An Overview of Historical Islamic Mosques in Egypt

by Ismail Abaza


Mosques in the Evening at Cairo in EgyptCairo is known as the City of 1,000 Minarets because of its many mosques. Many of these mosques are open to visitors, and in fact, Cairo has an ongoing program for the restoration of ancient mosques, a few of which ranks as some of the oldest to be found in the world. Certainly some are the grandest to be found anywhere.

Many visitors to Egypt, who arrive with even a meager interest in this architecture and a slightly open mind, and particularly those with a creativity streak, will be awestruck by their beauty and design. Yet, and unfortunately, many western visitors may completely bypass these wonders of a very different civilization. For many others who do wonder into an ancient mosque or two, their lack of knowledge regarding this art form will often result in a short, cursory examination lacking substance.

Mosques, and Islamic architecture in general, unlike western architecture, varies more between different geographical regions then it does between historical ages. Scholars tell us that this is at least due in part to the rapid initial spread of Islam, as opposed to that of Christianity, which was suppressed during its first several hundred years. Christianity had the opportunity to develop more common architectural styles in its formative years, while Islam spread through a vast territory quickly where the use of local building material and ideas by local craftsman and architects created very distinguished regional variants.

Another view of ancient mosques in Egypt

Yet, because Egypt has seen many influences from any number of different ruling empires, including Abbasid, Fatimid, Ayyubid Mamluk and Ottoman and others, and because Cairo he Salah el Din Mosque on Roda combines an Ottoman ground plan with Mamluk decorations specifically is a city of the world, Egypt offers a fair overview of mosque styles. Furthermore, its mosques date from the earliest periods of Islam up to and of course, including modern varieties.

Left: The Salah el Din Mosque on Roda combines an Ottoman ground plan with Mamluk decorations

Some mosques in Egypt, and particularly Cairo, are actually complexes that include a number of other structures that may, or may not be found attached to other mosques.  For example, many mosques include an Islamic school facility, called a madrasa. Others may have mausoleums and tombs, and even hospitals (maristan), along with other structures within the complex.

An ancient mosque located in the Temple of Luxor at Luxor, EgyptOther mosques may be located in strange places.  There is a mosque (Abu Al-Haggag Mosque), which creates a rather strange appearance inside the Temple of Luxor in Upper Egypt, and in the Sinai, a Fatimid mosque is incorporated into the famous St. Catherine’s monastery.

Egypt has some very notable, as well as important mosques, some of which may be visited while others are not open to touristic visits. While most of the tourist mosques are to be found in Islamic Cairo, the oldest of them all, the Amr Ibn El-Aas Mosque, is located in Coptic (Christian, or Old Cairo) and may be visited, while the Al-Azhar Mosque, the location of the World’s oldest University and one of the most influential mosques in Islam, is not a tourist facility.

About Mosques – Their Concept

Although Christians, Jews and Muslims worship the same god and have their roots within the same religious history, the concept of a mosque is very different then that of a Christian church, for example. While modern, moderate Islamic states such as Egypt function in a somewhat modified manner, traditionally there is no separation between religion and state as is typical in the Christian world, and in fact, the leader of a mosque in ancient times was very often also the governor or political ruler. Within this context, mosques theoretically are both a place of worship as well as a political forum. While modern political decisions in Egypt appear somewhat secular, Islamic leaders very often make political statements, and undoubtedly, their voice is needed and welcomed by politicians in order to substantiate their agendas. Mosque leaders, called iman, not only lead the congregation in prayer, but very often also discuss matters of state during the Friday prayer sessions.

Basic components of a Mosque

Various standard components in a mosque

The Demarcated Space

Prayer is an essential element of Islam, and the demarcated space allows a space for congregational prayer. In formal mosques, the demarcated space is almost always partially roofed, and partly open to the sky. The covered prayer hall, or sanctuary (haram) usually varies relative to the size of the open courtyard (sahn). The courtyard is most often surrounded on three of its sides by colonnades, or arcades (riwags), with the fourth side opening into the covered sanctuary. The prayer hall, which is normally rectangular or square, may take the form of a hypostyle hall with its roof supported by a number of evenly spaced columns. In this design, a system of horizontal beams known as architraves, or alternatively, a system of arches support the ceiling. In other designs, the roof may consist of a single large Prayer Hall in the Mohammed Ali Mosque, Cairo dome on pendentives (one of the greatest contributions made by Islam to architecture), or instead, by one or more smaller domes.

Left: Prayer Hall in the Mohammed Ali Mosque, Cairo

The size and proportion of the covered verses the open courtyard is dependent both on the size of the congregation and the climate of the region where the mosque is located. Obviously, in wetter or colder climates a smaller open courtyard would be required then in, for example, a city such as Cairo, where rain is scares and the climate is usually moderate even in winter.

Qibla Wall of the Sultan Hassan Mosque, Cairo
Qibla Wall of the Sultan Hassan Mosque, Cairo

Mihrab of the Sultan Hassan MosqueThe Qibla Wall and the Mihrab

Right: Mihrab of the Sultan Hassan Mosque

Mosques throughout the world have a standard orientation. Within the prayer hall, one wall must face Mecca, the direction in which Muslims should face in order to pray. This wall is called the qibla wall, and at its midpoint is a niche or recess that constitutes the central and most decorated feature of any mosque, known as the mihrab. The mihrab basically takes the layout of a Roman niche, with a semicircular recess arched at the top. It should be noted that the mihrab is not considered to be a sacred element of the mosque. Rather, it prescribes the the sacred direction for prayer to Mecca. When in prayer, Muslims will form row upon row, each parallel to, and facing the qibla wall.

The Minbar

The minbar is basically the Islamic equivalent to the pulpit and is always located to the right of the mihrab. It takes the form of a staircase leading to a small platform from which the iman Minbar displayed in the Islamic Museum, Cairo leads prayers and also delivers the oration (khutba), which occurs on Fridays and may be part sermon and partly a political message. An iman may be defined as any adult male who leads a congregation in prayer. In actuality, the iman usually leads the prayers not from the platform at the top of the minbar, but from a step below. This is because the platform itself is symbolically reserved for the Prophet Muhammed, himself.

Left: Minbar displayed in the Islamic Museum, Cairo

The minbar may vary in height depending on the congregation’s size, as it is simply to provide an elevated platform meant to allow the congregation to more easily hear the iman’s words. Depending on the size of the congregation, the minbar may have only a few steps, or may be truly monumental, though in very small mosques, there may be no minbar at all. The minbar may, or may not have handrails leading up the staircase to the platform. The small platform is often covered with an attractive shape, such as a cupola style roof.

Minbar in the Muhammed Ali Mosque, Cairo
Minbar in the Muhammed Ali Mosque, Cairo

As a side note, in historical times, the minbar was used for the coronation, or inauguration for a new caliph, a political ruler.

Dikka in the Ibn Tulun Mosque, CairoThe Dikka

The dikka is a raised platform form which the respondents (qadi) repeat the ritual postures of the iman and speak the responses so that the stages of prayer may be transmitted to larger congregations. For those familiar with the Greek Orthodox Church, the qadi is not unlike the role of the cantor and chorus. Though the dikka is often located within the covered sanctuary, depending on the climate and the size of the congregation, it may be located in the open courtyard. Regardless, it is aligned with the position of the mihrab.

Right: Dikka in the Ibn Tulun Mosque, Cairo

The dikka usually takes the form of a wooden, “single story platform” accessible from its own staircase.

The Kursi

A typical Kursi to hold a Qur'anThe kusi is basically a bookstand or lectern on which the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, is placed.  The kusi is generally set next to the dikka, so that the qadi man read and recite form the Qur’an.

The Maqsura

In ancient times, when many of the most interesting mosques were constructed, rulers or governors, often referred to as caliphs, were in danger of assassination. In the earliest era of Islam, this individual was also the iman of a principle mosque. Originally, the maqsura consisted of a raised platform with protective wooden screens built to safeguard the ruler’s life. In this early age of Islam, the governor’s place (dar al-imara) was often constructed adjacent to the qibla wall providing him immediate access to the mihrab area of the mosque and the maqsura. The maqsura was often very elaborate, providing a suitable environment for the prestige of the ruling governor. In some cases, a separate enclosure was also provided for princes, or local rulers, such as the open iwans of mosques in Central Asia.

The Pool

Fountain in the Courtyard of the Mohammed Ali Mosque, Cairo
Fountain in the Courtyard of the Mohammed Ali Mosque, Cairo

Ablution Fountain in the mosque of Sultan Hassan, CairoWater for ablutions before prayer is provided in most large mosques, though these days its function is sometimes purely decorative. If the pool is decorative in nature, then another water supply, often in a room near the shoe storage area, is available for ablutions. The pool may, or may not have a fountain, though when used for ablutions, it is more likely to have a fountain to allow a number of worshippers to wash simultaneously under running water. The pool is usually located at, or near the center of the open courtyard.

Right: Ablution Fountain in the mosque of Sultan Hassan, Cairo

If the pool incorporates a fountain, this structure is very often of a creative and inventive design, surmounted by domed, or small pavilion like roofs.

The Minaret

Minaret of the Ibn Tulun Mosque, CairoThe towering minarets are the most visible part of a mosque, particularly form any distance, and we have a strong identification of mosques with minarets, even though they were not universally incorporated into their construction until the 14th and 15th centuries. Used to call worshippers to prayer (adhan) by the muezzin, during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammed, the adham was issued from the roof of his house in Medina. Hence, while many elements of a mosque mimic elements within the Prophet’s Medina home, the minaret does not.

Left: Minaret of the Ibn Tulun Mosque, Cairo

Scholars believe that as an architectural form, the minaret may be based on one, or a combination of Zoroastrain symbolic fire towers, Roman watch towers, coastal lighthouses or even church towers. Regardless, other then serving as perhaps a local landmark, the minaret provides a means to ensure that the voice of the muezzin can be heard at a maximum distance.

Today, many calls to prayer may be issued through loudspeakers. Hence, in modern times, the function of the minaret has often become more symbolic, and may even be excluded from modern structures. Another interesting modern facet of minarets is that many, including those of ancient origin, may have elaborate lighting.

Minaret of the Muhammed Ali Mosque, Cairo
Minaret of the Muhammed Ali Mosque, Cairo

Obviously, only one minaret was actually needed, which most public mosques incorporate, However, under the Ottoman and Mughal empires, twin minarets signifying royal patronage were frequently built. Sometimes, more minarets were added, with four not being completely uncommon, and at Mecca, there are seven.

The Portal

Mosques are almost always surrounded by high walls. In the ancient world the protection of ones family, particularly women and daughters, rested more squarely on the shoulders of individuals rather than a public security force. Therefore, one general nature of early Muslim Monumental portal to the mosque of Barquq, Cairo architecture that has survived even into the modern era is the concealment of building interiors from outside view. Enclosure walls, sometimes functioning for the purpose of fortifications, are and were common.

Right: Monumental portal to the mosque of Barquq, Cairo

With regard to mosques, this barrier became to symbolize the threshold between the chaos and bustle of the outside world, and the tranquil atmosphere within. Entry to this more subdued atmosphere is gained through the portal, a gateway to the mosque that takes on a powerful psychological importance.  Hence, these elements are often monumental and incorporate ornate decorations intended to pay tribute to God’s presence, and really, to also emphasize the generosity of the mosque’s principle patron.

Yet, another reason for these grand entrances is that Islamic theology requires that the outside of a mosque, remain somewhat plain and simple because the building itself may not seduce by means of ornamental frills.  However, in major mosques where possible, including the minaret, dome and portal, allowances were often made so that the patronage of the mosque’s major contributor, often the caliph, could be appropriately commemorated.

Geometric Designs

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all spring from a common religious well. They are like limbs of a tree, that originate from the same trunk, and we can find examples, sometimes even somewhat obscure, that mirror each other. A regular occurrence among these religions is that one branch may take a somewhat extreme view of some specific ancient doctrine that another takes more lightly. Such is the case with graven images. The Islamic faith takes the ban of graven images (particularly regarding humans and god in a religious setting), also found in the The Mohammed Ali Mosque at night, Cairo common Christian Old Testament, much more seriously then do Christians in general. Yet there are fundamental Christian sects that likewise reject almost all graven images, carrying this to an extreme not even remotely mirrored in the Muslim world, excluding even television, pictures and paintings from their personal lives.

Left: The Mohammed Ali Mosque at night, Cairo

However, the real point in this discussion is that, particularly in a religious setting, the Islamic faith and the Christian faith specifically deviated considerably regarding graven images, and thus, religious decorations within places of worship took two very different paths. While the early Christians developed all manner of religious icons of Christ, his apostles, saints and others, the Islamic faith substituted geometric designs to decorate their sacred places. Both divergences evolved in sophistication, and so often the decorations within a mosque will seem very alien to a modern Christian visitor, though a more thorough examination of ancient Christian churches will reveal some similar elements. This is rather interesting, because modern analysis of this design work in mosques indicates that it probably has no iconographic meaning other than to supply a neutral system of aesthetic expression. However, it has been argued that such patterns within the context of a mosque may psychologically be conducive to contemplation and meditation.

The geometric design work in ancient mosques are, to many visitors, their most impressive architectural elements, and those who transgress beyond simply viewing this work, to imagine the craftsman’s skill, will often become awestruck. Clearly their efforts extended beyond simple design into the realm of mathematics, and many of the designers were, in fact, mathematicians often specialized in the field of geometry. In gazing at the intricate geometric decorations within a mosque or other Islamic monument, what may be missed is the magnificent geometry of such buildings in general including both the decorative elements and the more basic architectural elements. Of course, all architecture is a study in geometry, but Design work in the Blue Mosque, Cairo Islamic architecture is most often intricately extreme in comparison with western styles. Symmetry is also a basic element of Islamic architecture though it may not extend along a whole axis of the structure, but is rather localized to specific parts.

Left: Design work in the Blue Mosque, Cairo

Yet it is the geometric surface pattern decorations that capture the attention of modern visitors to the archaic mosques. These patterns are carried out in materials including mosaics, stone, stucco, ceramics and wood, and can totally transform the qualities of a structure. Generally believed to have originated in Baghdad, these designs really only matured during the 10th century, about 400 years after the rise of Islam. The classical work, which we will refer to as arabesque, was superceded in 16th century, when the patterns took on a more realistic and freer vegetal style.

A typical design in a MosqueThe classical arabesque, take the form of rectilinear, or radial grids, in which the circle and its polygonal and star shaped derivatives are prominent, though often regularized only in modular units. Therefore, considerable flexibility may exist in whole compositions, considering the arabesque consists of multidirectional repetitions of the basic units.

These patterns may be integrated within the actual building in two different manners, either incorporated within the building material itself or structurally independent. For example, the Mamluk architecture of Egypt uses what is termed the “brick style” (or in this case, stone), where the stone of the actual building is laid in geometric patterns. Structurally independent designs often incorporate textile covers with similar patterns.

In addition to the two dimensional pattern work, there is also the magnificent three dimensional patterns often associated with domes but sometimes with doorways and other architectural elements.

Muqarnas from the Sultan Hassan Mosque, CairoOne of the basic elements of three dimensional design is the rib, almost exclusively used in domes. Ribs may have originally been incorporated to add structure strength, but have also been used for purely decorative purposes, and in some instances, for both decorative and structural reasons.

Left: Muqarnas from the Sultan Hassan Mosque, Cairo

An Islamic invention of the 10th century, the muqarnas, another three dimensional design, was not really widespread until the 12th century, yet it is certainly one of the most aesthetically interesting forms of decoration. In effect, this is a highly sophisticated application of geometric principles, really often an extension of two dimensional design, that incorporates a replication of units arranged in rows corbelled one atop another. muqarnas configurations are therefore arranged according to recilinear, or radial grids in which the circles and its polygonal and star shaped extensions are basic features, just as in early arabesque, only with stereometric extensions.

The units themselves may be made of wood, stone, stucco or ceramics, and can be arranged to fit within any configuration and to visually dematerialize and divide surfaces, and so they may often be found in a variety of structures, including column capitals, minaret balconies, cornices and entrance portals. While in rare cases, these elements may have structural value, most often they are purely decorative.

In specific monuments, such as the Mosque of Sultan Hasan in Cairo, the use of muqarnas may be very general, covering much of the monument, while in specific styles, such as that of the Ottoman mosques, it may be limited, but a standard feature of certain elements, such as the portal, mihrab, column capitals and minaret balconies.

The Role of Calligraphy

Another form of decoration in mosques, and sometimes the only decoration, is the written word, applied using calligraphy. The script is often so ornate that uninformed western visitors may even mistake it for abstract designs. Most usually, the calligraphy records passages from the Muslim holy book, the Qu’an, but examples of quotations from hadith and other pious phrases may also be found.


In effect, the written word of the Qur’an is the Islamic equivalent to a Christian icon, having value as a visible representation of supernatural reality, even though many of these inscriptions are so ornate, so high on the wall, or located in obscure places that they are actually unreadable.

From top to Bottom: Mashq, Square Kufic, Eastern Kufic, Thuluth, Naskhi, Muhaqqaq, Rihani, TaliqArabic Scripts

Right: From top to Bottom: Mashq, Square Kufic, Eastern Kufic, Thuluth, Naskhi, Muhaqqaq, Rihani, Taliq

The calligraphy of the earliest mosques were all written in an angular lettering we refer to as Kufic, which was the only Arabic script in use at that time.  Latter, during the Abbasid Period, and particularly after the 10th and 11th century, a rounder script known as thuluth was almost extensively used in monumental settings, though Angular Kufic inscriptions also continued to be used. However, the use of Kufic became more and more ornamental over time, and hence, less and less readable. Another form of script found in mosques, though much more rarely, is muhaqaq, mostly used for large scale Qur’an, while the tawqui script was used for stucco inscriptions, and occasionally elsewhere.


Many times, thuluth inscriptions are written in bands that appear to consist of an upper and lower register. Most often, the text lettering is white on a dark blue background. However, rather than two registers, this calligraphy consists of really only one register, with the words, or even parts of words progressing up and down and back and forth across the horizontal line formed from the elongated and reversed yas, while the whole text slowly progresses from right to left.

In another style that saw considerable use during the Timurid and Safavid periods, monumental thuluth with exaggerated, elongated verticals were used to create a band of lettering in one or more registers. Again, the lettering was usually white on a dark blue background.  However, across the top of the band, and through the verticals, ran a band of small Kufic text, usually colored ochre or umber in order to contrast with the thuluth script. The Kufic text, which is most often two high and two small to be read, functions to tie the tops of the thuluth verticals together and unit it with the band as a whole.


Various text from the Qur’an or other sources may be used in mosques, and while there seems to have been little preference for a particular text in any specific location within a mosque, the text used is almost always appropriate for the specific location. Overall, however, the text many times represents a theme that may communicate a specific agenda on the part of the mosque’s patron, designer or builder. One exception to this is the text used for near the mihrab, which often contain one of several Qur’anic quotations containing the word mihrab.

Visiting Mosques

Non Muslim visitors to Egypt are welcome to visit many of the ancient and archaic mosques at most times other then Friday Prayers. There are very few that cannot be entered, but visitors should conform to certain dress codes and observe mosque etiquette. In reality, the same etiquette applies when visiting ancient Christian churches in Egypt. Mostly, it is a matter of clothing, or rather coverage.

While shorts, and short dresses are more and more common even on the streets of Cairo and other tourist locations, both men and women should have their legs covered. Revealing tops should also be avoided, and shoulders covered. These are simply the basic requirements.

As a matter of respect for another’s religion, it is also custom to cover the arms, and particularly for women, also the hair, though many visitors do not do so, and are not required to do so.

You will also be asked to remove your shoes prior to entering the mosque, and will usually be offered a pair of slippers. Don’t worry, your shoes will be safe, but a small tip of an Egyptian pound or two should be given to the shoe keeper when leaving the mosque.

Besides these restrictions, use your common sense. Obviously, the mosque is a place of tranquility and is sacred, so playing around, yelling and other disruptions should be completely avoided.  Photography is, however, usually allowed, though depending on the mosque, there may be a fee.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Al Qahira Sassi, Dino 1992 Al Ahram/Elsevier None Stated
Cairo (Giza-Sakkarah-Memphis El-Mallakh, Kamal 1996 Bonechi ISBN 88-7009-231-3
Cambridge Illustrated History Islamic World Robinson, Francis 1996 Cambridge University Press ISBN 0-521-43510-2
Egypt (Gift of the Nile) Martinengo, Lorenzo 1994 Passport Books ISBN 0-8442-9665-1
Egypt in Color Wood, Roger 1964 McGraw-Hill Book Company ISBN 64-22355
Historical Cairo (A Walk Through the Islamic City) Antonious, Jim 1988 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977-424-497-4
History of Islam, The Payne, Robert 1959 Barns & Noble Books ISBN 1-56619-852-6
Mosque, The: History, Architectural Development & Regional Diversity Frishman, Martin and Khan, Hasan-Uddin 1994 Thames and Hudson LTD ISBN 0-500-34133-8
This is Egypt Goren, A.; Beecham, N. Undated Unknown None Stated
Venture of Islam, The (Conscience and History in a World Civilization) Volume One (The Classical Age of Islam) Hodgson, Marshall G. S. 1974 University of Chicago Press, The ISBN 0-266-34682-8


2 responses to “An Overview of Historical Islamic Mosques in Egypt

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