Madrasa Iljay al-Yusufi
Cairo, Egypt

The Madrasa of Amir Iljay al-Yusufi was built in 1373 by the amir of Sayf al-Din Iljay, an amir "of the sword," who rose through the ranks. The complex was built shortly after his appointment as commander in chief of the armies and his marriage to Khwand Baraka, the mother of Sultan Sha'ban (1363-77). For a few months Iljay was the de facto head of the government; however, when Princess Baraka died, a quarrel with the sultan over her property obliged Iljay to flee. He drowned crossing the Nile on horseback. His body was recovered by divers and brought back for burial in his madrasa. The blazon of the saqi, or cupbearer, a cup in the middle field of a three-register shield, appears in the dating inscription over the entrance. Here again, as in the case of Yunus al-Dawadar, by picking the cup from the various court ranks he had held, Iljay is reminding the world forever that, as described by the historian al-Maqrizi, he had once been "surpassing fair."

The madrasa belongs to the cruciform four-iwan type, with the domed mausoleum overlooking the main street. The living units are separated from the madrasa's courtyard, whose sides are occupied by the four iwans, and they have their windows on a side street. Such extroversion is characteristic of late Bahri madrasas and expresses their active role in Cairene life.

The architecture of the main facade is the characteristic Mamluk style of the Bahri period. Mamluk Cairene facades provide a stage for a dramatic visual play of forms and volumes positioned in such a way as to accentuate their contrasting outlines. Here such a configuration is exemplified by the vertical thrust of the minaret terminating in a bulb, the hemispherical counterbalance of the dome, the rectangular frame of the portal, the mass of the facade comprising a tall vertically articulated wall, the sabil strategically carved out at the corner (above which a cubical mass is subtracted from the bulk of the building for the kuttab loggia), and the horizontal band of shurfat (crenellations) to unify the facade. The relationships of these forms to each other give the Cairene facade its originality. The surmounting of the sabil at the corner of the building with a kuttab, a Qur'anic school for boys, to form a unified composition was unprecedented but from then on became a standard practice in religious buildings of Cairo.

An outstanding feature is the curved ribbed dome of the mausoleum, with the stone ribs deflected at 45 degrees to the right and curved back towards the crown, producing a powerful dynamic effect.


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

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

Kessler, Christel. The Carved Masonry Domes of Mediaeval Cairo. n.p.: London : AARP, 1976.

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

Williams, Caroline. Islamic Monuments in Cairo:The Practical Guide, 83-84. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2002.

Shari' Suq al-Silah, Cairo, Egypt
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Associated Names
1372/773-774 AH
Style Periods
Variant Names
Iljay al-Yusufi Madrasa
Madrasat Iljay al-Yusufi
Building Usages