Ibn Tulun is Cairo’s oldest surviving mosque with a one-of-a-kind climbable spiral minaret and rows of very photogenic archways.
The Mosque of Ibn Tulun is an architectural gem with a unique minaret and a fascinating history – and it’s a must-see on your Cairo itinerary.
It’s much older and has a completely different feel than Cairo’s grander Mamluk or Ottoman mosques. There’s no alabaster or limestone. Just rows of geometric archways and patterns that are every photographer’s dream. No wonder art students often come here to practice drawing perspective.
Don’t miss the geometric patterns carved out of stucco on the undersides of the arches, the spacious courtyard and the mosque’s narrow enclosed wings (called ziyadas) that surround Ibn Tulun on all three sides.
It’s one of the largest mosques in the world and was built to accommodate Ahmad Ibn Tulun’s entire army during Friday prayers. It also has a fascinating history: built by a slave-soldier who later found a dynasty, the spiral minaret once rivaled the mosque in the Abbasid capital of Samarra.
Legend says Ibn Tulun designed the minaret completely by chance. He was sitting with his officials and absentmindedly winding a piece of parchment around his finger. When someone asked what he was doing, Ibn Tulun said he was designing his minaret.
Climb the minaret up the narrow, winding staircase for some great views of the bustling Sayeda Zeinab district and the mosque’s massive courtyard.
Inside Ibn Tulun Mosque
Slip on the blue plastic slippers before you head inside, which protect the fragile flooring. Head scarves for women aren’t required but bring one just in case.
The spacious courtyard is breezy and drowns out all noise of outside traffic.
A cool breeze circulates through the tiny windows between the mosque’s rows of pointed arches.
Ibn Tulun is the third largest mosque in the world, measuring 26,318 square meters. It once accommodated Ibn Tulun’s entire army during Friday prayers.
The mosque was Ahmad ibn Tulun’s first work after he was made governor of Egypt. And it was the focal point of the short-lived Tulunid capital of Qataia.
It’s majestic but also surprisingly simple. There’s no alabaster or limestone, and no golden domes or intricate paintings.
Ibn Tulun’s grandeur rests on space and air. It impresses with geometric arches that throw lines of shadow on the floor and patterns with a clean consistency.
It revels in open space in a city where there’s very little. In aerial view photos, it’s an empty square of calm surrounded by the haphazard rows of Sayeda Zeinab’s apartment blocks.
The mosque was built over three years with red brick, and it’s filled with earthy beige and rough textures. A bunch of palm leaves used to sweep the floors leans in a corner.
The mosque is an architectural masterpiece that was completed in 879. The same century that saw Beowulf, Charlemagne and Europe’s battles with the Vikings.
And though the mosque is hardly ostentatious, it isn’t without its ornaments.
Wander through the arcades and you’ll notice the geometric patterns carved out of stucco, each different from the next. It’s the first time the material was used in Cairo.
Walk around the courtyard and its ablution fountain, then around the mosque’s narrow enclosed wings (called ziyadas) that surround Ibn Tulun on three sides.
The ziyadas are quiet and filled with gravel and small bursts of wildflowers. But they once held vibrant Friday markets in the heyday of the Tulunid dynasty.
The unique minaret
The Ibn Tulum mosque has a famous brick minaret with an external spiral ramp.
Legend says you can climb up on a horse. Though climbing the long flight of stairs with an arm full of cameras on a hot day is challenging enough!
Other legends surround the building. Folklore says the mosque was constructed on a small hill where the Biblical Noah’s Ark came to rest after the flood.
The local neighbourhood
The top of the minaret has great views of the bustling Sayeda Zeinab district. You’ll see scenes from everyday Egyptian life: men getting freshly-baked bread for breakfast or women hanging their laundry.
There’s nothing to indicate this was once the city center that once rivaled the Abbasid empire.
But it offers a slice of everyday Egyptian life. It’s unspoiled by tourism and far from loud souvenir vendors.
When I visit, my friend reminds me to watch my purse. Sayeda Zeinab is a working-class neighborhood where visitors seldom wander.
Then a man with a long beard and scruffy sweater walks towards me as we’re sitting down for breakfast at a local restaurant. I wonder if he’d spent last night outdoors. I feel a bit guilty about our lavish spread, but he only glances at our table and says: “Welcome to Egypt.”
Ibn Tulun’s short rule was characterized by de facto independence.
It was the first time Egypt had been independent since the Ptolemic Pharaohs. By some artful feat, the young Ibn Tulun evicted the caliphal fiscal agent and took control of Egypt’s finances and military. Once those were his, so was complete power.
But then the Abbasids regained power in 905 and unfortunately razed the entire city. They only spared the Ibn Tulun mosque.
Decades later, the city center shifted and the mosque became neglected. Pilgrims in the 12th century used it for shelter. Then a Mamluk Sultan (who’d conspired in an assassination) used the deserted mosque as a hiding spot. He vowed to restore it if he escaped alive – and the rest is history.
A classic Egyptian breakfast
It’s easy to work up an appetite after a climb up that winding minaret.
For a classic Egyptian breakfast, head to one of Cairo’s most famous street food joints.
Squeeze into a tuk-tuk and take the short ride to El Gahsh (The Mule) a local restaurant known for its ful (fava beans).
A cook rapidly drops balls of falafel into sizzling oil and bowls of salt top the red plastic tables.
Order a smorgasbord of Egyptian classics. Try some ful, arugula and green onions, potato wedges, falafel (called taamiya in Egypt) and baba ganoush (eggplant dip).
How to get there: It’s best to take an Uber. Though your driver may not be familiar with Ibn Tulun – mine always get lost.
Nearby: The Gayer-Anderson Museum is right next door – and another Cairo hidden gem that’s worth exploring. Combine a trip to Ibn Tulun with a stop at the museum for a great afternoon of sightseeing. The Mosque of Sultan Hassan is also walkable – or a short tuk tuk ride away. There aren’t many sit-down restaurants around, but the neighbourhood is packed with street food and kiosks where you can get snacks.