Alexandria's rich Islamic architectural heritage (In Photos)

Ola R. Seif, Sunday 6 Jul 2014

Beyond the famous beaches of Alexandria, Sufi relics and architectural gems abound

Sidi Gaber mosque

Best known for its modern and cosmopolitan flavour, Alexandria is nonetheless home to an architectural heritage with a strong Islamic aspect, manifested in four of its mosques that were built in honour of pious Sufi figures. Scattered in several locations in the city are the mosques of Al-Nabi Danial, Sidi Gaber, Al-Mursi Abul Abbas, and Al-Attarine. Except for the latter, the former three lend their names to either the entire neighbourhood or the street where they are located. All four have thus become landmarks of Alexandrine life, and thus featured in its photographic heritage, including on postcards.

Nabi Daniel Mosque

Although Al-Nabi Danial Mosque dates back to the late 19th century, and thus is not classified in official lists of antiquities compiled in the early 20th century, it is located at the heart of the medieval city. Prior excavations, notably conducted by archaeologists and art historians Mahmoud Al-Falaky and Hassan Abdel, reveal that it’s location is at the intersection of the axial streets of ancient Roman Alexandria that was built according to a checkerboard grid pattern. It was also falsely said to be the burial place of Alexander the Great, without archaeological proof. Another false legend is that the mosque is named after the original prophet Daniel, who according to scripture is not known to have come to Egypt at all. A more plausible theory on whom the mosque is attributed to is the pious Shafei Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Danial El-Mussaly, who is thought to have come to Egypt from the city of Mosul in Iraq in the 15th century. The mosque as featured in photographs can stylistically dated to the 19th century.

Nabi Daniel Mosque

The narrow El-Nabi Daniel Street, borrowing its name from the mosque, is perpendicular to the sea and connects Raml Square to Mahatit Masr, Alexandria’s main railway station. It has gradually become an emporium of three civilisations. Other than the mosque, its neighbourhood hosts other historically valuable sites such as the Coptic St Mark’s Church, which is the seat of the Coptic Patriarchate since the arrival of Christianity to Egypt, and the Iliaho Synagogue. In addition to those, its cultural life is animated by the French Archaeological Centre and the Alexandria branch of Al-Ahram newspaper, to mention a few landmarks. Another factor that has added to the cultural flavour of the street is the book selling activities that characterise it, recalling Al-Azbakia market in Cairo.

Sidi Gaber mosque

Another historically significant mosque in the photographic history of Alexandria is the modestly sized Ottoman-styled late-19th century Sidi Gaber Mosque, which was located at a walking distance from Alexandria’s second railway station, to which it bestowed its name. Unfortunately, the entire setting has changed since 1955. The much photographed mosque once surrounded by greenery has been replaced by a shabby mosque construction surrounded by equally unaesthetic urban development. In the 13th century AD (7th century AH), it was just a modest zawiya (religious school) built by an Andalusian Sufi worshipper by the name of Gaber Al-Ansari who reached Egypt via Fez, Tripoli, and then Cairo, before choosing to settle in Alexandria. It is not clear when exactly the debris of this zawiya gave way to the 19th century Ottoman mosque.

Sidi Gaber mosque

One of Alexandria’s main attractions is the waterfront Mosque of Al-Mursi Abul Abbas overlooking a large plaza between the sea and Ras Al-Tin Palace in the Anfoushi neighbourhood to the west of Alexandria. It is dedicated to the 13th century prominent Sufi Sheikh Abul Abbas Al-Mursi, born in Murcia, Andalusia — hence the name El-Mursi — and who is himself buried under one of its main four domes.

Raised on a crypt, the present neo-Mamluk building took the Italian architect Mario Rossi 16 years from 1929 to 1943 to design, with its 3000-metre unusual octagonal architecture crowned by four domes and two towering minarets. The interior is entirely fashioned with Italian granite columns and hosts the mausoleums of Abul Abbas himself and four of his disciples, while the southern main door is directed towards Ras Al-Tin Palace, and thus reserved for the access of the king, with the northern entrace for regular worshipers. Rossi was also the architect of the Islamic Centre in Washington and Omar Makram Mosque in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

The original Abul Abbas Mosque was built in 706 AH by a grand Alexandrine merchant. Since then it underwent several restoration cycles the most important of which are that by Alexandria governor Qijmas Al-Ishaqi in 1477, and the restoration of 1863 (1280 AH) by Ahmad Al-Dakhakhny, the tobbaco trader and chief mason in Alexandria. The plaza in front of it came to existence only under kings Fouad and Farouk.

Attarin Mosque

Finally, Al-Attarine Mosque is on the site of the church of St Theonas where St Athanasius, one of the founders of the Christian Orthodox creed, was in 270 AD. In early Islam, it was converted to a mosque and became known as the Eastern Mosque. During the Fatimid era in the 13th century it was entirely rebuilt by Amir Al-Guyush Badr El Din Al-Gamali who renovated and enlarged it in 1082 AD (477 AH). Although it underwent several restorations in the Mamluk and Ottoman eras, it was notably completely rebuilt under the reign of Abbas Hilmy II at the turn of the 12th century. In the modern era, photographers appear to have missed an important detail in the mosque — the original foundation panel inserted by the Fatimid vizir Al-Gamali and still extant in the current mosque. The Sufi buried in Al-Attarine Mosque is Said Mahmoud, a companion of Mursi Abul Abbas.

Compared to Cairo, Alexandria’s religious architecture was much less featured by photographers in Egypt's heritage since it was reduced to the three mosques of Al-Nabi Danial, Sidi Gaber and Al-Attarine. Although much larger and impressive, Al-Mursi Abul Abbas, being built in the 1940s, was too recent to enter the sequence of postcards aimed to illuminate Egypt’s notable past.

Photos Courtesy of Ola R. Seif

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