Gawhar Al-Lala Mosque

Written and Photographed by Soha Khater

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Cairo is known for housing hidden architectural gems that have miraculously survived, but are incredibly underrated, if noticed at all.

Many people have passed by or visited the citadel along with its nearby mosques, like Sultan Hassan and Al Refai, but very few have paid due attention to Gawhar Al-Lala. This grand mosque reflects the beautiful work and design of the Turkish and Mamluk eras, balancing its style perfectly between wood and stone. If you are not familiar with it, I would highly recommend you pay it a visit during prayer times, as the mosque is only open then.

Location

Off of Salah Salem, towards the citadel, Gawhar Al-Lala is situated near the mosques of Sultan Hassan and Al Refai. In the midst of many unique buildings, the mosque’s strategic location on top of a hill provides a beautiful, panoramic view of nearby monuments.

History

Al-Lala is a Turkish title given to the private tutors of the sultans’ sons. Gawhar was a freed Mamluk slave who served Sultan Barsbay, then became his son’s chief tutor. Al-Lala was highly esteemed and known for his benevolent heart and good actions. However, he was imprisoned during the rule of Sultan Gaqmaq.

The Mamluks established many impressive monuments including palaces and houses, and were granted their freedom upon terminating a series of religious education and military service trainings. The two periods that distinguished them were the times of the Baharis and Burgis. The former were Kipchak Turks from the steppes of the Volga River near the Caspian Sea who ruled from 1250–1382, and were named Bahari as they lived in barracks on Roda Island. The latter ruled from 1382–1517 and were Circassians from the Caucasus Mountains, getting their name from the towers they resided in called burgs.

Architecture and Design

The mosque’s complex includes a madrasa, a mausoleum, a sabil and a kuttab. To approach the mosque, you have to climb an elevated flight of stairs and pass through a passageway that leads to a large terrace in front of its entrance, where you have the opportunity to take pictures of the mosque’s exterior structure and take a look at the view of the area. The mosque dates back to the Circassian-Mamluk era, and was constructed in the 15th Century. It covers an extremely small area of around 2,000 square feet.

Regardless of its small structure, the mosque is well decorated with Circassian-Mamluk ornamental features, presenting a charming and unique setting. The building’s façade is decorated with irregular ensembles of red and yellow limestone; whereas the original mosque’s wooden entrance was exquisitely made from copper. Now, the entrance escorts you into a rectangular hallway, on the right of which is a doorway leading to the mosque’s sahn, or inner courtyard, embodying a cruciform-style madrasa common at that time, which is supported by a cupola and surrounded by four iwans or halls covered with marble.

The largest is the qibla iwan that includes the prayer niche, also called the mihrab, which is colored and decorated with marble. The qibla iwan is supported by gypsum windows that are placed facing Mecca to represent the prayer direction. The opposite iwan is currently covered with a curtain, so women are able to pray.

Adjacent to the mihrab is the pulpit, also called a minbar, which is considered to be different from other minibars of the era, because the inlaid geometrical additions have disappeared and are currently replaced with plain forms. The mosque’s minaret portrays the Al-Qulla style minaret, which includes a single balcony.

Also evident in the mosque are the sabil and kuttab; the former being where anyone passing by can have a drink of water, while the latter is a school that provides religious teachings and Quranic recitals. One of the striking features of the mosque’s kuttab is the presence of a superbly carved mashrabeya surrounding its balcony, where anyone would be able to climb up and enjoy a view of the area surrounding the citadel, but is unfortunately not accessible now.

The mausoleum that houses the tomb of Gawhar Al-Lala is preceded by a wooden door with copper embellishments. The mosque also has quarters used as storerooms and lodgings for the students and civil servants. The current ablution area, where people get purified before prayers, is a new addition.

On a final note, Islamic Egypt’s beautiful buildings and monuments mostly reflect the work of the Mamluk era. Their unique style, design and architecture are evident throughout the city, creating a beautiful look into this country’s history.

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