A symbol of Egypt
Stefan Weichert explores the Mohamed Ali Mosque in Cairo, a stunning piece of architecture that should make every Egyptian proud
You almost get goosebumps seeing the glorious Mohamed Ali Mosque on top of the Citadel above Cairo. It grows bigger every step you take towards it, with its two 85-metre minarets pointing towards the sky.
It stands as a symbol of pride for Egyptian people. As a symbol of the making of modern Egypt during the reign of Mohamed Ali from 1805 to 1848, it is a reminder of Egypt’s strength during the country’s prime.
People seem to walk more slowly next to the walls surrounding the great mosque, which like the Giza Pyramids should make every Egyptian’s chest swell with pride. It’s like a fortress, and it makes your thoughts wander. It makes you ask yourself questions.
You feel blessed with the opportunity to see something so beautiful, powerful and historical, all at the same time. It makes you question why you didn’t come here before. It makes you ask what you have accomplished in your life.
For me, it made me think about my first love. Not only because of its beauty, but also because at times like this you should share the experience with somebody special.
As a foreigner who has travelled to many places around the world, I feel it is hard to find anything similar to this mosque. This is not only because of its beauty, but also because of the history behind the mosque and the surrounding area.
The reign of Mohamed Ali made Egypt one of the most developed countries outside Europe at the time and, in contrast to many other countries, Mohamed Ali was able to battle the colonial powers of Great Britain and France for much of his rule. The symbol of his success stands above Cairo today behind its high walls, as a symbol of when Egypt was a mighty force in the world.
The elevation looking towards the gates takes your breath away and makes the anticipation grow at every step. It’s as if the Mohamed Ali Mosque was built for you to feel it in every way possible before you even get a chance to step inside its walls. Walking towards the gates, the wind starts to kick in and makes you feel as if you are in heaven. It would not be surprising if heaven looked this way.
Around this great piece of heritage, there is not the same hassle as there can be around other tourist destinations in Egypt. It is as if this piece of history reminds people to be relaxed and to take the time to fill their lungs with the air and simply breathe. School children play drums as their teacher shows them towards the entrance, and it all feels natural, as if this is how things are supposed to be in order to embrace what you are about to see.
The gates to the Citadel open, and the silence from behind the walls hits you like a hammer. You feel as if you are walking onto another planet, where the wind has been denied entrance and only the sun is allowed to follow, looking down from the sky like a glowing force. There is a city within a city built around the Mohamed Ali Mosque, and it is properly referred to as Al-Qal’a, or the Citadel.
It was built with money from the growing Egyptian economy of the time, which was mainly based on cotton. Mohamed Ali knew the importance of the cotton crop and decided to expand it to boost his revenue from the European powers, which were hungry for all the cotton they could get their hands on at that time.
With the money raised, Mohamed Ali was more interested in building factories than religious monuments, but the Mohamed Ali Mosque was an exception. It was something that he built for himself, and the place where his body would be placed after his death in 1848. The building of the mosque started in 1830, when Mohamed Ali tore down the remains of the Mamluke palaces that had previously stood on the Citadel. The construction continued after his death.
From the entrance, the walk brings you past some small buildings until you stand in front of the mosque itself, surrounded by a large garden and a view that most people would kill to see. You look down on Cairo, spread before you, and it is not hard to imagine the feeling of power that must have flooded through Mohamed Ali’s veins when he stood there, with the city at his feet as a symbol of the country’s glory. It was a reminder to every opponent that he had made Egypt an important power once again, after being controlled by the Mamlukes for hundreds of years.
The mosque is built mostly of alabaster and breaks from the characteristic architecture of the Mamluke period and instead includes Ottoman elements. It was as if Mohamed Ali was deliberately doing things differently in order to start a new beginning. He hired the Greek architect Yusuf Bushnaq to build the mosque in a similar style to the Mosque of Sultan Ahmad in Istanbul, a city whose glory he was trying to outpace.
The mosque consists of a central dome flanked by eight smaller ones. The highest dome is 52 metres high, surmounted by the two 85-metre minarets. When you enter the mosque from the western side you first walk into a courtyard, where you notice a number of small domes supported by large marble columns.
Your eyes are then drawn to the marble ablution fountain in the middle of the courtyard that is supported by carved wooden columns and feels like an appetiser for something even more impressive inside the mosque itself.
An iron clock given by France is located in the west wall of the courtyard, again showing Egyptian power during this period. The European powers used to present gifts to major powers, including Egypt. After the courtyard, you walk into the mosque itself, entering a single large chamber with red carpets and large numbers of people walking around or sitting while observing the huge domes decorated with gold.
Lamps are hung in the middle of the chamber, lighting the mosque up and giving warmth to a place that can seem colder than outside. Inside this mosque, the sun is denied access, and can only peep through the windows in the large dome and the open doors.
You will also notice two minbars (pulpits), the larger one said to be an original and one of the largest in Egypt. In another corner is a marble cenotaph where Mohamed Ali’s body was moved by one of his successors, Abbas I. The architecture is Ottoman, but there are no geometric shapes and arabesques, as there are in Islamic art. Instead, there are six large medallions around the dome with Arabic writing on them, spelling out the names of God, Mohamed and the first four caliphs of Islam.
When you sit down on the carpet it is as if you are part of something bigger. There is a buzzing sound that makes you very much awake, and it makes sense that right outside people are handing out information about Islam. If you are not impressed by the power of Islam at this point, you probably never will be.
It is not hard to imagine how Mohamed Ali dreamt of more when he was surrounded by this beautiful construction and saw the view of Cairo. He did try his luck, occupying Syria and Sudan at certain periods, but later Egypt entered a darker period that the mosque does not reveal.
Mohamed Ali, who came to Egypt as an Ottoman army officer in 1800, battled the British-supported Mamlukes for control of Egypt, and later the British ended his expansive dreams for his country. After an Egyptian attack on Syria in 1839, the British forced Mohamed Ali’s troops to withdraw, in a move that put limits on Egyptian power and meant the country was never as powerful again.
However, many of Mohamed Ali’s initiatives lived on, including the Mohamed Ali Mosque, which in 1931 was rebuilt because of damage to the large dome. Today it is a place for Egyptians to remember a period when Egypt’s glory reached further than the African continent, in a symbol that is visible from most of Cairo.
The government today is aware of this, and has put a military museum inside the Citadel where cannons and warplanes are placed next to tanks and missiles with descriptions of Egypt’s military successes throughout history.
With the Mohamed Ali Mosque in the background, you leave through the gates of the Citadel feeling at peace before plunging back into the reality of modern Cairo, with its traffic noise and crush of people busy attending to the needs of everyday life.