Ibn Tulun is Cairo’s oldest surviving mosque, and an architectural masterpiece that’s less showy than the city’s grand attractions.
The city wakes up late on Fridays. There are leisurely breakfasts of baladi bread and cheese before the afternoon prayers, and the streets are blissfully deserted. It takes me twenty minutes to zip across town to Sayeda Zainab, a working-class neighbourhood with workshops and kiosks that are still closed.
My Uber driver asks a few passersby for directions and we arrive at the entrance. Ibn Tulun is the city’s largest and oldest surviving mosque, built by a slave-soldier who would found a dynasty. It’s topped with a spiral minaret that was to rival the Abbasid capital of Samarra.
My driver says he’s never been inside.
I’m here for a guided tour with Walk Like An Egyptian, a company that aims to promote Egypt’s hidden gems. The itinerary includes a tuk-tuk ride and a stop for ful (fava beans). I’m looking forward to walking around a neighborhood that I don’t normally visit.
Inside Ibn Tulun Mosque
Once our group has gathered, we don blue plastic slippers and head inside the enormous courtyard. Although it’s a quiet morning, it’s even quieter inside. A cool breeze circulates through the tiny windows built between the mosque’s rows of pointed arches. This 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.
I wander around this courtyard and its ablution fountain, then I walk around the side into the mosque’s narrow enclosed wings (called ziyadas) that surround Ibn Tulun from three sides. They are quiet and filled with palm trees. But they once held vibrant Friday markets in the Tulunid dynasty’s heyday.
I walk through the northern ziyada and take photos of the fallen dates underneath the palms. Then I walk toward’s the mosque’s famous brick minaret with its external spiral ramp.
The unique minaret at Ibn Tulun Mosque
Legends has it 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.
It’s said one can climb up on a horse. But I went up the long flight of slippery stairs on foot with two cameras and was sore the next day.
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 assasination and then hid in the deserted mosque, he vowed to restore it if he escaped alive.
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.
Classic Egyptian breakfast
I climb down the minaret as the group gathers to head for breakfast. A few of us 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).
We grab a few outside tables and sit down. A cook rapidly drops balls of falafel into sizzling oil. I sit down with a food blogger friend and we 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).
My friend reminds me to watch my purse. Sayeda Zeinab is a working-class neighborhood where tourists seldom wander.
Then a man with a long beard and scruffy sweater walks towards us. I wonder if he’d spent last night outdoors or inside. I feel a bit guilty about our lavish spread, but he only glances at our table and says: “Welcome to Egypt.”