Ibn Tulun is Cairo’s oldest surviving mosque – and a lesser-visited architectural masterpiece that should definitely be on your itinerary!
Ibn Tulun was built by a slave-soldier who would found a dynasty. It’s topped with a spiral minaret that rivalled the Abbasid capital of Samarra.
And it’s an absolute must-see in Cairo.
A quiet weekend morning is the perfect time to visit, when there’s little traffic and the city wakes up late. It will take you about 20 minutes to zip across town to Sayeda Zainab, a working-class neighbourhood packed with workshops and kiosks.
And although Ibn Tulun doesn’t get as much attention as more touristy mosques, it’s a unique architectural gem that should be on your itinerary.
Inside Ibn Tulun Mosque
You’ll be asked to put on blue plastic slippers before you head inside, meant to protect the fragile flooring. Head scarves for women weren’t required when I went with a tour group, but this varies depending on who’s at the entrance. Bring a scarf just in case.
The spacious courtyard is breezy and quiet, and drowns out all outside traffic noise.
A cool breeze circulates through the tiny windows built between the mosque’s rows of pointed arches.
Ibn Tulun is the third largest mosque in the world, measuring 26,318 sq m built to accommodate Ahmad Ibn Tulun’s entire army during Friday prayers.
Though it’s not always a mosque that most tourists visit.
Many itineraries to Cairo include Amr ibn al-As, a reconstruction of Egypt’s first mosque, or the Ottoman-style Mosque of Muhammad Ali.
The architecture of the Ibn Tulun mosque
But Ibn Tulun has an entirely different feel than Cairo’s newer or grander mosques.
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 ground and patterns that repeat with a clean consistency.
It revels in open space in a city where there’s often 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.
If you wander the arcades you’ll notice the underside of the arches decorated with geometric patterns carved out of stucco, each different from the next. It’s the first time the material was used in Cairo.
Walk around this courtyard and its ablution fountain, then around the side into the mosque’s narrow enclosed wings (called ziyadas) that surround Ibn Tulun from three sides.
The ziyadas are quiet and filled with palm trees. The northern ziyada is filled with fallen dates underneath the palms.
But they once held vibrant Friday markets in the heyday of the Tulunid dynasty.
The unique minaret at Ibn Tulun Mosque
The Ibn Tulum mosque has a famous brick minaret with an external spiral ramp.
Legends says that Ibn Tulun designed this unique minaret 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.
Historians say the minaret was likely constructed later on by a Mamluk sultan. But other legends surround the building. Folklore has it the mosque was constructed on a small hill where the Biblical Noah’s Ark came to rest after the flood.
The mosque was Ahmad ibn Tulun’s first work when he was promoted to rule Egypt as governor, and it was the focal point of the short-lived Tulunid capital of Qataia. The minaret was its crowning glory and set to rival a similar minaret in the Abbasid capital of Samarra in present-day Iraq.
Legend says you can climb up on a horse. But if you climb the long flight of slippery stairs on foot with an arm full of cameras, you’ll be sore the next day.
The local neighbourhood
The top of the minaret offers views of the bustling Sayeda Zeinab district. A group of men get freshly-baked bread for breakfast, and a woman hangs the laundry.
There’s nothing to indicate this was once the center of a city that rivalled the Abbasid empire.
But it does offer a slice of everyday Egyptian life. It’s unspoiled by tourism and far away from loud souvenir hagglers.
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 sit 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 had managed to evict the caliphal fiscal agent and effectively took control of Egypt’s finances and military. Once those were his, so was complete power.
The Abbasids regained power in 905 and sadly razed the entire city, sparing only the mosque.
But the structure fell into neglect as the city center shifted. Pilgrims in the 12th century used it for shelter. When a Mamluk Sultan conspired in an assassination and then hid in the deserted mosque, he vowed to restore it if he escaped alive.
A classic Egyptian breakfast
You’ll work up an appetite climbing those winding stairs and wandering this enourmous mosque.
For a classic Egyptian breakfast, one of Cairo’s most famous street food eateries is just nearby.
Squeeze into a tuk-tuk and take a short ride through the crowded streets to El Gahsh (The Mule) a local restaurant well-known for its ful (fava beans).
There’s a line of outdoor tables that are perfect for people-watching.
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. There is of course ful, arugula and green onions, potato wedges, falafel (called taamiya in Egypt) and baba ganoush (eggplant dip).
Before you go:
Walk Like An Egyptian, a company that promotes Egypt’s hidden gems, offers guided tours to Ibn Tulun. The itinerary includes a tuk-tuk ride and a stop for ful (fava beans).
For solo travellers, it’s best to take an Uber. Though your driver may not be familiar with the place – and it’s nowhere near as well-known as the Citadel or Al-Azhar Mosque.
The Gayer-Anderson Museum is right next door – and another Cairo hidden gem that’s well worth visiting. A trip to Ibn Tulun followed by a stop at the museum makes a perfect afternoon of sightseeing.
There are not many sit-down restaurants nearby, but the neighbourhood is packed with kiosks where you can get sodas and snacks.