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Central Islamic Lands

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Richard Ettinghausen et al.

From The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250
© 1987 Yale University Press
Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press

EGYPT: 1060-1171


Following the crisis of the middle of the eleventh century there was a marked change in the functions and plans of religious buildings in Cairo. Congregational mosques are few. Instead, the common building for prayers was the masjid, a small oratory, usually privately built and endowed, often with a specific commemorative or philanthropic purpose42 and without the city-wide significance of the first Fatimid mosques. Only much later did some of them acquire congregational status when they were assigned a special khatib or preacher to represent the state. In plan, the two remaining examples, the Aqmar Mosque, (1125)43 and that of al-Salih Tala'i (1160),44 are remarkable for their modest dimensions, their location within the urban fabric, and their external shape. The Al-Aqmar Mosque [304, 305] has a curious façade which is not parallel to the qibla; the mosque of al-Salih could be reached only by bridges, since it was built over shops. In both instances, previously existing streets and monuments determined the shape of the building, for each is on or near the main north-south artery of Cairo, where property was expensive, and the religious monument had to adapt itself to the more consistent fixed order of the urban community. The internal arrangement was not very original, unlike that of the vanished Mosque of the Elephants built by al-Afdal in 1085-86. Its peculiar name derived from the nine domes over the sanctuary, which were surrounded by balustrades and from afar looked like the howdahs carried by elephants in caliphal processions.45 Nine-dome mosques are known elsewhere,46 and belong to a rare type whose significance remains unexplained.

Commemorative structures also changed. In addition to mausoleums, sanctuaries usually called mashhads (literally 'places of witnessing'), such as those of Sayyidah Ruqqayah (1133) and Aswan (c.1100),47 began to appear for purposes of prayer, pilgrimage, and private piety. They include the still somewhat mysterious so-called mosque of al-Juyushi [306, 307] on the Moqattam hills overlooking Cairo, dramatically restored in recent years. The dedicatory inscription, which dates the building to 1085, clearly calls it a mashhad, yet its function as such is unclear; it does not seem to have been associated with a tomb, and Badr al-Jamali built it during his own lifetime. Qur'anic inscriptions suggest that it was erected in commemoration of some event which has remained unrecorded and which could simply be the reestablishment of peace and order after decades of strife and turmoil.48 The plans of most of these buildings are closely related. An entrance complex (domed at Aswan, topped by a minaret at al-Juyushi) leads to a small courtyard; the sanctuary has a large dome in front of the mihrab [308], always with a vaulted room on either side and usually with halls or rooms between it and the court (at al-Juyushi, three vaulted halls, one of which opened on the court through an ill-composed triple arcade; elsewhere all the rooms were covered with domes). The domes, like the zones of transition, were of brick, covered with plaster, and almost always four-centred in section; their surfaces varied from plain to ribbed. We have no record of how this kind of building was used, but we can say that religious practices must have changed significantly to justify the growth of this new type.

The importance of domes in these mausoleums and martyria explains the second major novelty of the later Fatmid period: a new mode of transition from square to dome. At al-Juyushi, an octagonal drum with eight windows surmounted a classical squinch. But already at Aswan by the turn of the century, and then in most other mausoleums, a muqarnas [309] replaced the squinch. The muqarnas is tripartite. A central niche bridges the corner framed by two sections of vault; above it is a sort of squinch vault approximately equal to the two sections on the lower level. Unlike contemporary Iranian examples, no arch enclosed the composition. The outline of the motif became standard for windows, so that the openings of the late Fatimid mausoleums are remarkable for their variety and complexity.49 The Egyptian and Iranian motifs are not alike; yet in purpose and basic tripartite composition they are closely related. The Iranian examples, however, are probably earlier, and their function, ambiguous though it may sometimes appear, is more clearly structural than in the smaller Cairene mausoleums. These points suggest that the Egyptian muqarnas squinch was inspired by Iran, but not blindly taken over (although awkward imitations existed); rather, it was adapted and scaled to the needs and possibilities of the more modest Egyptian monuments.51 It is, in fact, in Egypt that a muqarnas niche in plaster was discovered, just as they existed50 in Nishapur in Iran, with painted representations of a youth with a cup [310]. It was found in the ruins of a bath house.

The most spectacular remaining features of Cairene secular architecture are three gates to the new and enlarged city whose walls were redone, according to tradition, by three Christian architects from Edessa working under Badr al-Jamali [311].52 The towers of the Bab al-Nasr [312]53 are square, those of the Bab al-Futuh and the Bab Zuwaylah massive and semicircular. In his masterly analysis Creswell not only pointed out their close connection with the military architecture of the northern Mesopotamian region but also showed that they introduce to Cairo the use of stone as the sole mode of construction, a new type of pendentive, the stone cross-vault, and the round arch, all features of pre-Islamic Mediterranean civilizations which continued to be used in the upper Jazira and Armenia.

The architectural decoration of the second Fatmid period is less impressive than that found in contemporary Iran or in the earlier Fatimid period. Much - especially in mihrabs - consisted of the wooden panels discussed later in this chapter, but older techniques such as stucco (especially remarkable at al-Juyushi) and stone-carving (especially on the gates) were still employed. The designs, almost always subordinated to architectural lines, were both geometric (the backbone of the design) and vegetal. One of the more interesting compositions is the façade of the al-Aqmar Mosque [305], recently restored and in effect redone, in which a Romanesque effect of forceful projection of a religious monument into the city is produced by the central gate framed by two rows of niches, the false gates on the side, the upper band of decorative epigraphy, and the symmetrical arrangement on the walls of rectangular, circular, and rhomboid panels. Most striking are the peculiarly effective transformation of the conch motif in niche-heads, and the use of muqarnas as a flat decorative design. Both features occur also in mihrabs, and an investigation based in large part on the Quranic quotations of the mosque has proposed that all these motifs carried a Shi'ite message.53

Altogether, the later Fatimid period witnessed an extension of architectural patronage reflected in the growth of smaller monuments, the development of the mashhad, the use of the muqarnas in architecture and decoration, and a partial return to stone. Whether or not these features are of local origin is often still a delicate problem; but most of them are also characteristic of Muslim architecture elsewhere, strongly suggesting that, despite its heterodoxy, the Fatimid world fully partook of the pan-Islamic changes of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In some cases, it is even possible to compare Fatimid architecture, especially in its second phase, with that of contemporary, more particularly western, Christianity.

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