to rule Egypt. There he founded a city called al-Qata’i complete with a palace, hippodrome and hospital. They were all destroyed when the Abbasids retook the city from the fifth Tulunid ruler in 905. All that remains apart from the mosque – spared for religious and perhaps aesthetic reasons – is a dilapidated aqueduct now under the ring road to Giza, marking out a car park. The aqueduct’s designer, an Egyptian Christian named al-Nasrani, had his ups and downs with Ibn Tulun: he was languishing in prison when the emir called on him to make his grand mosque.
Situated on a raised limestone knoll, which largely protects it from floods and earthquakes, the mosque was built from red bricks and is now a light coffee colour. It has a number of unusual features: you enter through a kind of dry moat known as a ziyada, probably built as an overflow space for Friday prayers but which also offered an extra defensive layer. (Ibn Tulun was notoriously paranoid about his safety.) Look up and wonder at the unique crenellations, which resemble paper cut-outs of human figures.
Its most distinctive feature, though, is its minaret – twisting like a corkscrew from a rectangular base. The original design was apparently Ibn Tulun’s own inspiration: the story goes that he wrapped a piece of paper around his finger to demonstrate exactly what he wanted. He was recalling the famous spiral minaret of Samarra, which he had known as a boy. As Tarek Swelim argues in his indispensable study of the building, published in 2015, the current minaret is a later recreation of the earlier one – probably under the direction of North African artisans, given its Andalusian horseshoe arches. As you climb, be sure to step out on to the wide roof – ideal for a sunset picnic. The peak affords a wonderful view of the courtyard and, beyond, the whole city; it also reveals the precarious, improvised housing – festooned with water tanks and satellite dishes – overlooking the walls.
At the minaret’s pinnacle now stands a regulation crescent, but the original was crowned with a copper boat-shaped finial. K.A.C. Creswell believed it was taken from an ancient Egyptian tomb, which Ibn Tulun plundered to pay for the mosque. The site does have pharaonic associations: medieval chroniclers believed it was where Moses triumphed over the magicians, and a nearby tomb was once thought to be that of Moses’s brother Aaron. Sadly, the finial was lost after 1869, but there are detailed illustrations of it by Émile Prisse d’Avennes; an imitation remains at the top of the dome of Imam Shafi’i – founder of one of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence – in the City of the Dead.
Before entering the courtyard you are offered smart white cloth coverings for your shoes. (Usually all you get are cheap blue plastic ones.) Strolling is what this mosque was designed for – the thick rectangular piers support sets of harmonious pointed arches, five deep on the prayer-hall side, two deep on the other three. Looking down between the arches they seem to recede forever, evoking divine infinity. They overlap in startling combinations, arch peeking behind arch peeking behind arch, giving the impression that the mosque is moving around you, not the other way round – the still point of a turning world.
Of course not every visitor is guaranteed to get the spiritual ambience. In The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Roger Moore’s James Bond strides purposefully through the Ibn Tulun mosque (shoes uncovered) before entering the Ottoman house next door, where he kisses a woman, uses her as a human shield and throws his assailant off the roof.
At the centre of the courtyard is the superb Mamluk-era fountain, with red and white bands around its base supporting a stepped dome. Its square-into-circle design echoes the minaret and indeed fits with the feel of the whole mosque – precise edges softened by curved arches, a garrison that also served as a place of worship. Running round the top of the inner walls are wood-carved verses from the Qur’an, incomplete and now hardly legible. Swelim argues that the aim was to have the entire Qur’an presented, and such is the mosque’s size it would have been just about possible.
In the absence of lush decoration or bright colours the most spectacular effects derive from the fall of light on stone. Each of the 128 stucco grille windows has a different floral design. The sun shines through the grille creating bubbles of illumination on the arches. As midday approaches, light descends into the prayer hall, creating individual shining carpets for the worshipper to step into. The magnificent effect was surely planned by al-Nasrani as the masterstroke that would keep him in Ibn Tulun’s favour. In some ways the mosque, with its crumbling walls and bird droppings streaking down from the windows, is a forlorn place. But at such moments, the alchemy of the architect’s geometric genius and his sponsor’s terrifyingly high standards brings it brilliantly to life.
From the February 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.