Qantara Qantara

Al-Azhar Mosque

  • Name : Al-Azhar Mosque
  • Place : Cairo, Egypt
  • Construction date/period : AD 970–972; main additions: 1130–19; 1309–10; 1339–40; 1440; 1469–94; 1501–16; 1751–52; 1778–98; 1879–92; 1892–936; 1894.
  • Construction materials : Stone
  • Architectural pattern : Stucco decorations
  • Recipient/Mandatory : Patron: Caliph al-Mu’izz
  • Author : Architect: Jawhar the Sicilian
  • Dimensions : Currently 120m x 130m; originally 88m x 70m; prayer hall 59m x 43m

The Mosque of al-Azhar was built in the medieval quarter of Cairo on the orders of the Fatimid caliph al-Mu’izz. From 988-989, it became a madrasa under the caliph al-‘Azīz, who turned it into a Shiite educational establishment for training missionaries. It has played a very important role in Cairo’s history, and has largely been reworked, extended, re-organized, and restored over the course of time.

Of Arab plan, it originally comprised a rectangular hypostyle prayer hall with five naves running parallel to the qibla wall, and a wider central perpendicular aisle, giving greater access to the mihrāb. This lay-out is similar to that of the Mosque of ibn Tūlūn and, more vaguely, to that of the Great Mosque of Damascus (Syria, 705–715), which only has three naves running parallel to the qibla wall. The central aisle was flanked by pairs of columns, as in the Mosque of Kairouan. According to Creswell, the courtyard was surrounded by a portico with columns on two sides only, as in the mosques of the Muslim West, such as those of Córdoba, Kairouan, and Tunis. This recalls the Maghrib period of the Fatimid dynasty (909–969), before their arrival in Egypt. There were three domes, one before the mihrāb, and another two in the corners of the qibla wall in the prayer hall. A new portico with columns around the courtyard and a dome at the entry of the transept were added on the orders of al-Hāfiz (1131–1149); the rear of the entry and the entry to the central nave were indicated by groups of three columns.

The Mosque still has remnants of the rich Fatimid stucco decorations, which combine naturalistic and stylized vegetal elements (palms) with geometric motifs, such as rosettes, and flowered Kufic calligraphy. Most of the stucco motifs are derived from those of the mosques of Samarra (Iraq, second half of the ninth century) and ibn Tūlūn, but other decorative elements recall Byzantine works, particularly the pendentives of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.  

The building was abandoned under the Ayyūbids, who wanted to re-establish Sunnism and suppress any trace of Fatimid Shiism. But, it regained its former glory under the Mamelukes, thanks to the restorations of sultan al-Zāhir Baybars in 1266, who resumed the khutba (Friday prayers) in the Mosque. Other Mameluke sultans added several madrasas: in 1309 (the al-Taybarsiyya Madrasa, to the right of the Muzaynin entrance), 1340 (the al-AqbughawiyyaMadrasa, to th e left of the Muzaynin entrance), and 1440 (the al-Gawhariyya Madrasa at the north-eastern end of the Mosque). Other sultans built minarets: one was built by Qa’it Bay in 1468, and two others by al-Ghawri; built with two lanterns, they are remarkable for their two sets of steps, enabling two people to ascend at the same time without seeing each other. Further work was carried out during the Ottoman period:  in 1753, ‘Abd al-Rahmān Katkhuda carried out restoration work and made some important additions, extending the Mosque by adding new aisles, after destroying part of the qibla wall to the left of the mihrāb, which was left intact.  He also renovated the Taybarsiyya and Aqbughawiyya madrasas, and added three minarets to the Mosque, one of which was destroyed during the reign of Khedive Abbas II Hilmi Bey.

Today, Cairo’s main university is called al-Azhar.


‘Abd al-Râziq, A., ‘La mosque al-Azhar’, in Trésors fatimides du Caire, exhibition catalogue. Paris, Institut du monde arabe, 1998, Paris, Gand, Institut du monde arabe, Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1998, p. 147–149.

Behrens-Abouseif, D., Islamic Architecture in Cairo, an Introduction, Leyde, New York, Copenhagen, Cologne, Brill, 1989, pp. 58–63.

Creswell, K.A.C., The Muslim Architecture of Egypt, Vol. 1, New York, Hacker Art Books, 1978, p. 36–64.

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