Al-Rifa’i Mosque: An architectural pearl hosting the tombs of Mohamed Ali’s family

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Al-Rifa’i Mosque, in its inexplicable grandeur, is one of the most splendid mosques in Egypt. It is located opposite to the mosque and madrasa of Al-Sultan Hassan in Al-Qal’aa area.

Al Rifa’i Mosque (right) and Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan (left)

The mosque was named after Ahmed Ezz Al Din Al-Sayyad Al-Refai, one of the grandsons of Imam Ahmed Al-Refai, who was born in Iraq. Even though Imam Ahmed Al-Refai (1118-1182) the leader of the renowned Sufi tarriqa was not buried inside the mosque, and not even in Egypt, naming the mosque after him was necessary because of Al Refa’I zawya, which the mosque was built around and which included the remains of Sheikh Ali Abi Al-Shabak, who is a descendent of Al-Imam Refai.

Al Rifa’i Mosque (right) and Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan (left)

Al-Rifa’i Mosque garden facade

Khedive Ismail’s mother Khoshyar Hanem chose this small zawya in the year 1869 to later be a burial ground for some of Mohamed Ali’s sons, the most famous of whom was her grandson and Egypt’s last monarch, King Farouk son of Fouad and grandson of Khedive Ismail.

Al-Rifa’i Mosque

The area:

The mosque was built in a rectangular shape on a total area of 7056 square metres. The only open space is located in the eastern wing. The middle section of this open space which comprises 1767 metres was designated for prayer. The rest of the space was specified for the entrances and tombs.

Rifai mosque entrance

The building stands at a length of 26.5 metres in the eastern section, and at 33 metres in the western section, the difference in length being a result of each wing’s location.

History of construction:

It was built following the Mamluk style which was dominant during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The construction material was imported from Europe. Khedive Ismail’s mother Khoshyar Hanem had tasked one of Egypt’s most prominent engineers at the time, Hussein Fahmy pasha with the mosque’s design. Fahmy was an engineer from the ruling family and he had studied in France.

The construction continued until the building was at two metres above ground level, before it was halted to integrate some amendments to the design. When princess Khoshyar died in 1885, the construction process was brought to a halt for another 25 years.

During the era of Khedive Abbas Helmy II and specifically in the year 1905, the mosque was entrusted to Max Herz Pasha, the engineer of the committee for the conservation of Arab antiquities who gave orders to resume construction of the mosque while maintaining its original idea, which was to construct a building that corresponds to the hugeness of Al-Sultan Hassan mosque. The construction resumed until it was concluded towards the end of 1911, and was opened for prayer on a Friday in 1912 (the first day of Muharram 1330 A.H.). The mosque had taken forty years to be constructed.

Al-Refa’i mosque comprises tombs of members from the Egyptian royal families:

Amongst them is that of Princess Khoshyar, who initially introduced the idea of the mosque. It also hosts the tombs of Egyptian rulers starting with the famous military leader and Mohamed Ali’s son Ibrahim pasha; Khedive Ismail; Abbas I and his mother Nour Hanem; Ibrahim pasha’s son prince Ahmed; Sa’ied pasha’s mother princess ‘ayn al Hayyah; Sultan Kamel who ruled Egypt from 1914 till his death in 1917; King Fouad (1868-1936) and King Farouk I.

What is rather strange is that Farouk I’s cemetery is not characterised by the grandeur evident in other tombs. Farouk had died in one of Roma’s restaurants on 17 March 1965 under mysterious circumstances. President Gamal Abdel Nasser refused to allow his burial in Egypt but would later give in to pressure. A plane carried Farouk’s body at night, to be buried in dawn but not in Al-Refa’I mosque. After Nasser’s death in 1970, president Saddat agreed to transfer Farouk’s remains to Al-Refa’I mosque.

Tomb of Farouk I

Al-Refa’I also comprises the cemetery of Iran’s last shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Pavlavi was married to Farouk’s sister Princess Fawzeyya during the 1940s and hence had to be buried in this mosque.

Tomb of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, located at the Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo

Tomb of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, located at the Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo

What is interesting about this anecdote is that the room initially included the body of Pavlavi’s father (1878-1944). Pavlavi was ousted by Britain during WWII and was exiled in South Africa. When he died, he was buried in the mosque. When he divorced princess Fawzeyya at the end of the 1940s, the remains of his father were transferred to Iran.

In the year 1979, the Khomeini Revolution erupted and toppled Pavlavi from his throne. No one offered to host Pavlavi except for President Sadat. When Pavlavi died on 27 July 1980 of cancer, he was buried in the same room that had hosted his father’s body before. A beauteous marble structure sporting the Sassanian symbol of the Pavlavi dynasty was placed on his cemetery.

Recently, Princess Ferial Farouk was buried in the mosque. She had died on 29 December 2009 in Switzerland.

The mosque’s design:

The mosque comprises three towering entrances, surrounded by stone colonnades and marble with Arabic crowns atop, whereas the thresholds are ornamented with marble.

Ceiling of The Entrance – Masjid Al Rifai

The section designated for prayer in the mosque takes the shape of a square above which lies a marvelous dome supported by four huge arches. Copper chandeliers dangle from the ceiling. The mosque’s top is also covered by wooden ceilings adorned with beautiful golden inscriptions.

As for the mihrab, it lies in the middle of the eastern wall and it is coated with coloured marble. Next to it sits the wooden minbar which is inlaid with ivory and ebony. One can enter the prayer hall from either the eastern or western door.

The walls of the mosque are sheathed with coloured marble and decorated with Arabic ornaments. As one wanders around the mosque, one realises that it is one of the richest Islamic mosques when it comes to ornamentations and inscriptions.