The Mosque of ibn Tulun

   Posted by: Keith Payne   

Categories: Islamic Period, Cairo, Lower Egypt

post tab 0012Built more than 1,100 years ago, the Mosque of ibn Tulun still looks largely the way it did when first constructed, although the entire city that was built around it was destroyed just 26 years later.  

The mosque tells the story of a court servant, the son of a Turkish slave, who came to rule all of Egypt and part of Syria.  He would rise to declare independence for his kingdom–as well as himself–from those who once owned him.  This article will explore the history of Ahmad ibn Tulun and the mosque that bears his name.


Ahmad ibn Tulun

Ahmad ibn Tulun was born in Baghdad in AD 835, the son of a Turkish slave owned by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun.  Turkish slaves often served as soldiers and court officials under the Abbasids, and the elder Tulun (“ibn Tulun” means “son of Tulun”) was an accomplished officer, rising to the position of chief of the Caliph’s personal guard.  Tulun provided his son Ahmad with an excellent education, which included studying theology at Tarsus and military training at Samarra.  This military and religious background, combined with a youth spent observing the machinations of court politics, would prove to be a valuable skill set for ibn Tulun.

Ahmad followed in his father’s footsteps and pursued a military career, fighting the Byzantines in the service of Caliph al-Muttawakkil.  In 855 ibn Tulun’s father died and his mother married Bayik Bey, another high ranking Turkish official in the Abbasid court.  Ibn Tulun busied himself in the war with the Byzantines until 868, when Caliph al-Mutazz made Bayik Bey the prefect of Egypt, who chose to send his stepson to govern the country in his stead.

At this time the capital of Egypt was the city of Fustat, which lies in the area of what is now called Old Cairo.  Ibn Tulun, however, envisioned something more along the lines of Baghdad or Samarra, and so he began construction of his own capital city, al-Qatta’i.  This new capital would be laid out in the Persian style, with a palace and a connected mosque large enough to service all his soldiers.  For the location of his city ibn Tulun chose a strategic high ground called Jabal Yashkur, which means “Hill of Thanksgiving.”  Ibn Tulun’s decision to create his own capital city exhibited an independent streak which would continue to grow as he consolidated his political power. 

First, he took advantage of his connections with the Abbasid court to have the locally unpopular minister of finance removed, and by 872 he had assumed control of the council of financial affairs.   Once in a position to do so, he boosted his own image in Egypt by lowering taxes and spending more on infrastructure.  Meanwhile, after the murder of Bayik Bey in 870, control of Egypt passed to Ibn Tulun’s father-in-law, who not only kept him in place as governor but also granted him control over Alexandria. 

Using a rebellion in Palestine as an excuse, ibn Tulun began to grow his army with a combination of slaves and Greek, African, and Turkish conscripts.  With more than 100,000 soldiers behind him, in 874 he began to withhold tribute to the Abbasid court and began to rule Egypt more or less independent of the Caliphate.  In 877 he repelled an attempt by the Abbasids to rein him in, and went on to annex parts of Syria which the Abbasids could no longer defend from the Byzantines.  He would continue to not only make occasional war with the Abbasids, but to meddle in court politics as well.  At one point he offered asylum to Caliph al-Mutaamid while having his brother, al-Muwaffaq, legally declared an usurper.

Ibn Tulun died in 883 of dysentery.  He was succeeded by his son, Kuhmarraweh, but the Tulunid Dynasty would come to an end in 905 when the Abbasids regained control of Egypt.  The Abbasids razed ibn Tulun’s capital of al-Qatta’i, leaving nothing standing but the mosque.


The Mosque of ibn Tulun

The Mosque of ibn Tulun was built in AD 876-79 at the center of al-Qatta’i.  Jabal Yaskur, the hill on which the mosque was built, is traditionally where Moses had his showdown with the Pharaoh’s magicians (Exodus 7:8-9:11), and local legend also says that it is where Noah’s Ark came to rest.  A Christian and Jewish cemetery had previously occupied the space where the mosque was built. 

Entering the courtyard from the riwaq

Entering the courtyard from the riwaq (Photo by Keith Payne)

The mosque is the largest in Cairo, and is the third largest in the world.  It is the oldest mosque in Egypt that still retains much of its original design.  The Mosque of ibn Tulun differs from other mosques in several regards, not the least of which is that it is built of brick covered with carved stucco rather than stone and marble.  One reason given for this is the fact that the architect was a Christian, who decided to use brick in order to spare churches from being plundered for building materials.  Another explanation is that ibn Tulun wanted the mosque to mirror the Great Mosque of Samarra, which is constructed in the same way, and because brick is more fire resistant.

View of the riwaq from the courtyard showing the beautifully carved stucco

View of the riwaq from the courtyard (sahn) showing the beautifully carved stucco (Photo by Keith Payne)

Map of the Mosque of ibn Tulun

Map of the Mosque of ibn Tulun

The mosque is built around a central courtyard, called a sahn, which is bordered on all four sides by covered arcaded halls called riwaqs.  Due to the brick construction, the arches are supported by square piers rather than round columns, although the piers are cornered with faux columns.  There are 13 arches on each side of the sahn, and two rows of piers in each riwaq, except on the side of the Qibla Wall (the side which faces Mecca), which has five rows. 

On three sides of the mosque there are open-air hall-like spaces called ziyadas.  The ziyadas separate the riwaqs from the outer walls in order to create a sort of buffer zone between the sacred space of the mosque and the everyday world.  The minaret is located in the northern ziyada.  There is no ziyada on the Qibla Wall side because that is where the palace once stood.  The unusual crenellations which top the inner and outer walls are said to represent people with linked upraised hands. 

View of the eastern ziyada looking north

View of the eastern ziyada looking north (Photo by Keith Payne)


View of the domed ablution fountain (sahn) from the riwaq

View of the domed ablution fountain from the riwaq (Photo by Keith Payne)

 At the center of the courtyard is the domed ablution fountain where the faithful wash themselves before prayer.  The original ablution fountain was in the ziyada area, with an ornamental fountain originally being in the location of the current ablution fountain.  The ornamental fountain was destroyed by fire in 986, with the domed ablution fountain being a part of the renovations done under Sultan Lajin in the 13th century. 

Sahn and minaret from the courtyard

Ablution fountain and minaret from the sahn (Photo by Keith Payne)

 After the return of the Abbasids in 905, and with the rise of Cairo proper as the capital of Egypt, the Mosque of ibn Tulun lost its former prestige and centuries of neglect took their toll.  The mosque suffered major damage in the 12th century when it was used at various times to house pilgrims.  In 1296, the Mamluk Sultan Lajin, who had hidden in the mosque in the aftermath of the assassination of Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil ibn Qalawun, made good on his promise to restore the property to its original grandeur. 

One of Sultan Lajin’s major restorations was the mosque’s minaret which, with its spiraling external staircase, is another feature that sets the Mosque of ibn Tulun apart from other Egyptian mosques.  Although common to ibn Tulun’s homeland, particularly Samarra, the minaret’s composition is like no other in Egypt. 

The spiraling minaret of the Mosque of ibn Tulun

The spiraling minaret of the Mosque of ibn Tulun (Photo by Keith Payne)

 Ibn Tulun’s mosque is the only legacy remaining of this son of a slave who came to rule an independent Egypt at a time when the Abbasid Caliphate seemed on the verge of collapse.  The mosque has undergone further renovations, with the most recent being in 1999 when the courtyard was paved.  Additionally, the domed sahn has been refaced with black marble since these photographs were taken.  But for the most part the mosque retains its original form as well as an ability to evoke an awareness of the sacred to visitors of all faiths.


Further Reading


Tour Egypt:

Ibn Tulun in Cairo

The Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun


Archnet Digital Library:

Ibn Tulun Mosque



The Mosque of ibn Tulun:  An Introduction




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This entry was posted on Thursday, June 25th, 2009 at 2:04 pm and is filed under Islamic Period, Cairo, Lower Egypt. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. Cairo – The mesmerizing Egyptian capital |    Dec 02 2015 / 6am:

    […] Mosque http://emhotep.net/2009/06/25/locations/lower-egypt/the-mosque-of-ibn-tulun/ IbnTulun Mosque is the 2nd oldest mosque in Cairo and was built between 876 and 879 AD. Made in the […]

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