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Al-Hakim Mosque: Monument to madness

The architecture of Al-Hakim Mosque in Fatimid Cairo is testament to the unstable mind of the caliph for whom it was built

Nabil Shawkat, Thursday 8 Nov 2012
Al-Hakim Mosque
Al-Hakim Mosque (Photo credit: from the AUC Creswell Collection)
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When you visit A-Hakim Mosque at the northernmost spot of Fatimid Cairo, look for signs of madness. Look hard, for true madness has a tendency to conceal itself from viewers, even madness that is set in stone.

At the western wall of the mosque, you will find two minarets with solid, albeit oversized, bases. This is where you should look for evidence of a deranged mind. What looks to you as part of the minaret is not. It is a totally fake casing, an architectural second thought that belies the bi-polar personality of the 10th/11th century ruler.

Al-Hakim has been likened to every whimsical tyrant in history, to Henry VIII or Nero, or Mussolini. Except that there was no method to his madness. He called himself god, or at least allowed some followers to call him so. He confiscated women’s shoes to keep them at home. And he banned molokhia, a harmless green soup that was and is popular in this country.

Al-Hakim Mosque
Al-Hakim Mosque (Photo credit: from the AUC Creswell Collection)

He should have been buried in this mosque, but his body was never found. After he was killed, at 36, someone resembling him appeared and tried to claim the throne, but his quest failed. People who interviewed him must have been able to tell the difference. His face may have resembled that of Al-Hakim, but no mind could imitate that of the slain caliph.

Now look again at the minaret. The squat part that looked like the first tier is not part of the minaret. It is an encasing that Al-Hakim built in 1010 to conceal the earlier, heavily decorative, minaret inside it, which was built less than 10 years earlier.

Al-Hakim was a complex, treacherous personality, who was also capable of great charity and grand gestures. At one point, he shunned embroidered clothes and dressed in paupers’ wool. He started great learning schools and then shut them down. He ordered people to close their shops in the morning and only to work at night, then inspected the streets to make sure that they were pleased with the new arrangement.

The mosque was started in 990 by Al-Hakim’s father, Al-Aziz, who died when Al-Hakim was only 11. It was just outside the northern wall of Cairo, but in the late 11th century, a new wall was built further north, bringing the mosque back into the city.

The terror of Al-Hakim was so prevalent in the last years of his life that any action on his part was interpreted as an omen of hardships to come. There was once a storehouse close to the mosque that one day Al-Hakim ordered filled with firewood. The entire neighbourhood began felt uneasy about it, as rumour went around that Al-Hakim planned to burn the whole district.

So convincing was the rumour that throngs of supplicants went to the walls of his palace and begged for mercy. They didn't leave until he promised them, in writing, that no harm would come their way.

Al-Hakim Mosque
Al-Hakim Mosque (Photo credit: from the AUC Creswell Collection)

Harm was soon to come his way. While heading to his retreat on the Moqattam hills in 1021, unknown assailants killed him. His body was never found, but bloodied pieces of clothing were later retrieved from the scene.

Most historians agree that the killing was a palace coup, perhaps masterminded by Al-Hakim's older sister, Sitt Al-Mulk, who had just had enough of his shenanigans.

The mosque has been renovated drastically, and some say carelessly, since the first photos of it were taken in the 1920s. The buildings you see in the courtyard were briefly used to store Islamic art pieces collected or excavated from nearby areas.

For further reading we recommend: The Minarets of Cairo by Doris Behrens-Abouseif

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A-M
02-12-2012 10:51pm
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The bipolarity continues:
What a pathetic legacy by someone who came to power supposedly either by usurping it from a legitimate heir or was by proxy! But more fascinating aspect is that between that time and today's Egypt, things have ahrdly changed. The downing of the previous Pharaoh (Hosni Mubarak) has only led to a new Pharaoh. Mursi with his new dictates, defying the will of millions of Egyptians, is just another bipolar Al-Hakim!!
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Aladdin, Egypt
20-11-2012 04:55am
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Great Heritage
I am not an archetic; but I appreciate the engineering and structure. How they built the dome without concrete and rebars?
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nh
09-11-2012 01:13am
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Inaccuracies and regurgitation - not helpful in Modern Egypt
Thank you for this humble attempt to link the 'Caliph of Cairo' - Hakim bi amri Allah, his reign of a 'plural' Misr at a tender age of 11-36, launched the search for knowledge in the region & for the umma. Understanding this difficult rule with past anti-Hakim sources does no justice ! Example: " He called himself god, or at least allowed some followers to call him so" NOT TRUE .... please do take the effort to conduct serious research from primary sources before putting 'pen to paper' and perpetuate misconceptions. Not helpful for Egypt, Umma and the wider World who seek serious journalism ... you are in a serious profession and this demands work and not regurgitation ..... all the best in your future works
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nabil shawkat
13-11-2012 04:46pm
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nabil's reply
Thank you for your impassionate remark. Your righteous rebuttal is quite fitting. Al-Hakim deserves no less. If there a prize for bi-polarity in Egyptian history, he will definitely win first, second, and third prizes, and then some. Al-Hakim would behave as a monk, a philanthropist, a sponsor of science at one moment, then he would reverse any or all of his positions without warning. This is why there is such a wealth of secondary sources on his life, all of which apt to contradict each other. In short, you are not the only one who feels that al-Hakim has been abused by chroniclers, or that his heart was in the right place.
nabil shawkat
12-11-2012 04:13pm
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nabil's response
allow me to confirm your suspicion that it was based on secondary sources, and has no aspiration to offer original insight to current or future historians. It is a "tertiary" source so to speak, written in a tone of light-heartedness, so as to whet the appetite of readers and get some of them to take interest in the topic. If it has offended you, I offer a humble apology. if you feel up to writing a better piece, giving al-Hakim the justice of "primary" source knowledge you favour, we will be pleased to run it.
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