Discover Egypt and Africa’s First Mosque
By Soha Khater, Community Times
In the heart of Old Cairo surmounted by a number of ancient Coptic churches, a Coptic museum and a synagogue, is the mosque of Amr Ibn El Aas – the first mosque in Egypt and Africa, notably known as “The Crown of Mosques” and “The Antique Mosque.”
Amr Ibn El Aas
Amr Ibn El Aas, eminent for his intelligence and shrewdness, worked in trade during the pre-Islamic paganism and accompanied caravans along the commercial trading routes through Asia and the Middle East, including Egypt. He was born in Mecca at around 573 and died in Egypt at around 663 AD at probably the age of 90.
He belonged to the nobility of Kuraysh, a powerful merchant tribe that controlled Mecca upon the appearance of Islam. He fought with Kuraysh against Islam in several battles, however when he observed Muslims praying, he tried to find out more about Islam. By around the 8th year AH, he embraced Islam and participated in Islamic conquests under the rule of Caliph Umar Ibn El Khattab, who appointed him as his general in the army, and later a governor.
Ibn El Aas convinced Umar to conquer Egypt, and he was sent as the Arab Commander of the Muslim Army, and fight against the Romans, and was thus considered as a rescuer by the Copts.
The “Crown of Mosques” was deemed as the first scientific university, years before the birth of El Azhar, where religious preaching and lessons in Quranic science took place under one roof. The mosque accommodated up to 5,000 students at a time.
A dove was the main reason behind the construction and position of this mosque. When Amr Ibn Al Aas conquered Egypt, he set up his tent on the eastern side of the Nile, and before he was set off for another battlefield, he found out that a dove had laid an egg in his tent. He didn’t remove the tent and considered this site sacred. Upon his return from Alexandria, he declared the site as the new capital of the city and named it Fustat, which means “tent”, and later the mosque was built on this location overlooking the Nile to the north of the fortress of Babylon in 642 AD and 21 AH.
The mosque was built on an area of around 1,500 square cubits, measuring 29 meters in length and 17 meters in width. It was a simple shape of a rectangular small shed made of wood and palm leaves, with a roof constructed of palm trunks, supported on columns of palm stems, stones and mud brick. The floor was covered with pebbles, and the walls of mud brick with no plaster or any decorations. There was no prayer niche, which is Mecca’s orientation for the prayer or the so-called mihrab. Four columns were added to point out the direction, and were inserted on the qibla (direction for Muslim prayer) wall. The mosque also had no minarets with one door on the northern side and two others facing Ibn El Aas’s house at the time.
Nothing remains of the mosque’s original construction. The present one underwent a series of alterations, enlargements, additions and modifications, as well as restorations that have been recorded through the various periods of the Islamic era, Ayubid, Mamluke, Abbasid and Umayad. The mosque’s area was enlarged, the roof raised, the palm trunk columns were replaced by marble ones, the walls were decorated, the number of entrances were increased, and minarets were added, among other features. Its present plan is a traditional open court surrounded by four riwaqs; the largest is the qibla riwaq.
Plan a morning tour to the area; simply take the underground and stop at Mari Gergis station, enjoy a leisurely walk on Mari Gergis street and visit the mosque, a number of Coptic churches, the Coptic museum and a synagogue. Before you leave the area, do not miss to stop by Souk El Fustat, next door to the mosque. The souk offers a variety of handmade products, metalwork, ceramics, leatherwork, pottery, rugs and carpets and many other unique handicrafts.