Ibn Tulun Mosque: The oldest vestige of Islamic architecture in Egypt


Ahmed Ibn Tulun Mosque is the oldest mosque in Egypt and one of the largest in the world. The mosque, named after the founder of the Tulunid dynasty, cost 120,000 dinars and was completed in 876 CE. The ultimate inspiration was to design a perfect mosque. Showcased in this creation is the minaret, a masterpiece in the style of the Samarra Mosque in Iraq, which features a spiralled minaret.

The dome is punctuated with 24 horse-shoe shaped openings. The openings refer to the 24-hour day, where an opening is closed as an indication of the passing hour. During the reign of the Ayyubids, the Ibn Tulun Mosque functioned as a university where subjects such as the four Islamic denominations, Prophetic traditions and medicine were taught, in addition to education for orphans.

Who is Ahmed Ibn Tulun?

Ahmed Ibn Tulun was born in Baghdad in 835 CE. His father, Tulun, was a Turkish slave who was gifted to the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun by the governor of Bukhara. He served in the Abbasid court, eventually earning the rank of a lord, and thus his son Ahmed was brought up with this title. Ahmed Ibn Tulun did well for himself, eventually coming to command the caliph’s private guard. When the Abbasid caliph decided to appoint Bakbak as the governor of Egypt, Bakbak in turn sent Ahmed Ibn Tulun as his regent. He arrived in Egypt in 868 CE.

However, Bakbak was murdered and the governorship passed to Yarjukh Al-Turki, the father of Ibn Tulun’s wife, Hatun. Yarjukh retained Ibn Ṭulun as his regent in Egypt, and increased his power by granting him authority over Alexandria and other territories in the region.

Initially, Ibn Tulun’s rule in Egypt was marked by a struggle for control with the existing head of the council of financial affairs, Ibn Al-Mudabbir. Ibn Al-Mudabbir was disliked by the local population because of high taxation rates and greed. Ibn Al-Mudabbir reported directly to the caliph, not to the governor of Egypt, and as such ignored Ibn Tulun entirely. Ibn Tulun used his influence at the Abbasid court to work against Ibn al-Mudabbir, and finally was able to have him removed after four years. Gradually, Ibn Tulun took full control over Egypt and parts of the Levant, then established the Tulunid dynasty that ruled Egypt from 868 to 905. He passed away in 883. The historical significance of Ahmed Ibn Tulun is primarily in bringing about independence to Egypt after having been affiliated to the Abbasid state.

After building his palace in Mokatam and founding the city of Qata’i, Ibn Tulun built his mosque on Gebel Yashkur (the Hill of Thanksgiving) in 876.

Mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun (photo: Blogspot)

It was the third congregational mosque to be built in what is now greater Cairo. The first was built in 641 by Amr Ibn Al-As, the Muslim conqueror of Egypt, and the second at Al-Askar, the Abbasid capital, founded in 750 CE. All traces of Al-Askar have completely vanished, and the original form of the mosque of Amr has been all but obliterated over centuries of extension and restoration. Therefore, Ibn Tulun’s Mosque is the oldest to survive in Egypt while maintaining its original form. An ancient Kufic calligraphy sample from 9th century indicates: “The Amir… has ordered the construction of this blessed mosque, using the revenues from a pure and legitimate source that God has granted him…”

The Formation Text of Ahmed Ibn Tulun Mosque

The mosque is surrounded by an enclosure that measures 118 x 138 metres. Surrounding the mosque on three sides, all but the side that holds the niche that indicates the direction of prayer, to Mecca, called the qiblah, are enclosed by narrow wings called ziyadas,

(photo: Al Sham Today)

The mosque is constructed around a courtyard, with one covered hall on each of the four sides, the largest being on the side of the qibla. The original mosque had its ablution fountain (sabil) in the area between the inner and outer walls. A distinctive sabil with a high drum dome was added in the central courtyard at the end of the 13th century by Sultan Lajin.

Fountain (or sabil) used for ritual cleansing before prayer (photo: Al Sham Today)

The mosque is built entirely of baked brick, which was not usual building material for Egypt, but was at Samarra. The only feature which is made of limestone is the minaret, which is one reason why it was thought to have been added later than the rest of the mosque. The courtyard is roughly square, with an area of 92 square metres, but its four sides are not quite equal (91.75 x 91.90 x 92.10 x 92.35) which likely is a reflection of the speed with which the mosque was built (only 3 years), or possibly the lack of familiarity of the local craftsmen with the materials used. It is surrounded by arcades with 13 arches opening onto it on each side.

Spiralled minaret at the Samarra Mosque, Iraq (photo: Al Rafedein)

The innovations and additions to the mosque by Sultan Hosam Al-Din Lajin in 1296 are considered the most important and extensive to be carried out in the mosque. The story behind this renovation is of extreme interest to its history. Before becoming sultan, Husam Al-Din Lajin spent a year in hiding at the dilapidated Ibn Tulun Mosque after he killed King Al-Ashraf Khalil Ibn Qalawon. The mosque was at that time deserted and had been turned into stables for travellers’ horses, so Husam vowed to renovate the mosque someday if he ever got out of trouble and had the means. When he later ascended the throne, he kept his word.

Dome (photo: Msobieh)

The Minaret

The minaret is the most distinctive feature of the Ibn Tulun mosque, as it is clearly reminiscent of that found at the Samarra Mosque. It was the first minaret to be built in Egypt, and it directly evoked the Abbasids and their mosques to the east. The minaret is 44.40 metres high and it houses a spiral staircase that winds around the outside body of the minaret, not within the walled interior. However, also pointing to the idea that it was a later construction, the minaret does not connect well with the main mosque structure, something that would have been averted had the minaret and mosque been built at the same time. Architectural historian Doris Behrens-Abouseif asserts that Sultan Lajin, who restored the mosque, was responsible for the construction of the minaret as it stands today.