Ibn Tulun Mosque, Cairo

Ibn Tulun’s Mosque (daily 8am – 4.30; free ) is a rare survivor of the classical Islamic period of the 9th and 10th centuries , when the Abbasid caliphs ruled the Muslim world from Iraq. Their purpose-built capital, Samarra, centered upon a congregational mosque where the entire population assemble for Friday prayer,and this most likely provided the inspiration for Ibn Tulun. You enter the mosque via a “Zayada”, or enclosure, designed to distance the mosque from its surroundings; to the left stands the Gayer-Anderson House. It’s only within the inner walls that the vastness of the mosque becomes apparent: the courtyard is 92m square, while the complex measures 140m by 122m.

Besides its sheer size, the mosque impress by its simplicity. Ibn Tulun’s architects understood the power or repetition and also restraint : small floral capitals and stucco rosettes seem at first glance to be the only decorative motifs. Beneath the arcads you will find a sycamore-wood frieze over 2km long, relating roughly one-fifth of the Koran in Kufic script. The severely geometric ablutions fountain, an inspired focal point, was added in the 13th century, when the mihrab was also jazzed up with marble and glass mosaics – the only unsuccessful note in the complex.

The minaret is unique for its exterior  spiral staircase, which gives the structure a helical shape. Supposedly, Ibn Tulun twisted a scrap of paper into a spiral, and then justified his absent-minded deed by presenting it as the design for a minute. But the great minaret at Samarra seems a likelier source of inspiration.

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