Monday, July 14, 2014

Cairo Islamic Attractions (4), Mosques & Minarets: Amr Ibn Al-As – First mosque in Africa

There is an interesting and charming story about the origins of this ancient mosque, which is conveniently located in Old Cairo (Fustat) very near the Mar Gargis underground metro station and Coptic Cairo.

Is said that the original location of this Mosque was chosen by a dove. Amr ibn Al-As, the Arab military commander who is most noted for leading the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640 AD, by order of Caliph Omar, was the first Arab conqueror of Egypt.    

In 641 AD, before he and his army attacked the capital city of Alexandria (at the northwestern part of the Nile Delta), Amr had set up his tent on the eastern side of the River Nile, at the southern part of the Delta.
Shortly before Amr set off to battle, a dove laid an egg in his tent. When Amr returned after gaining victory, he had to choose a site for a new capital city, since Caliph Omar had decreed that it could not be in far-away Alexandria.    

So Amr declared the site of the dove sacred, and made it the centre of his new city, Fustat. Later, the Mosque of Amr ibn Al-As was built on the same location in 642 AD. 
The original structure of the Mosque was the first mosque ever built in Egypt, and by extension, the first mosque on the continent of Africa. 

The mosque was built on an area of 1,500 square cubits. The initial structure was quite simple; with walls bare of any plaster or decorations, and without mihrab (niche), minaret or ground covering.    It had two doors on the north and two others facing Amr's house.
The mosque remained unchanged until 672 AD, when Musallama al-Ansari, Egypt's ruler on behalf of Caliph Mu'awiya Ibn abi-Sufian, undertook expansion and renovation works for the mosque. Walls and ceilings were decorated and four compartments for muezzin (prayer callers) were added at the corners, together with a minaret, while the mosque ground was covered with straw mats.

Later, upon the orders of Caliph al-Walid Ibn Abdel-Malek, the mosque area was enlarged, a niche, a wooden minbar (pulpit) and a compartment and copings of four columns facing the niche were gilded. The mosque had then four doors to the east, four to the west and three to the north.

Under the Abbasid state, successive additions and repairs were made. However, the Fatimid period was the golden era for the mosque, where gilded mosaics, marble works, a wooden compartment and a mobile minbar were introduced and part of the mihrab was silver-coated.

Later in 1169, the city of Fustat with its mosque were destroyed by a fire that was ordered by Egypt's own vizier Shawar, who had ordered its destruction to prevent the city from being captured by the Crusaders. After the Crusaders were expelled, Saladin took power, and had the mosque rebuilt in 1179.

In the 18th century, one of the Mamluk leaders called Mourad Bey, destroyed the mosque because of its state of dilapidation and rebuilt it again in 1796, before the arrival of Napoleon's French Expedition to Egypt. Mourad Bey decreased the number of rows of columns from seven to six, and changed the orientation of the aisles to make them perpendicular to the qibla (direction of prayer) wall.

In the 20th century, during the reign of the Khedive Abbas Helmi II, the mosque underwent another restoration and parts of the entrance were reconstructed in the 1980s.

Simple in design, its present plan consists of an open sahn (courtyard) surrounded by four riwaqs, the largest being the qibla riwaq (arcade).

There are a number of wooden plaques bearing Byzantine foliate carvings. Despite the fact that most of its original structure has been replaced, the mosque’s historical significance as the site of the first Muslim settlement in Egypt and the first mosque in Africa still attracts Egyptians and tourists alike as it has done throughout the centuries.

Related Posts:
Egyptography Collection: Volume 6 -  Cairo 

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