Egypt’s architecture in the eyes of Xavier Pascal Coste


Xavier Pascal Coste (26 November 1787 – 8 February 1879) was a French architect, born in Marseille, France. Showing intellectual and artistic promise, Pascal began his studies in the studio of Penchaud, architect of the département and the municipalité. In 1814, he began studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His time in Paris was a pivotal moment in his life – there he met the geographer Edme François Jomard, who put him in touch with the viceroy of Egypt, Mehmet Ali, who took Pascal Coste on as his architect in 1817.

Pascal Coste (photo: ARTS)

In 1825, Pascal Coste returned to France with an impressive series of drawings of the architecture of Cairo. Following a brief stay in France, he returned to Egypt once again at Mehmet Ali’s request, where Ali made him chief engineer for Lower Egypt. Coste remained there for four years, during which he produced many sketches, but he found the Egyptian climate difficult and returned to France in 1829. There he became a professor of architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, thanks to the links he had kept up with Penchaud. He remained in this post until 1861, when he was one of the founding members of the intellectual centre known as the Athénée.

Pascal Coste greatly admired the Islamic architecture of Egypt and through his work hoped to share this love with his European audience.

Qibla wall in the Complex of Sultan Al-Muayyad Shaykh

The Mosque of Sultan Al-Mu’ayyad was built by the Mamluk sultan Al-Mu’ayyad Sayf al-Din Shaykh from whom it takes its name. Construction began in 1415 and the mosque was completed in 1421. The complex included a Friday mosque and a madrasa  for the four madhhabs.

Mosque of Ahmed ibn Tūlūn

The Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Ţūlūn is arguably the oldest mosque  in the city surviving in its original form, and is the largest mosque in Cairo in terms of land area.

Complex of Sultan Faraj ibn Barquq

The Complex of Sultan Faraj ibn Barquq consists of a khanqah, a large mosque, two mausoleums, two sabil-kuttabs, two minarets, two large domes, and a central courtyard with four-iwan plan.

Complex of Sultan Qalawun

The Qalawun Complex was built over the ruins of the Fatimid Palace of Cairo, with several halls in the palace. It was sold to several people until it was finally bought by the Sultan Qalawun in 1283 AD. The structure resides in the heart of Cairo, in the Bayn al-Qasrayn, and has been a center for important religious ceremonies and rituals of the Islamic faith for years, stretching from the Mamluk dynasty through the Ottoman Empire.

Complex of Sultan Hassan

The complex of Sultan Hassan is a massive Mamluk era mosque and madrasa located near the Citadel in Cairo. Its construction began 757 AH/1356 CE with work ending three years later “without even a single day of idleness”. At the time of construction, the mosque was considered remarkable for its fantastic size and innovative architectural components. Commissioned by a sultan of a short and relatively unimpressive profile, al-Maqrizi noted that within the mosque were several “wonders of construction”. The mosque was, for example, designed to include schools for all four of the Sunni schools of thought: Shafii, Maliki, Hanafi, and Hanbali.

Bab Al-Futuh, general view

Bab Al-Futuh is a gate in the walls of the Old City of Cairo, facing north. It was finished in the year 1087. It stands at the northern end of Al-Muizz street.

The gate was part of the fortification built by Commander/Vizier Bader al-Jamali of Fattimid Imam/caliph Mustansir. The name ‘Futuh’ indicates it is a gate of victory. Its rounded towers were a stronger defense than the square towers of Bab al-Nasr (another Old City gate, just to the east). They had shafts for pouring boiling water or burning oil on attackers, and arrow slits. The gate is covered in vegetal and geometric motifs.

Pascal Coste’s sketches illustrate a part of Egypt’s rich architectural heritage in a way that so few have done. The sketches do not only illustrate the social dynamics of the complexes he was representing but also offer a glimpse at some of the architectural masterpieces without the visual congestion seen today.