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Coptic art adorns Cairo’s historic mosques

  • October 17, 2020

Al-Nasir Mohammad Ibn Qalawun Mosque, Al-Saleh Tala’i Mosque and the mosque of Al-Tanbugha Al-Mardani all contain column capitals decorated by crosses. Visitors can still see the crosses or parts of them. Some have been broken or eroded over time.

Tour guide Nur Yahya agrees with Kasbani. He confirmed that many of the mosques that were built since the Islamic conquest of Egypt in 641 AD through the Mamluk era include capitals depicting crosses that were brought from ruined churches or run-down Christian homes.

Yahya told Al-Monitor that most of Egypt’s Muslim rulers have preserved its Christian churches. “Some Pharaonic temples and Roman monasteries have turned into churches with the spread of Christianity and before the introduction of Islam. Pagan [imagery] in these churches were erased and their walls and pillars were decorated with crosses and passages from the Bible.” 

Yahya pointed out that Coptic influence on Islamic art goes beyond columns from ruined churches, saying, “A marble Gothic door was brought from one of the churches of the city of Acre. It was used as a gate to the Al-Nasir Mohammad Ibn Qalawun Mosque in Al-Muizz Street in Cairo.”

Yahya explained that domes hold the same religious significance in mosques and churches such as “the Church of Abu Serga [St. Sergius] and the Hanging Church in the Old Cairo neighborhood.” He added, “Domes also are found in mosques, where we find domes topped by a crescent.”

Abdul Rahim Rayhan, an archaeologist and director of research, archaeological studies and scientific publishing for the archeological sites of South Sinai, said that Christian and Islamic architecture in Egypt share a great deal of symbolism owing to the mutual influence and cohesion of the two traditions.

In a telephone interview with Al-Monitor, Rayhan talked about Islamic monuments built by Coptic architects, most notably Saeed bin Katib Al-Farghani, who designed Ibn Tulun Mosque.

The mosque was built by order of Prince Ahmed Ibn Tulun, the governor of the Abbasid state in 877 AD, at the top of Jabal Yashkar overlooking the hills of Mokattam. “Ibn Tulun wanted to build a mosque that would withstand fire or flood, even if Egypt was entirely consumed or submerged. The mosque was supported by 160 brick piers instead of the marble columns used in most mosques,” he said.

Rayhan also talked about Al-Rifai Mosque in the Citadel Square in Cairo. “Khoshyar Hanim, the mother of Khedive Ismail, ordered its construction in 1869. The mosque was built over two stages and Hussein Fahmy Pasha was the original engineer. When Hoshiyar Qadin died in 1885, work was halted on the mosque and was resumed 25 years later at the order of Khedive Abbas Helmy II. Max Herz Pasha, a Hungarian Jewish architect and head of the Committee for the Conservation of Arab Monuments in Cairo, led the second phase of construction. This is why the mosque was built with a facade decorated with giant crosses.”

Rayhan pointed out that the similarity between Coptic and Islamic arts attest to the shared values ​​and cohesion between the Egyptian nation’s two main religious traditions.

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