In Al-Muizz Street adjacent to the Fatimid northern wall of Historic Cairo and only a few steps from the Bab Al-Fotouh (the Gate of Conquest) stands the Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah Mosque welcoming worshippers and visitors who can explore its stunning marble interiors and peaceful courtyards.
This edifice, now re-opened by Tourism and Antiquities Minister Ahmed Issa, Minister of Awqaf (religious endowments) Mokhtar Gomaa, and Cairo Governor Khaled Abdel-Aal, has been fully restored after six years of hiding under scaffolding with restorers and workmen polishing and strengthening its walls.
The mosque, like other Islamic monuments located in heavily populated areas, was suffering from environmental dangers including air pollution, a high subsoil water level, a high level of humidity, wall cracks, and leakage from the madiaa fountain used for ritual ablutions.
Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said the restoration had been carried out according to the latest scientific methods.
“Every effort was made to ensure that all the original architectural features were retained,” he said. Walls were reinforced and masonry cleaned and desalinated, while wooden ceilings, mashrabiya (lattice woodwork) windows, and arcades, paintings, engravings and fine metal ornaments were cleaned and restored.
Waziri said the restoration of the mosque had helped to ensure that important monuments are being preserved for future generations and the entire neighbourhood is being revived and upgraded. The work was carried out in collaboration between the SCA and the Bohra sect that uses the mosque.
The mosque is the fourth oldest in Egypt and the second largest after the Mosque of Ibn Toloun. The construction was begun by Al-Hakim’s father, the Fatimid Caliph Al-Aziz bi-Allah, in 990 CE, but he died before its completion, leaving his son to finish it in 1013.
It was originally constructed outside the walls of the city commissioned by the Fatimid Vizier Jawhar Al-Siqilli and was later incorporated within the walls built by Badreddin Al-Jamali in 1078 CE.
The main entrance lies on the western façade of the mosque and is monumental in size and design. It is one of the oldest examples of projecting entrances and was influenced by the mosque of Mahdiya in Tunis. The mosque once served as a Shia centre in Egypt, operating as the Al-Azhar Mosque did in the Fatimid period.
The plan of the mosque consists of a triangle with four arcades around a courtyard. Two minarets flank either side of the façade. The mosque has undergone several restoration phases throughout the years, and it has a long and intriguing history, including its role as a barracks during the French Expedition to Egypt in the late 18th century when its minarets were used as watch-towers.
Its qibla arcade was once used as a museum of Islamic art called the House of Arab Antiquities.
The principle façade of the mosque is located on the northwestern side and extends along Al-Muizz Street. The centre of the façade is marked by a projecting monumental portal composed of two squat towers that flank the entrance. This is ornamented by recessed panels filled with bands of decorative motifs and kufic inscriptions.
At the two ends of the principle façade are two minarets that are the work of Al-Hakim, with the southwestern minaret being composed of a square base ending in an octagonal form. The remaining parts of the two minarets were added by Baybars Al-Gashanqir during the rule of the Mamluke Sultan Al-Nasir Mohamed Ibn Qalawun after an earthquake in 1303 CE that resulted in the destruction of the original pinnacles of the two minarets.
Eleven years after building the minarets, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah added stone walls that encased their sides so that they assumed the form of towers. Inscription bands were included that contained Quranic verses written in the kufic script.
There is clear architectural evidence that the mosque once had three domes, the middle one of which is still standing. Bricks were used in the building of the arcades, arches and domes, but stone was used in the construction of the outer walls, minarets, and the projecting portal.
The floor plan of the mosque consists of a central open courtyard surrounded by four porticoes. The largest of these is on the eastern (qibla) side and consists of five arcades interrupted by a transept aisle, which is a columned walkway leading to the mihrab.
The western portico consists of two arcades, while the northern and southern porticoes are each composed of three.
The mosque was subjected to neglect from the 15th century onwards. After the French Expedition, it was occupied by glassmakers and textile-workers. A complete restoration of the mosque took place at the end of the 20th century, with the present one beginning six years ago.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly