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Al Azhar Mosque was the first Islamic University built in Cairo. It was constructed around 1,000 years ago and it was the official mosque for Friday prayer (jummah) for many years in Egypt. It was built by the great Fatimid army leader and the builder of Cairo, Gawhar El Seqelly, with the orders of the Fatimid Caliph, Al Mui'z le Din Allah. The building of Al Azhar began in 970 A.D. and it was finished three years later.
Al Azhar was built to be the official mosque of Cairo, the same as the Mosque of Amr Ibn El Aas in Fostat and the Mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun in Qata'ea. The mosque of Al Azhar is among the largest mosques in Cairo and was first established as an educational institution to teach Shi'ite theology and spread it all over the country.
Al Azhar was originally half the size that it is today. Additions, new buildings, and restorations were done during various eras until the mosque reached the size and the shape it is today. The early mosque of Al Azhar consisted of three iwnas (prayer halls) centered around and a sahn (open-air courtyard). The gate of the mosque was located in the mosque's western walls and this section contained a simple Fatimid-style minaret. This section was decorated with Kofy Islamic writings and plant ornaments which are the only remaining feature of the ancient mosque that is still available now.
The old Mihrab of the mosque was richly decorated with ornaments and Kofi writings from the Noble Qur'an. There is also a Mamluk style dome that goes back to the 15th century which took the place of the Fatimid dome. Al Azhar had three gates in its Northern, southern, and western walls. The original menbar built by Gawher El Seqqely was then transferred to the Mosque of Al Hakim. When the mosque was built the Imam used to deliver his Friday speech one week in Al Azhar Mosque, another in the Mosque of Al Hakim, another in the mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun, and another Friday in Amr Ibn El Aas Mosque.
Al Azhar went through a lot of changes in the Fatimid period. Al Hakim Be'amr Allah added 27 amazing silver lamps to the mosque. What remains of the works of Al Hakim is a small wooden door that is richly decorated with Kufi writings which was the dominant decoration feature of this era. In 1125 A.D., the Fatimid ruler Al Amer be'ahkam Allah established a Mihrab for the mosque (a niche that indicates which way to pray towards Ka'aba) made out of Aro Turkish wood which was decorated with a lot of floral and geometric shapes.
In 1149 A.D. the Fatimid Caliph, Al Hafez Le Dine Allah wanted to expand the size of the mosque so he added some space to the sahn of the mosque. He also added some decorations to the walls of the mosque and plaster additions.
In 1266 A.D., Al Zaher Baybars ordered to build an ornate minbar (pulpit), but unfortunately nothing remains of it except its written instructions for being built which are now kept in a museum in Algeria.
A new madrasa (religious school), the Tabrisy Madrasa Islamic teaching institution, was built by Baybars Khazendar, the army commander in the reign of Al Nasser Mohamed Ibn Qalaun. It is located to the right hand when you enter Al Azhar mosque. This added a bigger space to the Mosque which hosted Islamic teachings classes and also had a large Islamic library.
The Afghaweya Madrasa was built in 1340 A.D. and it is located on the left-hand side of the entrance. It contains the library of Al Azhar in the present time.
Al Gawhareya Madrasa which was built in the southeastern section of the mosque is a small madrasa consisting of four iwans (rectangular hall with one side open) and a small sahn.
Al Azhar underwent a lot of expansion in the Ottoman era. The biggest and most important building work was done by the Amir Abdel Rahman Katkhuda in 1753 A.D. as he expanded the area of the mosque by adding a riwaq (portico) behind the mihrab that was built on a higher level than the whole mosque. He also added a new minbar and mihrab. Katkhuda added two great gates as well: the first in the southern wall called the Sa'ayda gate and the Shroba gate in the eastern section of the mosque with an added minaret beside it. Katkhuda was also responsible for building the beautiful western gate with its amazing Islamic decorations and which is now the main entrance of the mosque.
Al Azhar has been also restored by the supreme council of antiquities in modern time. Al Azhar as a mosque and as an educational institution has played a major role in so many centuries of Egyptian history, especially in fighting the French and British occupation.
Al Azhar University is the largest and most important Islamic teaching institution in the whole world and it is the second modern Islamic university to be built. Islamic teaching in Al Azhar University was transformed from Shi'ite teaching to Sunni teaching starting in the Fatimid era and it is still one of the most important and prestigious educational institutions in Egypt and in the whole world.
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