Buyut al-Fatimiyin fi al-Fustat
Cairo, Egypt

A group of houses still remain that were built during the Tulunid and Fatimid periods (9th-11th c.), at Fustat, which flourished until the great famine during the reign of al-Mustansir in 1054 and the ensuing epidemic of 1065/71-2. Badr al-Jamali, appointed in 1073 after his victories in Syria, permitted army officers and others to erect new buildings in Cairo out of stones and other building material from the abandoned houses of Fustat, al-Qata'i and al-'Askar. Fustat was burned by the Fatimid vizier in 1168 to preempt its capture by the Crusader king of Jerusalem. Systematic pillaging of the ruins of the houses began after the reign of Baybars I. Destruction has continued into modern times.

Excavations carried out as early as 1912 revealed important aspects of the earliest encountered domestic architecture in Islamic Egypt and have made it possible to understand the urban morphology of a Muslim town from that early period. Constellated houses formed masses that were bordered by irregular unpaved narrow streets; the outcome was a complex interwoven urban fabric punctuated by courtyards and winding thoroughfares.

Plans of houses were found to conform to a pattern of spatial organization in a remarkable way. A strong axial layout, generated by the perpendicular axes of a rectangular courtyard, was adhered to throughout the fabric. A composite, T-shaped structure serving as a majlis opened onto a courtyard via a transverse, tripartite portico which, with the rectangular, iwan-like space perpendicular to it, gave this structure its characteristic shape. This structure is replicated on the opposite side of the courtyard. The remaining sides of the court would house iwans, niches, or rooms whose openings on the court were positioned so that each elevation of the courtyard's walls would be symmetrical. This uncovered courtyard was not a cul-de-sac; it functioned as part of the circulation system of the house. The occurrence of this T-shape, a type known in Ukhaidir and Samarra, underscores the influence of Mesopotamia on built form during the heyday of the 'Abbasids. It has been suggested that it stemmed from al-Mutawakkil's innovation at Samarra of a form which al-Mas'udi (d. 957), our contemporary source for this, called a "Hiri bi kummayn wa arwiqa" or a Hiri (originated in al-Hira region in northern Iraq) with two sleeves and several porticoes, which people then incorporated into their domestic architecture. Understanding the underlying logic of the sequence of spaces found in these houses is indispensable for the study of the evolution of this open courtyard house of Fustat into the standard Mamluk durqa'a-iwan composition, both in the private dwelling and the rab' or collective housing.

Also found in Fustat were painted muqarnas fragments in the ruins of the bath of Abu'l Su'ud, dated, on stylistic grounds, to the 11th c. These are among the earliest examples of the use of muqarnas in Egypt, and are particularly interesting for their function as an element of transition.


Creswell, K.A.C. The Muslim Architecture of Egypt, vol. I. Hacker Art Books, New York, 1978.

Goitein, D. "A Mansion in Fustat: A Twelfth Century Description of a Domestic Compound in the Ancient Capital of Egypt." In The Medieval City, edited by Harry Miskimin et al., 163-178. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Jarrar, Sabri, András Riedlmayer, and Jeffrey B. Spurr. Resources for the Study of Islamic Architecture. Cambridge, MA: Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, 1994.

Lézine, Alexandre. "Les salles nobles des palais mamelouks." Annales Islamologiques 10 (1972).

Sayed, Hazem. "The Rab' in Cairo: A Window on Mamluk Architecture and Urbanism." Ph.D. diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1987.

Fustat, Cairo, Egypt
Associated Names
9th-11th c./2nd-5th c. AH
Style Periods
Variant Names
Fatimid Houses of Fustat
Fatimid Houses
Building Usages