ISLAMIC ART-Expansion to Egypt and North of Africa

Two Mesopotamian monuments from the early days of the Arab conquest clearly show the hesitation between the still Hellenistic and Byzantine styles prevalent on one side of the Euphrates and an style already saturated with the forms of the oriental genius that was predominant in the decoration of the Persian Sassanid castles. One of these monuments is the alcázar*-palace of Qasr-Amra, built by Walid Ibn Yazid between 723 and 743.

Top: The Qsar Amra palace (eastern Jordan), it was built some time between 723 and 743 by Walid Ibn Yazid, the future Umayyad caliph Walid II. The original building was a large complex that included a castle, of which only the foundation remains. What stands today is a small country cabin. Bottom Left: Remains of the facade of Qsar Al-Mschatta, an Umayyad winter palace built between 743-744 (appr. 30 km south of Amman, Jordan). Though much of its ruins can still be found in situ, the most striking feature of the palace, its facade, has been removed. Bottom Right: The Qsar Al-Mschatta facade is the decorated part of the facade of the same residential palace, it was removed from its original place in Jordan and is now installed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin (Germany).

Qasr-Amra is just a resting place or royal hunting lodge in the desert, but the other of these monuments -Qasr Al-Mshatta- must have been a residence with a permanent court and garrison. Although it was left unfinished, it was projected as a mansion in the desert for one of the Umayyad princes of Damascus who either exiled or retired there to live with a tycoon’s splendor the real life of the nomadic Arabs of the pre-Islamic days. Since the discovering of the Qasr Al-Mshatta castle, whose magnificent facade was moved to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, the age of the monument has been the subject of heated discussions and has been dated from around the 2nd century of the Hegira (that is, middle to late 8th century AD).

Almost simultaneously with the conquest of Syria and Mesopotamia, the Arabs conquered Egypt, and to solidly establish their domination, they founded the military city of al-Fustat near the site where later the city of Cairo would settle. Next to the Nile River, not far from the Byzantine capital (Alexandria), Cairo is still the Muslim city par excellence; it is the capital of the Arab civilization, the center of Islamic science. Its cultural prestige surpasses that of Medina and Damascus, that in another time were the metropolis of the Muslim knowledge.

The Mosque of Amr ibn al-As was built in 641–642 AD, at the center of the newly founded capital of Egypt, Al-Fustat. The original structure was the first mosque ever built in Egypt and Africa. Due to extensive reconstruction over the centuries, nothing of the original building remains. Top: Interior courtyard view of the mosque of Amr ibn al-As. Bottom: Arcades at the interior of the mosque.

When the Arabs established a military city in Egypt, they not only surrounded it with walls and protected it with a tremendous fortress, but they also built a mosque so that this center of Islamic resistance was impregnable both for military prestige and for pious devotion. The oldest mosque in Cairo is Amr ibn al-As, and it is supposed to have been built by Amr ibn al-As (the conqueror himself) in 642. It is still a mosque like that of Medina reduced to a big room with several rows of columns built in brick. To this mosque follows in antiquity the mosque of lbn-Tulun, since its construction dates from 878. This mosque also has a rectangular courtyard with its corresponding porticoes; the one on the side of the mihrab* has five rows of columns that support pointed arches covered with stucco reliefs. The rows of columns correspond to the Muslim’s almost liturgical need of praying aligned. The naves of this mosque gradually increased and became isolated from the courtyard with a facade on which numerous doors were opened. These same characteristics are shown in the Al-Azhar mosque, in Cairo, started in 971 and later restored on several occasions. In this mosque, in the year 974, was founded the oldest university in the world, the current center of the Koranic civilization.

Top Left: The Mosque of Ibn Tulun (Cairo, Egypt), it is the oldest mosque in the city of Cairo surviving in its original form, and is the largest mosque in Cairo in terms of land area. The mosque was built between 876-878 or 879. Right: Detail of geometric foliate decoration on the arches of Ibn Tulun. Bottom Left: The Al-Azhar Mosque (Cairo, Egypt). Picture here is its marble paved interior courtyard with two Mamluk era minarets in the foreground.

The city of Cairo still has several schools or madrasas* in full intellectual activity. They tend to be joined to a mosque and also shelter the tomb of their founder. Since Islamic science is based on the interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith, that is the tradition of the memorable sayings of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, the madrasas are rather places for meditation and concentration than for study. Those in Cairo have a small square courtyard with a fountain holding a minimum flow of water and a large arch as an alcove at the back, where students sit to remember the paragraphs of the Koran or the Hadith. The madrasas have high walls that isolate them from the outside world; in those inner patios, where light comes obliquely and not so intense, the student can softly sing the suras, a chapter or section of the Koran, without being distracted during the years that he remains there. In some madrasas there are alcoves for the four systems of interpretation of the Koran and Hadith. Thus, the Hassan’s madrasa, in Cairo, welcomes in tolerant proximity the four Muslim rites, which are distinguished by the greater or lesser freedom of symbolic interpretation that is granted when commenting on the text of the Koran. This madrasa, which is simultaneously the tomb of Sultan Hassan and mosque, houses the students in small rooms superimposed on the four corners of the building. But there are some madrasas in which only one of the rites is accepted and they have only one bedroom in the patio.

In Cairo we find tombs of sultans built with a monumentality not suited for the head of a Muslim state. Neither the mortal remains of Muhammad nor any of his immediate successors received the honor of a lavish tomb. Muhammad is still buried in the bare floor of the mosque of Medina, where he died. Undoubtedly he would be outraged if he could see the mausoleums of the Mamluk sultans -a dynasty that reigned from 1250 to 1516- existing next to Cairo. They are small stone pavilions with a square plant with a cupola decorated with reliefs and raised on an octagonal drum. The tomb of Sultan Hassan, of the XIV century, which is simultaneously a madrasa and a mosque, is crowned by a large dome and a tall minaret.

Top and Bottom Left: The Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is a massive mosque and madrassa in the Old city of Cairo built during the Mamluk Islamic era in Egypt. It was built between 1356-1359 AD. The mosque is exceptional in that it was designed to include schools for all four of the Sunni schools of thought. Bottom Right: The Great Mosque of Sfax (city of Sfax, Tunisia) from 849 AD. 

After Egypt, the Muslim invasion was spread to North Africa, to Cyrenaica, Tunisia and Algeria. There survive some old mosques, such as those of Sfax and Tunisia, which must be from the VIII century; but the most important one is that of Sidi-Okba in Kairouan. Founded by Saint Uqba ibn Nafi in 670, it was later restored and didn’t acquire its current appearance until the beginning of the IX century. An immense patio with porticoes precedes this sanctuary; this has a wider central nave which faces the mihrab and that is crowned with domes at its ends; the other parallel naves, with ancient columns and capitals, support a simple structure of arches locked with braces and covered with wood. The minaret, of a heavy almost cubic silhouette, is located on the other side of the patio in a straight line with the axis determined by the two domes. In the mosque of Kairouan, the mihrab is covered with ceramics and wooden panels imported from Baghdad and that can be considered among the most admirable works of the Arabic decoration. The two columns of red porphyry with yellow spots that frame the mihrab of this mosque were brought from Carthage and have no equal in the world. The mosque of Kairouan also keeps the oldest Islamic pulpit (minbar) in the world. This pulpit from the 9th century (ca. 862 AD) consists of an 11 step staircase carved and sculptured in teak wood. With over three hundred finely sculpted parts, this minbar is considered to be a jewel of Islamic wooden art.

The Great Mosque of Kairouan or Sidi Okba mosque (Kairouan, Tunisia) is one of the most important mosques in Tunisia. Established in 670 AD at the founding of the city of Kairouan, the mosque occupies a surface area of 9000 square meters and it is one of the oldest places of worship in the Islamic world. The mosque contains a hypostyle prayer hall, a marble-paved courtyard and a square minaret. This mosque is considered one of the masterpieces of both architecture and Islamic art. The university associated with the mosque was an important center of education both in Islamic thought and in the secular sciences. Its role can be compared to that of the University of Paris during the Middle Ages. Top Left: External view of the Sidi Okba mosque. Top Right: Interior view of the hypostyle prayer hall. Bottom Left: Detail of the Mihrab. Bottom Right: Partial view of the Mihrab walls, its decorative reliefs and its famous red porphyry columns.


Alcázar: A type of Moorish castle or palace in Spain and Portugal built during Muslim rule, although some were founded by Christians and others were built on earlier Roman or Visigothic fortifications. Most of the alcázars were built between the 8th and 15th centuries. Many cities in Spain have an alcázar. The term is sometimes used as a synonym for “castillo” or castle.


Madrasa: The Arabic word for any type of educational institution, whether secular or religious (of any religion), and whether a school, college or university. In the West, the word usually refers to a specific type of religious school or college for the study of the Islamic religion, though this may not be the only subject studied. In countries like India, not all students in madrasas are Muslims.

Mihrab: A semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla; that is, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca and hence the direction that Muslims should face when praying. The wall in which a mihrab appears is thus the “qibla wall”. A Mihrab should not be confused with the minbar, which is the raised platform from which an Imam (leader of prayer) addresses the congregation. The mihrab is located to the left of the minbar.

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