In 642 AD, the Byzantine Empire (the empire that introduced Christianity to Europe) was conquered by an army of Arabs and Egypt became part of an expanding Islamic Empire. Islam became the dominant religion and it’s stayed that way ever since. Today, nine out of ten Egyptians are Muslim.
A new capital was established at Fustat, the first Islamic city of Egypt (modern day Cairo). When the Fatimids invaded in 969 AD, they built a new seat of power and Fustat became al-Qahirah (the official name of the city of Cairo). Only traces of their legacy survive to this day. It was the legendary Saladin who finally vanquished the Fatimids in the twelfth century and he built the magnificent Citadel as we know it today.
Regarding the Fatimids, the Mamluks and the Ottomans, each dynasty left its own unique mark through elegant domed mosques, Madrassas and mausoleums, with slender, soaring minarets. Well over a millennium of uninterrupted Islamism, Egypt has a wealth of architectural, historical and religious mosques and these are just a few of the ‘must-see’ across the country.
The Citadel (Cairo)
The seat of Egypt’s power and the lifeblood of Cairo for seven centuries, the Citadel was Saladin’s creation of an imperial Islamic complex with unrivalled views over the medieval city.
Partly a palace, partly an inaccessible fortress, the Citadel is split into three different sections inside its tremendous walls. Though entirely Islamic, its myriad mosques and palaces were shaped by different kingdoms.
The Ottomans rebuilt the Citadel in their own image. Mohammed Ali’s nineteenth century typically Turkish Mosque dominates the entire city. Its bubble-like domes loom over the modern city skyline. The Mosque of an-Nasr Mohammed, with its towering spiral minarets, is the only of Mamluk’s fine buildings to survive the Ottoman’s demolition derby.
Today, the Citadel’s grand palaces have been given a new lease of life to their medieval masters as modern museums.
Mosque of Amr Ibn al-As
It was Amr Ibn al-As who brought Islam to Egypt, and his namesake was Egypt’s first ever mosque. In fact, it’s the oldest mosque in Africa, as well as one of the most unconventional.
The original mosque was rather rudimentary, rumoured to be built of mud bricks, palm trunks and leaves. What you see today is the result of endless re-invention. Most striking is the conspicuous absence of the usual minaret or domed roof. With its rectangular figure, clean lines and eclectic clash of styles, it looks as different to the average mosque today as it must have then.
It was the Fatimids of Tunisia who built the Al-Azhar Mosque in 970 AD, with its myriad minarets and assortment of domes. The modern day mosque has evolved architecturally over many centuries.
But its purpose and status remain unchanged as It is still the epicentre of study and teaching for Egypt’s Sunni Muslims to this day. Al-Azhar’s Mosque is not just a religious school, it is a fully fledged academic institution, the equivalent of the Ancient Greek academies only older. Lectures no longer happen in the mosque itself, but it is still the official home of the university.
Mohammed Ali Mosque
No, not that Mohammed Ali, this Mohammed Ali ushered in Egypt’s modern age. Now the finest jewel in Cairo’s fantastic Citadel and an unmissable part of the city skyline, this is a modern mosque, in honour of a thoroughly modern man.
Designed in the grand Ottoman style by a Greek architect, the construction of the alabaster began in 1830. It opened its sacred door 27 years later. Its needle-like minarets pierce the clouds at a dizzying 270 feet.
The Blue Mosque (The Aqsunqur Mosque)
The Blue Mosque gets its name from its most spectacular feature, a blue mosaic of majolica tiles that cover the eastern wall. The Blue Mosque is a Mamluk monument, commissioned by Prince Aqsunqur al-Nassery in 1347. It’s also renowned for its unorthodox 4 storey minaret, its magnificent marble mihrab, and its vine leaf and grape patterned Minbar (pulpit).
Other Famous Islamic Monuments
Mosque of Sultan Hassan (Cairo)
Standing at the foot of the Citadel, this building (1356-1362) is a perfect example of Mameluk architecture – austere and imposing outside, curving and spacious inside. The Rifai Mosque opposite, where kings Farouk and Fouad and the Shah of Iran are buried, is merely a showy pastiche constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Mausoleum of Aga Khan (Aswan)
The Mausoleum of the Agha Khan, an austere and isolated building, overlooks the river. The tombs architecture was inspired by that of the Cairo Fatimids and it was built at the request of the begum, wife of the forty-eighth imam of the Ismaili sect of Islam, who died in 1957. The begum still has her house below and closed the mausoleum to the public in 1997 to allow the deceased to rest in peace away from the bustle of the living.
Mosque of Al-Muayyad (Cairo)
Two beautiful minarets which can be climbed for a beautiful view of the city.
Al-Refai Mosque (Cairo)
The Rifai Mosque, where kings Farouk and Fouad and the Shah of Iran are buried, is located in Salah Al-Din square at the Citadel north of Sultan Hassan mosque.
Mosque of Qaitbay (Cairo)
Anyone keen on Mameluk architecture will want to visit the two mausoleums of Qaitbay and Barkuk in the northern part of the necropolis (El-Khalifa).