Andalusian art in the mosques of Islamic Cairo

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Monday 10 Sep 2012

As Granada celebrates the successful restoration of the Alhambra’s Fountain of the Lions, a masterpiece of Andalusian art, Egyptians can celebrate the Al-Andalus imprint in Cairo’s Mamluk art and architecture

The Fountain of the Lions back to it place in the Alhambra - Photo by AFP

Just like Ithaca, the term "Al-Andalus" has become not just the name of a place, but rather an equivalent to paradise lost. Geography and history tell us that Al-Andalus was the territory in the Iberian Peninsula ruled by Muslims between 711 and 1492. Nevertheless, culturally speaking, the imprint of Al-Andalus can be seen and experienced all over the Mediterranean and even beyond. We will not go so far. Actually, we will not even leave Cairo, because a walk in Islamic Cairo can reveal many artistic and architectural elements borrowed from the Andalusian art.

Al-Andalus in Islamic Cairo

The Mosque of Ibn Tulun, built in the 9th century, stands out for its spiral minaret. Awed by the monumentality and the unique design of this minaret, most visitors miss a very important detail at the minaret’s base: a portal with a horseshoe arch, typical of the Umayyad (Caliphate) style in Cordoba. Moreover, the horseshoe arch is framed within an alfiz, another typical aesthetic element from Andalusian art. What was Ibn Tulun – or his architects - thinking?

Probably nothing at all. Many art historians attribute the minaret and its base the way they are now to the restoration work commissioned by the Mamluk Sultan Hossam Al-Din Lajin Al-Sayfi towards the end of the 13th century, with Andalusian architects and artisans among the restoration crew. These Andalusian men had fled to Egypt following the fall of several cities like Cordoba and Seville to the Spanish Reconquista in the first half of the 13th century. This is neither the only nor the most striking example of the Andalusian-inspiration in Mamluk architecture.

At Bayn Al-Qasrayn, two interesting examples are visible to the trained eye. A few metres apart, the minarets of Qalawun, father and son, never fail to impress the passerby. Both built under Al-Nassir Mohammad ibn Qalawun in circa 1303, they both feature different Andalusian motifs. In the gigantic Qalawun minaret, one can quickly spot the interlacing blind arches at the uppermost level, something reminiscent of the Umayyad, taifa and Almohad architecture of Al-Andalus. In fact, it is a pattern that one can see clearly in the Giralda Bell Tower of Seville - originally, a 12th century Almohad minaret.

It is the minaret of Ibn Qalawun, however, that bears a clearer influence: the calligraphy band against a background of carved stucco and heavy ataurique (from the Arabic word At-Tawriq, or the application of floral leaves as decoration) is unmistakable. This motif, frequent in taifa palaces (11th century) became an indispensible element of Nasrid art. The calligraphy, stucco carving and the ataurique in the ibn Qalawun minaret could perfectly fit into the Alhambra’s Patio of the Lions or the Bou-‘Inania Madrasa in Fez, but the minaret predates both buildings. Zooming out a little bit, the square cross-section of the minaret reminds us of the Andalusian and Maghrebi minarets of the Almohads.

Why is it that the Mamluks adopted these Andalusian aesthetics? Why didn’t the Fatimids and the Ayyubids do the same before? The answer involves a lot of factors, but the 13th and 14th centuries are an essential point of reference.

Architecture defying mortality

"If kings are to be remembered after they are gone,
Only through the language of monumental buildings can it be done." – Abd Al-Rahman III, founder of Medina Azahra in Cordoba

Such was the perceived value of architecture, not only in Al-Andalus, but throughout the world. Kings and monarchs thought of great buildings as a way to immortalise their names. This building fever reached its height in the 14th century as three urban projects completely transformed three great Islamic capitals into glamorous cities: Cairo of the Mamluks, Fez of the Merinids and Granada of the Nasrids. Masterpieces like the Complex of Sultan Hasan in Egypt, the Bou Inania Madrasa in Morocco or the Patio of the Lions in Spain are just some manifestations of the exuberant building project that swept across the Muslim world. Rivalry apart, there were countless incidents of cross-cultural exchange.

The length of the Mamluk era (267 years) and its openness to diverse cultures helped integrate several cultural influences into its art: Persian, Maghrebi, Andalusian, etc. It was during that era that the slow disintegration of Al-Andalus gave way to several waves of migration to Egypt (among other countries). The artistic and cultural impact of these migrations, though as not as profound as in Morocco or Tunisia, remains visible not only in the memory of stone, but also in music, poetry, calligraphy, ceramics and wood carving, among other arts and crafts.

Finally, one only has to scratch beneath the surface to discover the multitude of hidden details and ignored treasures of Islamic Cairo, and to explore the extent of cross-cultural influences in its monuments. Searching for Al-Andalus in Cairo’s medieval art and architecture can be a good way to start - and now you already have a clue!

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