Described as the third jewel of the Haram after the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, al-Ashrafiyya is identified by its protruding volume into the Haram. A twenty-two-meter-long endowment deed preserved in Cairo clearly identifies the building and defines its boundaries. The complicated history of al-Ashrafiyya begins with the establishment of a madrasa on the site by Sultan Khushqadam (d. 1467). Shortly after the death of Sultan Khushqadam, his successor Sultan al-Malik al-Ashraf Qaytbay (d. 1496) founded al-Ashrafiyya on the same site. Qaytbay, who was one of the greatest patrons of Mamluk architecture, commissioned many buildings, particularly in Cairo. Inscription bands near the new portal built with the madrasa record the completion date of construction as 1482. It is noteworthy that the builders and craftsmen, as well as the Coptic architect of al-Ashrafiyya, were all sent from Cairo to complete the building.
On the Haram level along the western portico of the sanctuary, the small site is bounded on the south by the Bab al-Silsila minaret and on the north by the Uthmaniyya madrasa. The twenty-seven by fourteen meter site was too small to build a madrasa in the standards set by similar institutions in Cairo. Although five cross-vaulted bays of the portico (built 1336-37) were appropriated into the assembly hall (blocking the continuous pedestrian flow under the riwaq), more space was needed. The chosen solution was to protrude into the Haram: a loggia and a platform one bay deep and five bays long served as the base for the madrasa's main level. At eight meters high, this platform also placed the main floor of the madrasa on the same level as the Dome of the Rock. The assembly hall incorporated three bays of the riwaq, with one bay providing space for an entry porch leading to the vestibule and the stair tower.
The plan of the upper floor consists of a tripartite reception hall aligned north south directly resting on the platform below with an outer court aligned in the same direction directly west of the reception hall. Perpendicular to the southwest corner of the outer court is an upper terrace, which leads to a series of spaces along its south side. The upper terrace overlooks the courtyard of the neighboring Baladiyya madrasa below.
The reception hall of the upper floor was the main space of the madrasa; it was largely destroyed in an earthquake in 1496. This hall originally consisted of two axial iwans: a north iwan and a south iwan with a mihrab. In addition there was a smaller west iwan and a tripartite loggia to the east framing the views to the Dome of the Rock directly opposite. The decoration and design of al-Ashrafiyya followed Mamluk architectural traditions as well keeping pace with contemporaneous works in Cairo. The reception hall exhibited such Cairene elements as intricate arabesque pattern carvings and alternating red and white joggled voussoirs.
The east elevation of al-Ashrafiyya strongly relates to the spaces behind it. On the ground level, two grilled windows flank a doorway leading into the meeting hall. The aperture pattern anticipates the floor plan of the space beyond. Further south, on the corner of the protruding volume is the entrance porch with its relatively large arches. The now missing upper floor elevation consisted of a triple arched loggia flanked by three windows to the south and two to the north. The open loggia of the east elevation is unique in Mamluk architecture and breaks away from traditional plan form of a madrasa. Although only the lower edge of the loggia is visible within the masonry of the existing building, there is visual documentation of the building by Edward Reuwich of Utrecht from 1486.
The entrance porch at the southeast corner of the ground floor is open both to the south and to the east with slightly pointed arches constructed of red and white ablaq voussoirs. A carved engaged column engraved with the name of Qaytbay articulates the outer corner of the pier supporting the two arches. Another Cairene feature is the folded cross vaulting used in the porch. The porch vaulting is crowned with a cross shaped panel with arabesque carvings. Within the porch, the portal to the vestibule is set in a recess topped by a trefoil-arch constructed of black, white and red ablaq masonry framing the recess. The portal arch encloses a shallow dome flanked by two muqarnas corner squinches. Rectangular panels of arabesque inscriptions flank the granite lintel of the door and two carved panels of strapwork flank the arch around the door. A grilled window situated directly above the door lights the vestibule within. Other various techniques of decoration are incorporated into the elaborate portal.
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