Islamic Art from Mosques of Islamic Cairo

Islamic art has focused on the depiction of patterns, whether purely geometric or floral, and Arabic calligraphy, rather than on figures, because it is feared by many Muslims that the depiction of the human form is idolatry”. The Islamic artist has a palette that is more restricted than artists from most cultures; this art can be beautiful. This post shows examples of Islamic art from three mosques of Islamic Cairo, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Above, the Citadel and Mosque of Mohammed Ali are on the hill above Islamic Cairo. Compare the pencil minarets of the Ottoman Mosque of Mohammed Ali with the stubbier minarets of the Mamluk-style mosques on the left. It doesn’t rain much in Cairo, so the predominant color is the sand of the surrounding deserts. After the Citadel, we visited Islamic Cairo and the two mosques on the left and a third mosque where I took this photo from a minaret.

From the Citadel, the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is on the left, and the Al-Rifa’i Mosque is on the right.

Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan and Al-Rifa’i Mosque

Geometric patterns

This month our local Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) station aired an interview about mathematics under Islam. From the PBS website, “Medieval Muslims made invaluable contributions to the study of mathematics, and their key role is clear from the many terms derived from Arabic.” “Al-Khwarizmi also wrote a revolutionary book”.

The book was soon translated into Latin, and the word in its title, al-jabr, or transposition, gave the entire process its name in European languages, algebra, understood today as the generalization of arithmetic in which symbols, usually letters of the alphabet such as A, B, and C, represent numbers. Al-Khwarizmi had used the Arabic word for “thing” (shay) to refer to the quantity sought, the unknown. When al-Khwarizmi’s work was translated in Spain, the Arabic word shay was transcribed as xay, since the letter x was pronounced as sh in Spain. In time this word was abbreviated as x, the universal algebraic symbol for the unknown.

This Koran stand in the Mosque of Sultan Hassan is decorated with repeating, geometric patterns that seamlessly fit together to completely fill the sides of the stand. The decoration appears to be constructed of wood and bone or ivory. Designing and crafting pieces that form repeating patterns without gaps is difficult, and this was executed extremely well.

Two Mamluk mosques have ceilings decorated with mocárabe, a design consisting of a “complex array of vertical prisms resembling stalactites.” This design is 3-dimensional and based on curves, which is a different problem than the Koran stand that uses a 2-dimensional design based on lines.

The Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan, built in the Mamluk era, is “one of the largest mosques in the world”. The tall entrance to the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is decorated with mocárabe.

entrance to the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, with “stalactite” decorations under the arch

The adjacent al-Rifa’i Mosque, built a thousand years later with Mamluk minarets, “was architecturally conceived as a complement to the older structure … part of a vast campaign by the 19th century rulers of Egypt to both associate themselves with the perceived glory of earlier periods in Egypt’s Islamic history”.

mocárabe arch and minarets of Al-Rifa’i Mosque

Arabic calligraphy

All three mosques had calligraphy with vegetal designs.

From the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, the upper calligraphy is a relief decorated with flowers and vines. The calligraphy surrounding the mihrab has golden calligraphy with flowers and leaves.

vegetal and calligraphy decorations above a mihrab of the Mosque of Sultan Hassan

The Al-Rifa’i Mosque has calligraphy with more abstract designs as well as calligraphy with vines.

The Mosque of Ibn Tulun is “the oldest mosque in the city surviving in its original form, and is the largest mosque in Cairo in terms of land area.” It’s main mihrab has calligraphy of glass mosaic and a top of painted wood.

mosaic calligraphy (Allahu Akbar) in mihrab of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun

Spiral minaret

The Mosque of Ibn Tulun has a spiral minaret with “a helical outer staircase similar to that of the famous minaret in Samarra.” The initial photo of this post was taken from this minaret.

ziggurat minaret of the Mosque of ibn Tulun

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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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