By Rania Kamaly, Community Times
Walking down El Moez Street there are so many beautiful buildings to be admired, among them being the famous Al Aqmar mosque. One of the oldest mosques in Egypt, its façade is known for its detailed stonework, while its interior welcomes all visitors with a fresh, cooling breeze.
A haven for architectural enthusiasts, Al Aqmar mosque is said to have been built during the Fatimid period in 1125 AD under the regime of Al Ma’mun Al Bata’ihi, though some historians argue it was built during the caliphate of Imam Al Amir bi-Ahkami l-Lah; others still claim that it was built during the caliphate of Al Mustansir.
Al Aqmar mosque is considered one of the first hanging mosques in Egyptian history and was initially built higher than street level, above a shopping area and souk. However, as the ground kept rising, the shops were eventually buried and the mosque now appears to be at street level. The mosque is an important landmark in Cairo’s architectural scene, as it is the first mosque to be designed with an entrance parallel to the street and adjusted to align with the existing urban plan, as opposed to facing Mecca or Al Qibla.
Al Aqmar’s façade is notable for its decorative inscriptions and geometric motif; it is one of the first mosques in Egypt to display such design elements. The stone exterior has highly skillful Kufic carvings, which required sophisticated technology for the time the mosque was built.
Although the exterior is designed at an angle and is irregular in shape, the interior maintains a straightforward rectangular shape and is intelligently designed to stay cool even on the warmest days. Stepping into the open court at the center of the space, there are four different areas, each covered with a small brick dome; the constant filtration results in a consistent light breeze and fresh air throughout the year. However, the area facing Al Qibla is covered with a flat wooden ceiling to distinguish it from the other parts of the mosque.
Some experts claim that the ceiling of the mosque was re-done during the restorations of Mamluk Amir Yallugha Al Salami, since this type of architecture wasn’t known during the Fatimid period. Al Salami restored the mosque after it fell into ruin during the reign of Sultan Zahir Barouq in 1396.
There are a lot of Quranic and non Quranic verses inscribed on the façade and on the interior walls, but among the most notable can be found on the front façade over the main door, and though slightly damaged, it reads: “In the name of God, the beneficent the most merciful, its construction was ordered by Imam Amir son of Imam Mustaali give victory to army of Imam Amir overall infidels…. May god strengthen through him the religion…. in the year 519 (1125).”
It is said that this mosque holds importance to the Shi-a and that a vase found inside the mosque engraved with the two plants is a representation of Al Hassan and Al Hussein. Another feature relevant to the Shi-a is a chamfered corner of the façade that’s carved with the names of Mohamed and Ali.
Over the last few centuries the mosque has seen several renovations due to ongoing damage. During the 19th century, the mosque lost the right side of its façade and a residential building was built attached to it. However, during the time of Muhammad Ali, the building was pulled down and the façade was restored to resemble its original design once more. Amir Sulayman Agha Al Silahdar, who also built the mosque across the street from Al Aqmar, carried out this restoration.
Ultimately, the mosque you see today is not the original one from 1125 AD, but rather a reconstruction carried out by the Comite – a committee of diverse Egyptians and Europeans established in 1881 with the purpose of restoring Arab heritage. Ordered by Mohamed Tawfik Pacha to restore Egypt’s architectural and Islamic history, the committee arrived at the site to find nothing but rubble, with only some parts of the structure still standing. The committee examined the site and the building’s historical context closely, collecting fragments of information and using their imagination to bring the mosque back to life. Italian architect Achille Patricolo oversaw the work, under the supervision of Hungarian architect Max Hertz Pasha.
Today, other elements, including the chandeliers and some portions of the marble don’t belong to the original mosque. Furthermore, the minaret that was originally built out of bricks and mud has been restructured, though in some areas, if you look very closely you can still see parts of the old design.