Friday, August 15, 2014

Cairo Islamic Attractions (7), Mosques & Minarets: Al-Hakim Mosque

Egypt is famous in particular for the diversity and multitude of its Islamic monuments which were built through different eras. The building of Islamic monuments in Egypt has started since the Moslems first opened Egypt in 641 AD. From this point on, Egypt has been ruled by many Islamic dynasties: starting with the "Rashdin Caliphs", the Tulunids, the Fatimids, the Ayyubids, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, and ending with rulers from the family of Mohamed Ali.

Each of these periods had its own requirements and characteristics which were clearly reflected on the shape, size, and style of the architecture. Moreover, each ruler tried his best to build structures that express the features of the period he went through.

Among the most famous Islamic monuments in Egypt, there is the Mosque of Mohamed Ali in the citadel of Salah El Din, the Madrasa of Sultan Hassan, the Mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun, The mosque of Al Azhar, and the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al As, the oldest mosque ever built in Egypt and in Africa. one of the oldest Islamic monuments in Egypt, and its builder, Al Hakim, one of the most famous Caliphs that ever ruled Egypt.

However, there are many other amazing Islamic monuments in Egypt that tourists, and even Egyptians themselves, usually miss because probably they don’t know of their existence. Some of these monuments are really unique, picturesque, and have been built on a vast piece of land.

One of the best examples of these remarkable monuments is the Mosque of Al Hakim Be'amr Allah which is considered

The Mosque of Al Hakim is now located at the end of Al Muiz Street very close to Bab El Fetooh, one of Egypt's ancient gates. It is also near the famous Khan El Khalili market. Therefore, it is always a good idea to explore the monuments in the Muiz Street after visiting the most famous tourists market in the world, putting in consideration that Cairo one day only consisted of this narrow street and the areas around it. Therefore the street contains a huge variety of Islamic monuments.

Al Hakim and his advocacy for the new religion!

Construction work of the ancient Mosque of Al Hakim started in the year 990 AD with a decision from the Fatimid Caliph "Al Aziz be Allah Ibn Al Muiz le Din Allah" and the mosque was completed in 1012 during the reign of Al Hakim Be'amr Allah, the third Fatimid ruler in Egypt.

Many rumors and a lot of debates were aroused around Al Hakim, his ideas, and the period of his rule. Al Hakim came to power when he was only 11 years old and he formed a plan to assassinate his tutor while he was 15 and he succeeded. It was said that he burned a lot of places in Cairo when people objected to obey some of his weird laws like: replacing his name instead of the name of god, Allah, in the prayers, forbidding people from eating mallow, the Egyptian Molokhia which is one of the most popular Egyptian dishes until now because he hated it. He also prohibited shoemakers to manufacture shoes for women as he believed they should stay home, and it was also debated that he ordered his men once to throw all of Egypt's production of molasses in the river Nile, and many other stories and rumors.

The weirdest and most serious story that was told concerning Al Hakim was that he used to go to a cave in Al Moqatem Mountain and stay there alone for long hours. One night, he claimed that he heard a voice telling him that he should unite both religions, Islam and Christianity, to become one new unified religion. The reason may be why these ideas entered his head is that his father is the founder of the Fatimid Shiite doctrine and in the same time his mother was the sister of the Patriarch of the Copts in Egypt at the time. The theory of Al Hakim depends on the notion that there is only one god, so why don’t we have only one religion, Why shouldn’t we have only one profit, and why shouldn’t him, Al Hakim, become this prophet conveying the message of this new religion.

When Al Hakim started planning how to spread the message of this new religion, he didn’t know the conspiracy that was taking place around him, with one of the royal family ladies participating in it with the help of the army commander, Seif El Din Ibn Rawash. They decided to assassinate him before he spreads the poison of this new religion among the people of Egypt, putting into account that the Fatimids were Shiites and very conservative towards their Islamic beliefs and thoughts.

As a matter of fact, one night while Al Hakim was riding his donkey and going to his Cave in the mountain, a group of strong black slaves attacked him and killed him, and his body was never found until today. This was the last event in the life of one of the strangest rulers of Egypt.

Although, many historical theories support all of the facts mentioned above, nobody was ever sure what was really inside the head of Al Hakim and was he really a cruel ruler or did his assassins spread these rumors to ruin his reputation and his history. They only absolute fact about Al Hakim is his mosque which is still present in Egypt until today.

The architectural description of the mosque

The mosque of Al Hakim is the second largest Fatimid Mosque in Egypt and its design is similar to that of the mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tolon. The mosque was mainly built out of brick other than the two unique minarets that were built out of stone.

The mosque consists of an open courtyard "Sahn" with four halls "Riwaq" surrounding it from the four directions and the largest and most beautiful among them is the Qibla Riwaq which identifies the direction to Mecca where Moslems should be facing while praying.

The mosque of Al Hakim is famous for three main architectural characteristics. The first is the memorial entrance with its huge size and fabulous decorations. This entrance is the first of its kind to be built in Egypt and there isn’t any other mosque entrances that can be compared to it except the one of Al Mahdeya Mosque in Tunisia.

The second beautiful architectural aspects of this mosque is its wide white marble floor that reflects the mosque itself from inside. A lot of flakes of birds are usually seen flying around the mosque and standing on its amazing floor as they drink water from its fountain.

The third and most and unparalleled feature of Al Hakim

Mosque is it's uniquely designed two minarets which are located at the North and South corners of its western entrance. They are the oldest surviving minarets in Egypt. Furthermore, there isn’t any minaret in Egypt that would look like those of Al Hakim Mosque because of their rare design that was imported to Egypt form North Africa, the origin of the Fatimids.

The minarets were built by dropping them inside two huge square stone structures that appear clearly from outside the Mosque. This was how the Fatimid used to build their minarets in Tunisia and North Africa.

The Northern minaret is 33.7 meters long topped by a cylindrical body and above it lies a "Mabkhra" style head, very famous design in the days of the Fatimids. While the other minaret is 24.7 meters with an octagonal body above it and the "Mabkhra" head at the end.

The bases of these two minarets are original. However, the tops of the minarets were changed by Baybars Al Jashnkeer in 1303 when an earthquake hit Egypt causing a lot of damage to the mosque. Baybars Also added the wonderful Mihrab of the mosque built out of colored marble.

The mosque would also appear similar to the Azhar Mosque in some factors: they both have this curve in the walls of the prayer halls except that these of Al Hakim Mosque is much higher. Both mosques also share having three small domes in the Qibla prayer hall.

The usages of the mosque through history

The Mosque of Al Hakim was not always used as a mosque or a prayer area as it was used for many other purposes through its history because of its wide space.

The Mosque of Al Hakim was used as a prison for the crusaders and a horse stable in the reign of Salah El Din and a storage area for food and weapon in the period of the French occupation of Egypt by Napoleon Bona Parte.

At the end of the French occupation, the French soldiers left the mosque in a very poor state. The Mosque of Al Hakim was not renovated until the period of Caliph Tawfiq when he decided to transform the mosque into an Islamic art museum, before the museum was established in Port Said Street.

The Ismailie Shiites have also played a major role in repairing and restoring the mosque by adding the remarkable marble floor and a lot of other architectural aspects especially ornamenting the walls of the mosque with plaster decorations.

It must be also noted that the Indian Bohra Shiites hold the credit for all the modern restoration that took place in the Mosque of Al Hakim to appear in the way it is today.

The Mosque of Al Hakim was even used as a school in the times of the former Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Today, the mosque receives numerous visitors from around the world to view the fascinating ancient Islamic architecture. The mosque is also still used for prayer until this day.

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