A brief historical account an architectural description of the leading institution and mosque of Sunni Islam.
Since it’s inauguration by Jawhar el Siquilli in AD 972 – after the establishment of the Fatamid establishment of the Palatine city of al-Qahirah (Cairo) – al-Azhar mosque has slowly developed into the foremost institution in the Islamic world for the study of sharia law (Islamic law) and Sunni theology (despite initially being a Shiite institution). It is the second oldest continuously run university in the world after the University of Al-Qurawin, which was established in AD 859 in Fez, Morocco.
The local authorities hired over 35 scholars to initiate Islamic education within the mosque leading it to become the nucleus of theological instruction in AD 989. While it maintains this position up to present day – receiving scholars from many parts of Islamic world to study the Quran and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) – it’s status was briefly interrupted by the Ayyubid reaction against the Shi’a (all congressional and Friday prayers were then transferred to the then much larger Al-Hakim mosque). Sultan Baybars of the Mamluk dynasty later re-instituted it in 1266, and the mosque undertook a series of major reconstructions and enlargements to the mosque during the reign of the Mamluks.
Early Construction Phases of Al-Azhar
Jawhar built this first mosque of al-Qahirah south of the palatial complex. It was built rectangular in form, measuring 88 x 70 meters. The mosque space housed a carved out large central court, which was surrounded by three arcades of keel arches supported on pre-Islamic columns (spoglia). The original sanctuary measured 85 x 25 meters along five aisles, and the original minaret has since been demolished (there is little know about it’s description). The original hypostyle construction was distinguished by a transept leading to the central mihrab, a theme shared and precedent by the Great Mosque at Damascus.
The decorative elements in the space is derived from different periods of Fatimid art, which was probably because work continued on the mosque until the reign of the eleventh caliphs of the Fatamids, al-Hafiz (1129-1149). The decoration includes stuccowork with realistic palm tree designs, and other elements that reflect influence from the bin Tulun mosque.
Subsequent Enlargements of Al-Azhar
The mosque was continuously enlarged during the Fatamid era; the porticoes of courtyard were added in time of caliph al-Hafiz, where parts of it’s early stucco decoration still survive. However, the original exterior became totally surrounded by later Mamluk annexes. After severe damage during the earthquake in 1302, two madrasas (schools) were added during the repairs – each with it’s separate entrace and prayer hall – at the responsibility of the local Mamluk emirs (princes).The madrasa of Taybarsiya was built in 1309, which was famous for containing the most precious manuscripts of al-Azhar library; and the madrasa of Aqbughawiya was built in 1340 and topped with its own minaret.
In addition to the Aqbughawiya minaret, Mamluk sultans Qaytbay and Qansuh al-Ghuri each built a minaret (the al-Ghuri minaret is notable for it’s double finial form, built in 1509). Sultan Qayitbay also added new entrance in parallel to the old one, a new gate and a grand passage leading from it to the mosque. The gate was built in 1469 out of stone and decorated with carved stalactites. The mosque sanctuary was oriented on the same axis as grand passage (the qibla axis to Mecca), which was now entered through a small domed area.
The vast central courtyard is from the original Fatamid construction, although the decorations added in twelfth century. The extension of colonnades beyond the original qibla wall was added in the 18th century by the Ottoman Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda, which was close to his tomb and tall minaret – both built in 1753. The exterior façades date from the 19th century, with an entrance through the double arch of the Ottoman Bab al-Muzayyinin (Gate of Barbers).