Qantara Qantara

The Complex of Sultan al-Nāsir Hasan

  • Name : The Complex of Sultan al-Nāsir Hasan
  • Place : Cairo, Egypt
  • Construction date/period : AD 1356–1363
  • Construction materials : Stone
  • Architectural pattern : Marquetry and polychrome marble decorations, epigraphic bands in stucco, painted wood and carved marble, stone carving, and ceramic mosaics
  • Dimensions : Length: 150m; width: 68m
  • Inscriptions :

    Portal: Sura of Light, Qur’an 24:36–37.

    On four walls of the vestibule: Sura of Repentance, Qur’an 9:18–25.


    - four identical marble bands above the four doors in the corners, to the right and left of the two lateral iwans: Basmala. ‘The foundation of this blessed college was ordered by our master the sultan, witness of the faith, al-Malik al-Nāsir Hasan the departed, son of our master the sultan, witness of the faith, al-Malik Nāsir Muhammad ibn Qalāʾūn the departed. This took place during the year AH 764 (AD 1363)’.

    - circular band in wood at the base of the dome of the ablutions basin: Basmala. Qur’an II, 255–256. ‘In the year AH 764 (AD 1363)’.

    - inscription in wood repeated six times on the door leafs at the end of the corridor, and the entry to the courtyard: ‘Power to our master the sultan al-Malik al-Nāsir Hasan—may his victory be overwhelming!’

    Stucco band on the wall of the Malikite madrasah: Basmala.

    Qur’an 22:41. ‘O God, we ask of you, we can ask no one greater than You, increase all that is good and grant us more blessings, … he who founded this great work, our master the great sultan, … and the destitute … and place royalty…’.

  • Restoration :

    1471–1477, restored by Sultan Qā’it Bay, according to the inscription in the transition zone of the mausoleum’s dome

This ensemble is located in a steep street opposite the Cairo Citadel. It was built during the reign of the Mamluk Sultan al-Nāsir Hasan[1] and comprises a mosque, four madrasahs and a mausoleum in the south east, projecting onto the street. It is referred to as a mosque and madrasah and also a funerary madrasah. The north-western section, which no longer stands, comprised a hospital, a bazaar, a water conveyance system, baths, and kitchens.

The ensemble is surrounded by monumental facades[2]. Crowned with a cornice decorated with muqarnas that are reminiscent of the ancient Egyptian gorges, the facades are pierced with high windows on four levels, corresponding with the cells of the madrasahs. There were two minarets on the mausoleum’s facade; only the southern one remains. Its square base, surmounted by two octagonal storeys with balconies, its richly carved decorations, and the lantern on the upper level are characteristic of Mamluk minarets.

The large quadrangular gateway is aligned with the street, but not with the building’s axis. The two flights of steps were inspired by Anatolian Seljuk architecture[3], which was influenced by Armenian architecture[4]. The portal was originally going to be completed by two minarets; a single minaret was built and then destroyed in 1360. The entry is surrounded by bands with geometric decorations and surmounted by a niche decorated with muqarnas crowned by a ribbed semidome—an arrangement used in Syria in the twelfth century[5] and in Anatolia in the thirteenth century. Visitors then enter a vestibule with a dome resting on pendentives decorated with muqarnas completed by three semidomes, which recall the central plans of Byzantine architecture[6].

A bending passage leads to the heart of the complex, organized around a courtyard paved in polychrome marble, with an octagonal ablutions fountain whose superstructure rests on seven columns. The courtyard is surrounded by four iwans. This plan, which originated from Central Asia and Iran, gradually spread in the Muslim world at the end of the eleventh century. It spread to Iraq, Seljuk Anatolia, and then Ayyubid Jezireh, where it was adapted for use on many buildings, particularly hospitals[7]. It is seen here for the first time in a Near Eastern madrasah.

Four madrasahs can be accessed through entries in the northern and southern iwans. Organized around a central courtyard with an iwan on the qibla side, these ensembles are completed by four floors of student living quarters.

The south-eastern iwan is used for prayer. The qibla wall is adorned by a mihrāb in polychrome marble. A dikka (tribune) and a marble minbar complete the ensemble. The decorations on the minbar attest to the woodworking skills of the Mamluk craftsmen, as wood was traditionally used for making liturgical furniture. The use of marble was a precursor of the Ottoman minbars. The founder’s mausoleum is behind the qibla wall[8]. Its square plan under a dome, used in Egypt since the Fatimid period[9], had been used in Iran since the tenth century[10].

The decorations are concentrated around the prayer iwan, and the mausoleum. Marble marquetry, carved stone, epigraphic bands in marble, stucco, and gilded wood show various influences. These decorations reveal much about Mamluk society: the Syro-Egyptian tradition is enriched by a strong Turkish Seljuk influence. Influences resulting from the diplomatic and commercial contacts between the West and the Far East can also be seen in the decorative work.

The bronze doors reflect the high quality of Mamluk metalwork. Furthermore, no less than fifty mosque lamps bearing the Sultan’s name were made for this complex[11]. They show the importance of the enamelled and gilded glass technique, which had evolved considerably since the Ayyubid period.



[1] Al-Nāsir Hasan reigned from 1347, with a break between 1351 and 1354. He was killed in 1361.

[2] The stones used to build the facade had originally been used during the Pharaonic period and came from Giza.

[3] It has often been compared to the portal of the Gök Madrasah in Sivas (1271).

[4] Funerary ensemble of Alc’, Turkey, fourth century; Chapel in the Monastery of Noravank, Armenia, thirteenth century.

[5] Māristān of Nūr al-Dīn Zangī, 1154, Damascus, Syria.

[6] Cf. Church of St Elijah in Thessalonica, around 1360.

[7] Cf. note No. 5.

[8] The king’s body was never buried there.

[9] Mausoleum of Sayyida ‘Atika, 1122, Cairo.

[10] The Samanid Mausoleum, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, beginning of the tenth century.

[11] Mosque lamp, gilded and enamelled glass, Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, 1363, bearing the sultan’s name. Mosque lamp, gilded and enamelled glass, 1347–1361, Louvre Museum, Paris, inv. OA3364.


Al-Harithy, H. N., « The complex of Sultan Hasan in Cairo, reading between the lines », in Muqarnas, vol. XIII, 1996, p. 68-79.

Behrens-Abouseif, D., « Architecture of the Bahri Mamluks » in Islamic Architecture in Cairo: An Introduction,  Leyde, New York, E.J. Brill, 1989, p. 122-128.

Hautecoeur, L., Wiet, G., Les mosquées du Caire, vol. I et II, Paris, 1932, pl. 130 à 134.

Combe, E., Sauvaget, J., Wiet, G. (dir.), Répertoire chronologique d’épigraphie arabe, volume XVII, Le Caire, Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1982, p. 18-24.


Blair, S. S., Bloom, J., The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250-1800, Yale University Press, 1994, p. 85-96 et p. 107.

Cassanelli, R. (dir.), La Méditerranée des Croisades, Paris, Citadelles & Mazenod, p. 177.

Ettinghausen, R., Grabar, O., The Art and Architecture of Islam, 650-1250, Yale University Press, 1987, p. 303-327.

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