Al-Hakim Mosque: Monument to madness

Nabil Shawkat, Thursday 8 Nov 2012

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

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

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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