Funerary Complex of Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay
Cairo, Egypt

The foundation of Sultan Barsbay in the Northern Cemetery was built in 1432-3. Its madrasa, dedicated to Sufi students studying the Hanafi rite, comprised a covered prayer hall that also served as a congregational mosque for daily Sufi practices in the afternoon. The Sufis were housed in an apartment building (rab') detached from the main madrasa hall, consisting of duplexes with private latrines. Two zawiyas are introduced here along with the khanqah for the first time in Mamluk religious architecture. The zawiyas, of which only the one dedicated to the Rifa'i Sufi order is still extant, provided lodging for the resident shaykh and Sufi visitors. The zawiya or qubba of al-Rifa'i was restored in 1478.

In early Mamluk khanqahs, cells were integrated into the body of the cruciform four-iwan complex, which also had a courtyard, a prayer hall, and subsidiary iwans, since the introverted nature of the monastic institution did not require a differentiation between public and private spaces. The integration of the khanqah into the madrasa provided Sufis with a new worldly exposure. The addition of the zawiyas to the complex of Barsbay, which accounts for the reduction in the size of the khanqah, the transformation of the prayer hall into a congregational mosque, and the separation of the Sufis' cells from the main body of the religious complex, all indicate the emergence of a new form of Sufism that abandoned the secluded monastic life. Zawiyas, which disseminated the ideology of an order or a charismatic shaykh, eventually superseded khanqahs as centers of Sufi learning, and became popular among the religious community.

The dome of Barsbay's mausoleum, as well as that of the two adjacent mausolea--one built for his amir Gani Bak al-Ashrafi, and the other for his court officials--exhibit the earliest examples of star pattern interlace carved on the exterior of stone domes. The strictly coherent, two-dimensional geometrical designs were brilliantly adjusted to the challenging structure of the late Mamluk dome characterized by a steep rise contracting to a pointed apex. This was a shift from the dominant zigzag moldings of stone domes from this period, such as that on the dome of the mausoleum which Barsbay built as part of his foundation on Shari' al-Mu'izz (1425). Characteristic of khanqahs from this period is the mihrab's lack of decoration, possibly a reminder of the ascetic nature of this institution at a time when decoration everywhere else was becoming increasingly lavish. The minbar with its ivory inlay, presented to the khanqah as a gift in 1453, is a Mamluk masterpiece.

In its interior zone of transition, the dome of the Mausoleum of Gani Bak al-Ashrafi exhibits a pendentive-squinch, a common hybrid form. On the exterior, the base of the dome Mausoleum of Gani Bak exhibits chamfered corners and prismatic triangles.


Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. "Change in Function and Form of Mamluk Religious Institutions." Annales Islamologiques 21 (1985): 73-93.

Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. Islamic Architecture in Cairo. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989.

Fernandes, Leonor. "The Evolution of the Khanqah Institution in Mamluk Egypt." Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1980.

Fernandes, Leonor. "Three Sufi Foundations in a 15th c. Waqfiyya." Annales Islamologiques 17 (1981): 141-156.

Ibrahim, Laila 'Ali. "The Transitional Zones of Domes in Cairene Architecture." Kunst des Orients 10 (1975): 5-23.

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

Meinecke, Michael. Die Mamlukische Architektur in Ägypten und Syrien (648/1250 bis 923/1517). Glückstadt: Verlag J. J. Augustin, 1992.

Qarafa al-Kubra, Cairo, Egypt
Images & Videos
Associated Names
Part of Site
Site Contains
1432-1433/836 AH, restored 1478/882-883 AH
Style Periods
Variant Names
Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay Funerary Complex at the Northern Cemetery
Madrasa al-Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay
Building Usages