The Mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun

The Mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun : An Introduction

Date: 876-79

Location: Qal'at al-Kabsh, next to Saliba Street

A legendary mosque with diverse influences, the Mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun is one of the rare instances that truly allow one to physically transform from the "outer" world, the city, the crowds, and into the "inner" world, the peacefulness and tranquility of a vast open space in direct contact with the sky.

This transition is made possible due to the unique architecture of the mosque. The mosque is separated from the outer world by an enclosure, which one must enter into and walk through before reaching the gate of the mosque itself. This aspect is unique to the Tulun Mosque and is not found in other mosques or religious establishments within Cairo.

Ahmed Ibn Tulun was the first independent ruler of Islamic Egypt and strived to create an ideal city fit for kings and stable for ages to come. At that time, Al Fustat was the capital of Egypt, and Ibn Tulun built and expanded the city to accommodate the increasing population. He built urban units and many congregational mosques to serve the various sections of the city. Unfortunately however, for almost a century the region continues to exist as a void, since nothing of the original al-Fustat has fully survived the test of time. The only surviving monument is the grand congregational Mosque of Ibn Tulun, which maintains its inner dignity and splendor.

The area of al-Fustat surrounding the mosque and beyond, which is known today as Old-Cairo, has become inundated with random or unplanned housing and unfortunate building populations. This can be seen from the top of the Mosque's minaret, which provides a splendid view of the entire Old-Cairo area, with distant visions of the rest of Cairo and Giza; including the famous Mokkattam mountain chain, modern buildings, landmarks, and on a clear day, the Giza pyramids.

The minaret of the mosque, the only one of its kind in Egypt, reflects another unique aspect to the Tulun Mosque, as Cairo is well-known and famed as being "the city of a thousand minarets". So quite simply, a minaret being one of a kind is quite exceptional in Cairo. The reason of its uniqueness is its shape, it has a round spiral staircase that rotates all around the minaret. A feature not found anywhere except in Iraq, Samarra. Resources differ, but many conclude that Ibn Tulun, in his new position as ruler, desired to recreate the grandiosity of the then powerful and magnificent Iraq or Mesopotamia. He was known to be greatly influenced by Samarra, which is refelceted in the grand scale and size of the mosque itself, the colossal spiral minaret, and the use of new construction concepts.

Another unique feature of the Tulun Mosque is the fact that it's built in brick, as opposed to stone, which was the most common building material used in Egypt since ancient times. Although typically the patron of the mosque, in this case Ibn Tulun, would have been the decision-maker regarding choices of construction, legend has it that the mosque's architect made the decision. The architect, who was a Christian, decided to build the mosque in brick in order to spare Churches from being stripped of their stone and columns. A common practice at the time involved "borrowing" stone from churches, ancient temples and Pharaonic monuments for use in new buildings.

The Tulun Mosque was meant to accommodate the population of the entire city, and was thus built in a substantial scale, with grand recessions and arches adorned with traditional Islamic designs. The courtyard is centered with a dome that appears small in comparison to the rest of the mosque but is in fact one of the largest in Cairo. The designs and architecture are almost entirely of symbolic value, in addition to the more commonly used geometrics. For instance, the tessellation work on the tops of the enclosure wall going all around the mosque, are in the shape of abstract people, repeated and continuous, holding hands, creating unity, oneness, and wholeness. Principles that are in-tune with Islamic philosophies and ideologies.

The Mosque of Ibn Tulun is open to the public, for visitors, tourists and also for regular prayers. Although the architecture has received several renovations and reconstructions to preserve the old remains, the general feeling of the mosque, its spirit and atmosphere are certainly still there and can be felt whether there's renovation work or not.