The cultural and historical heritage of Egypt centres around Cairo, because of the incomparable accumulation of Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic treasures located there.
Following the Muslim conquest of the Byzantine city in 641 AD, and the establishment of the military encampment Al-Fustat, the governmental seat of the province of Egypt, Cairo, as a critical part of the rapidly expanding Islamic Empire, was enlarged by a succession of powerful ruling dynasties. After the Mongol conquest of Baghdad it became the largest medieval Muslim city.
In 969 the Fatimids, moving eastward along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, established a city which they named al-Qahira, 'the Victorious', which then became the nucleus of the medieval quarter. Under the Fatimids, al-Qahira became the seat of power, a ceremonial residential centre where the Caliph dwelt with his court and army.
The princely enclave which the Fatimids established was used as a base to challenge the authority of the Abbasids in Baghdad. The Fatimid legacy, although much is no longer extant, is most evident today in the al-Azhar Mosque and University, and al-Aqmar Mosque. Defensive city walls built by the Fatimids have played an important part in protecting the historic core from encroachment by the sprawling metropolis that continues to grow up around it. These walls were subsequently expanded by the Ayyubid Sultan Salah al-Din.
The population of the city, which grew because of refugees fleeing from uncertain conditions in the east, as well as by Salah al-Din's decree that the princely enclave should be opened to all, and not reserved for the ruling class alone, forced changes in the linear, orthogonal structure, creating the twisting organic streets we see today.
Under the Mamluks, who ruled in various forms from 1250 to 1517, this central core reached its height as a metropolis. After the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1261, the seat of the caliphate was transferred to Cairo, making it the political center of Islam. Its wealth, due to its new status and the monopoly it was able to establish over Red Sea trade, was directed into the construction of many large complexes, such as the extraordinary Madrasa Mausoleum and Maristan of Sultan Qalawun, built between 1284 and 1285, which rivals the highest architectural achievements realized in Europe at this time.
Although the city never reclaimed its once exalted position after the Ottoman Conquest in 1517, the momentum that had been established continued in the form of a conscious attitude toward the enhancement of an important legacy, and many fine architectural examples date from this period.
A brief renewal of prosperity and power was achieved under the Ottoman Governor Muhammed Ali following the Napoleonic occupation of Cairo in 1798. Under the Ottomans, the decision to emulate French city planning techniques, and open up vast new boulevards that moved outward to the north and west, reconfigured the city plan and remains predominant in Cairo's downtown core until today. (Visit the collection Art Deco Architecture in Cairo) to see some of the structures from this period. In addition to neighborhoods like Zamalek, Dokki, and Muhandiseen, present day Cairo encompasses the historically distinct zones of Babylon and Fustat, as well as the nineteenth century suburb Heliopolis (Misr al-Jadida), and its contemporary counterpart, Maadi.
The hypostyle mosque of Amir Aqsunqur was built by the amir, a son-in-law of al-Nasir Muhammad, in 1346-7. Part of the foundation is a mausoleum located on the street side and containing the graves of Sultan 'Ala' al-Din Kuchuk (r. 1341-2), son of al-Nasir Muhammad, and several of his brothers. This mausoleum, which predates the mosque, is one of the very few Cairene mausolea that follow the street alignment instead of the qibla. As a member of the house of Qalawun through marriage, Amir Aqsunqur incorporated this mausoleum into the structure of his mosque, which accounts for the irregularity of the ground plan of the complex. He also added another mausoleum in which he and his son were interred.
A curious feature of the original scheme of this mosque is its employment of piers sustaining cross-vaults. This is a departure from the standard structural scheme for the interior of hypostyle mosques from the Bahri period, which consists of arcades formed by marble columns carrying arches which support a flat wooden ceiling. However, Aqsunqur, who is reported by al-Maqrizi to have himself been the supervisor on the construction site, had been governor of Tripoli, Syria, the great mosque of which (1294-1314) follows a hypostyle scheme with cross vaults on piers. In addition to these vaults on piers, the mosque has arcades on columns supporting a flat wooden ceiling, probably a later addition.
The brick one-bay dome above the mihrab is carried on four plain squinches built of brick. Similar squinches are also used to carry the brick dome over the mausoleum of Kuchuk, but with a pendentive underneath each squinch. By the time this foundation was built, the use of plain squinches in the transitional zones of domes instead of muqarnas pendentives or squinches was old-fashioned. The blue Iznik tiles on the qibla wall were installed in 1652-64 by Ibrahim Agha, who seized and redecorated the mosque. They were imported either from Istanbul or from Damascus.
Instead of the usual position at the portal, the minaret is strategically located at the southern corner of the facade which projects into Bab al-Wazir Street. This projection cleverly provides the minaret with a complete visual domination of the southern part of the street. The minaret has features that are rare in Cairene minarets. The present minaret, which was restored at the beginning of the 20th c., has three stories. The first story, which rises from the short square base, is circular and plain, the second circular and ribbed, and the third is open, octagonal, and carries a bulb. Due to its visual domination of the street, this minaret was the subject of many 19th c. illustrations, which show that it originally had four stories instead of the standard three. The fourth story, which surmounted the present octagonal one, was the standard circular pavilion consisting of eight slender columns supporting a bulb. The original minaret of Aqsunqur and the rectangular minaret of al-Ghuri are the only documented Cairene examples of four-story minarets. The minaret of Aqsunqur is one of the few Cairene minarets which are circular in cross-section from the base to the top, and it also displays the earliest dated example of concave chamfering in the transitional zone between the square base and the circular shaft. Unlike prismatic triangles, undulating moldings, and straight chamfering, this transitional feature was unique to minarets and was never employed on the bases of domes.
Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. The Minarets of Cairo. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1985.
Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. Islamic Architecture in Cairo. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989.
Meinecke, Michael. "Die Moschee des Amirs Aqsunqur an-Nasiri in Kairo." Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 29 (1973): 9-38.
Meinecke, Michael. Die Mamlukische Architektur in Ägypten und Syrien (648/1250 bis 923/1517). Glückstadt: Verlag J. J. Augustin, 1992.
Meinecke-Berg, Victoria. "Die Osmanische Fliesendekoration der Aqsunqur-Moschee in Kairo. Zur Entwicklung der Iznik-Fliesen des 17 Jahrhunderts." Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 29 (1973): 39-62.
Jami' Aq Sunqar (Alternate)
Jami' Ibrahim Agha Mustahfizan (Alternate transliteration)
Jami' Aqsunqur (Alternate transliteration)
Jami' al-Amir Aq Sunqar al-Salari al-Ansari (Alternate transliteration)