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Volume 36, Number 6November/December 1985

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The Minarets of Cairo

Written and photographed by John Feeney

Nowhere in the Muslim world can you find such a profusion of domes and minarets as in Cairo. Rising from the haze of crowded, crumbling streets in the old, chaotic, yet picturesque medieval parts of the city, they dominate the city's skyline. Minarets, indeed, are Cairo's joy and ornament and the source of Cairenes' favorite nickname: "Madeenet el alf Midhana," "the city of a thousand minarets."

Not every mosque in Cairo - or elsewhere for that matter - possesses a minaret. Nor do they need to; the adhan, or call to prayer, can just as well be intoned at ground level as from a minaret. In the Prophet Muhammad's day, indeed, the call to prayer was first made from a rooftop just a few steps away from the Prophet's house in Medina. As the renowned authority on Islamic architecture, Sir Archibald Creswell, says: "...when Muhammad and his followers first came to Medina they prayed, according to Ibn Hisham, without any preliminary call to prayer."

Later, though, the Prophet sent instructions to an Ethiopian named Bilal, who possessed a clear and piercing voice, to call to the faithful of Medina from a rooftop (See Aramco World, July-August, 1983). And on the day the first Muslims captured Makkah (Mecca), Bilal intoned the sacred call to prayer from the top of the Ka'ba - the first time the call to prayer was made in what was to become Islam's holiest city. In the course of time, different Arabic words have been used for "minarets" - especially midhana and manara. The word midhana is derived from adhan ("call to prayer") and means, in effect, "the place where the call to prayer is pronounced." The other term, manara, means "candle-stick," or "a place in which to place a light." Since, of course, it can also mean "lighthouse," the Arabs used that term for the great Pharos, or lighthouse of Alexandria, at the top of which a great mirrored lantern was lit at night to signal ships at sea. (See Aramco World, May-June, 1980). From that it was a short step from "manara" to "minaret," for what could look more like "a candle" or a "lighthouse" than a minaret -forever beckoning the faithful.

In Egypt, the first minarets date back to the beginnings of Islam when, in A.D. 673, the caliph Mu'awiya ordered the governor of Egypt to build minarets for the call to prayer, and four were built - one at each corner of the mosque of 'Amr the very first mosque to be built in Egypt.

None of these first minarets exists today, but in succeeding centuries countless more minarets were built - particularly during the reigns of the Fatimids, the Mamluks and the Ottoman governors until, after 1,000 years, Cairo could boast almost as many minarets.

In appearance, the minarets of Cairo vary tremendously. There are short minarets and tall minarets, double-headed minarets and even quadrupled minarets, as well as the plain, lean Turkish minarets, like those soaring above the mosque of Muhammad 'Ali on the heights of the Citadel; these were described by one observer as "tall stone candles." With a few exceptions, most of these Cairo minarets are built of stone cut from quarries in the nearby Muqattam Hills that once supplied the Pyramid builders 4,000 years earlier.

In medieval Cairo, as in all traditional Muslim cities, houses were never built very high and so minarets were always much higher than the surrounding buildings. But there was more to this than first meets the eye. Because the minaret was higher than the surrounding buildings, the voice of the muezzin could float out over the rooftops and reach all believers in the immediate area. In fact, the height of each minaret was usually designed in proportion to the surrounding district, so that it could be easily reached by the power of the vocal cords of the muezzin when calling out from the minaret's balcony.

Recent research also shows that after several centuries, the city's medieval masons - there were no architects or town planners in those days - began to take great care in siting a new minaret; by then there were so many minarets that they could no longer be put up haphazardly. Instead, the masons tried to site them in relation to each other so as not to disturb the harmony of the area. Today, as a result, though you often find several minarets on the same street, they never seem to obstruct each other; to the contrary, they seem to come together, providing what seems to be a natural contentment in the eye of the beholder.

Egypt's internationally renowned architect, Hassan Fathy, now well into his 80's but still working, expresses this very feeling when he looks out at Cairo from his terraced rooftop and tells us: "I am surrounded by five mosques, thanks be to God, with their domes and minarets and so I say I am living in a skyscape, not a landscape. These minarets make you think that the very air around you has been given artistic expression and so the environment in which I am living makes me feel very comfortable - both physically and psychologically..."

The streets in Hassan Fathy's skyscape, it should be said, are narrow and crooked. But they were purposely laid out this way - to provide shade and to trap the cool night air in what by day is a harsh desert city - and as you walk through them you find your eye constantly drawn upward by yet another soaring minaret. It is this that led Fathy to describe Cairo as "a city of the perpendicular." They seem to act, he said, "as links between earth and heaven, set, as they are, against passing dawns, the circling sun, shadows, moon and stars."

The form of Cairo's minarets has not changed much over the centuries. Invariably, each minaret is made up of three or four levels - patterned, some say, after the various stages or levels of the great lighthouse at Alexandria. The base, or first level, can be either a square or an octagonal tower from which rises a second section, sometimes cylindrical, sometimes octagonal, with an encircling balcony or platform. Then comes the third stage, often a circle of small colonnades with, sometimes, a second gallery for the muezzin. At each stage, the minaret diminishes in girth until it tapers off into a small, ribbed dome, with a small crescent ring at the very tip, where the minaret joins the sky. Inside the minaret, a steep, narrow spiraling stone staircase leads to the galleries above.

At each stage, the exterior walls are usually elaborately decorated; over the centuries Cairo's masons seem to have taken a wild delight in lovingly embellishing these surfaces with intricate arabesque and geometric designs: vines, leaves and sometimes star patterns. And if all this architectural decoration were not enough, some of the minarets still bear a series of ancient wooden rods protruding from the tops. Before the days of electricity, these rods were used to hang oil lanterns during Ramadan - and the sight of these softly burning lamps suspended in the night sky around the tips of hundreds of minarets - must have been a sight to see.

Among Cairo's "thousand" minarets, Ibn Tulun's mud-brick, ninth-century mosque is said to be one of the simplest, yet one of the most beautiful.

Devoid of any surface decoration, it is modeled on the minaret of the great mosque of Samarra, Mesopotamia (Iraq) where Ibn Tulun was born, and features an outer spiral staircase instead of the usual inner one. The idea apparently came from the spiral staircase of a Babylonian ziggurat thought to be the Tower of Babel.

Reconstructed in 1296 on the lines of the original edifice, the mosque of Ibn Tulun boasts one of Cairo's oldest minarets. It was built by a man called Lajim who took refuge in the then - derelict mosque while fleeing the authorities, and vowed that if he survived he would restore the mosque. True to his word, Lajim - who not only survived but became the Sultan of Egypt - rebuilt the mosque; he also set aside a sum of money for the purchase and upkeep of a cockerel to wake the muezzin each morning in time for him to climb the minaret and call the sleeping city to prayers.

Other splendid examples of Cairo's minarets are the two soaring towers on the Muayyad mosque near medieval Cairo's massive entrance gate of Bab Zuwaila, the southern boundary of the original Fatimid city walls and once the ceremonial entrance for sultans coming down from their 12th-century fortresses on the Mokhattam hills.

Because these two soaring minarets were mounted on existing 10th-century towers - a daring scheme for the period - one nearly collapsed shortly after it was built in 1420, "because the stones used for its construction were too small." But 500 years later these nearly twinned minarets - one is slightly smaller - still soar into Fathy's "skyscape."

Another example is al-Hakim's mosque, one of the biggest in Cairo. Built originally outside the city walls between AD. 990 and 1013, al-Hakim's mosque was restored only three years ago. Like Ibn Tulun's ninth-century mosque, al-Hakim's is built of brick, but its two enormous minarets are built of stone, some of the blocks bearing pharaonic inscriptions from an earlier structure. These minarets also threatened to collapse, so massive square base-towers were built around them for added support. Even the towers did not prevent the minarets from being badly damaged, however, when a great earthquake struck Cairo in 1303 - a disaster commemorated in Kufic inscriptions on four sides of the nearby 13th-century minaret of Quluan's mosque, which seems to have survived the earthquake. Though Cairo is not prone to earthquakes - indeed they are extremely rare in Egypt - this one wreaked havoc; all the minarets of al-Azhar, the oldest university in the world, were damaged and those of al-Hakim remained unrepaired for another 300 years.

In a sense, the muezzins of Cairo reflect the beauty and variety of the minarets; despite the problems posed by traffic noise, the voices of Cairo's muezzins are renowned throughout the Muslim world. As regularly as the sun and the moon, generations of Cairo muezzins have climbed to the tops of their minarets five times a day - and night - for more than 1,000 years, throughout the ages, winter and summer, through centuries of sunsets and sandstorms, they have ascended the dark spiral staircases to the high calling galleries, to cast their voices upon the wind and issue "the perfect summons" to the city:

God is most great, God is most great.

I bear witness that there is no god but God...

Come to salvation... Come to prayer...

Today, inside the dark confines of Quluan's 13th-century minaret, you can still find traces of their faithful service: in the guide's flickering candlelight you will find the center of each stone step worn down a full half inch from centuries of ascending and descending footsteps.

Time was when the great 14th-century madrasa of Sultan Hassan, considered one of the great architectural treasures of all time by UNESCO'S World Heritage organization, was staffed by 30 muezzins, while the nearby Muhammad 'Ali mosque, on the heights of the Citadel, had 20; they worked in shifts morning, afternoon and evening.

Unfortunately, today's muezzins face problems that their predecessors could not have imagined. One is the endless, deafening roar of a modern city that drowns out the unaided voice; the other is frequent electronic distortion from the sound systems now used to overcome the noise. Consequently, the clear and piercing calls once cast "live" upon the winds from the high balconies, have been replaced by recorded calls that are all too often harsh and metallic in contrast to the former resonance of the gifted muezzin.

On the other hand, the timing and meaning of the call remains the same. Each dawn, at midday, in the late afternoon, after sunset and again during the night the muezzins call out that "perfect summons."

It begins, often, with a deep-throated call from the al-Hakim mosque. Then it is joined by a high falsetto from nearby Quluan's and is followed by a distant echo floating down from the heights of the Citadel. Rising and falling, the chant quickly grows in volume until a whole chorus envelops the city. The call can be short or drawn out or embellished and punctuated with abrupt, rhythmical pauses, then taken up again and again. Yet the message is unchanging: a summons to waiting millions to face towards Makkah and begin the prescribed prayers.

It is always beautiful to hear this, but at sunset in Cairo it is magnificent. Unlike the long, drawn-out desert dawns, sunset in Egypt is a brilliant and fleeting vision and it is then, the hour of departing day, that the minarets of Cairo appear at their best: tall and slender silhouettes standing against the flaming western sky. Then, as dusk ushers in the night, the minarets turn into delicate tracery set against the stars, as later, in the deeper darkness as in the light of day, the muezzins prepare to intone one more time the "perfect summons" to the sleeping city: "Allahu Akbar ... Allahu Akbar..."

John Feeney is a film producer, writer and photographer based in Cairo.

This article appeared on pages 10-23 of the November/December 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1985 images.