Chapter 3

From Ayyubid and Mameluk Cairo
to the Alhambra and Ilkhanid Persia

1171 - 1660


Ayyubid Cairo 1171-1250

Following the Abbasid and Tulunid era, the Ayyubid dynasty (12th cent) began to build mosques and medrese in Cairo. Many followed during the next centuries of Mameluk and Fatimid rule. - Unfortunately I don't know Cairo and locating these buildings in the large Cairo metropolis is difficult. A few examples must serve as illustration.

Citadel and Mosques

1176-1183, enlarged in 13th-14th cent
Ayyubid, Mamluk, Ottoman

The large mosque visible in GE in the Ayyubid citadel is the much later Mehmet Ali Mosque (Ottoman, 1824-57)

Mameluk Cairo 1250-1517

The "Mamluks" were mercenaries (mainly Circassians and Georgians from the Caucasus and Turkic Kipchaks from the Caspian) who were converted to Islam and served the Muslim caliphs and the Ayyubid sultans. Over time, they became a powerful military caste and seized power, ruling Egypt as the Mamluk Sultanate from 1250-1517.  The history of the Mameluk take-over in Egypt is convoluted and exceeds this investigation.  For a popular article on the Mameluks see Wikipedia.

The Madrasa of Amir Khayerbak:

Almohad Africa and Spain 12th – 13th cent

The Almohad Dynasty (From Arabic al-Muwahhidun, i.e. "the monotheists" or "the Unitarians"), was a Berber-Muslim dynasty that was founded in the 12th century, and conquered all of northern Africa as far as Libya and al-Andalus (Moorish Spain) between 1121 and 1269 creating some of the most beautiful "Islamic" building complexes especially in Andalucia. For a rather anecdotal article on the Almohads see Wikipedia

Tlemcen, Algeria
Great Mosque

The Great Mosque of Tlemcen was built by Sultan Ali ibn Yusuf in 1136. It is one of the best preserved examples of Almoravid archictecture.  For a details on the Mosque of Tlemcen see Muslim Heritage, Tlemcen (the article cannot be copied!).

Marrakech, Marocco
Kutubiya Mosque


Marrakech Kutubiya


Melika, Algeria
M'Zab Valley
Village Mosque

1012-1350 cent
Indigenous Architecture

An unusual, indigenous mosque in the heart of the remote Algerian desert, seven fortified villages each with a similar mosque. 
See and Tunisian (Djerba) contemporaneous examples of “Architecture without Architects” at the end of Chapter 9.

Fez, Morocco
Masjid al-Qarawiyyin,

859-60; 956; 1135; 17th cent
Alawi, Almoravid, Idrisid

Fez was intimately linked to Islamic Spain - particularly after 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabel's expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula brought an influx of refugees into the city.
Visual references to the religious and palatine architecture of Islamic Spain are evident in the mosque's hypostyle plan, the 10th century square stone minaret (commissioned and funded by 'Abd al-Rahman III, the first Umayyad caliph of al-Andalus), and by the carved stucco, wood, and glazed tile (zilij) ornamental style derived from the Alhambra.
(Text and photos

The Mosque of al-Qarawiyyin, was one of the world's oldest universities. Founded as a private oratory in 857 by Fatima, the daughter of a wealthy Qayrawani immigrant, the mosque is surrounded by madrasas, and was a major intellectual center in the medieval Mediterranean. Its prestigious academic reputation may have transcended religious divisions, if, as a popular tradition suggests, Gerbert of Auvergne (930-1003), who would become Pope Sylvester II and who is credited with introducing Arabic numerals to Europe, was once a student at al-Qarawiyyin.

Sevilla, Andalucia
The Giralda


The Cathedral of Seville was built after the Reconquista between 1401 and 1519, on the site of the city's mosque. It is amongst the largest of all medieval and Gothic cathedrals. Columns and elements from the mosque were incorporated in its construction, and, most famously, the Giralda, originally the mosque's minaret, was converted into a bell tower.

The Orange courtyard of the mosque viewed from the Giralda.
(Photos Rolf and Barbara Gross)

Berlanga, Spain
Hermitage of San Baudelio

12th cent

The Church of San Baudelio was built in the early 12th century at the crossroad of Islamic and Christian territory on the Iberian Peninsula. In typical Mozarabic fashion, this Christian sanctuary integrates Islamic architectural elements and decorative motifs into its design and ornamentation. It is specifically renowned for its mural frescoes.

By the end of the thirteenth century, the church had undergone two cycles of painting, leaving its interior surfaces completely adorned with frescoes. Some of these murals depict the life of Christ while others feature animals, such as the camel, and scenes of hunting, influenced by popular themes and motifs during the tenth century Umayyad caliphate. (Text and photos from

Granada, Spain
The Alhambra


The Alhambra is arguably one of the most beautiful and certainly the most famous building in Spain

The Alhambra from Alcazin Hill

It was completed towards the end of Al-Andalus by Yusuf I (1333-1353) and Muhammed V, Sultan of Granada (1353-1391). The Alhambra is a reflection of the culture of the last days of the Nasrid emirate of Granada. It was a place where artists and intellectuals could take refuge as the Christian Reconquista recaptured Al Andalus.

Originally, the design included plans for six palaces, five of which were grouped in the northeast quadrant forming a royal quarter, two circuit towers, and numerous bathhouses. During the reign of the Nasrid Dynasty, the Alhambra was transformed into a palatial city complete with an irrigation system composed of aquifers for the gardens of the Generalife located outside the fortress. Previously, the old Alhambra structure had been dependent upon rainwater collected from a cistern and from what could be brought up from the Albaicín. The creation of the Sultan's Canal solidified the identity of the Alhambra as a palace-city rather than a defensive and ascetic structure.

The Muslim rulers lost Granada and Alhambra in 1492 without the fortress itself being attacked when King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile took the surrounding region with an overwhelming force.

Court of the Lions, the center of the Alhambra.

Water and reflections everywhere, in runnels in the rooms, in pools in the courtyards

The El Partal
(Photos Rolf Gross)


Sicily 11th-13th cent

In 1060 the Normans conquered Moslem Sicily, taking Palermo in 1072 and the rest of the island by 1091. The confrontation of Norman
and Arab culture resulted in a unique blend of hybrid architecture of great stately beauty.

Palermo, Sicily
San Giovanni degli Eremiti
6th cent

The blend of Norman and Arab architecture produced a unique hybrid style of architecture as can be seen in the domes of San Giovanni degli Eremiti in Palermo, built as a Christian monastery in the 6th century, it is an excellent example of this cultural fusion.
The church's origin predate the Arabic and the Norman conquests. After the Islamic conquest of Sicily, its church was turned into a mosque. Its domes date from that time. The Normans returned it to the monks of St. William from Vercelli around 1136 (Photo Wikipedia)

The glorious Interior

Palermo, Sicily
Castello dela Zisa

12th cent

Castello della Zisa was a pleasure castle of the Norman kings in Palermo. The building was begun in the 12th century in pure Arabic style by Arabian craftsmen for king William I of Sicily, and completed by his son William II. Photos Wikipedia

Niche with fountain in the main hall.

Palermo, Sicily
Capella Palatina


Not an Islamic building, the Cappella Palatina still ows much to Arabic craftsmen in the employ of Norman King Roger II. Built between 1130 and 1143 as his private chapel, this golden cave is a wonder of the confluence of Byzantine mosaic art, Arabic intarsia, and Norman architecture.
(Photo Rolf Gross) See my collection of photos of the Capella Palatina.

Castelvetrano, Sicily
S.S. Trinita di Delia

12th cent

Northwest of the the town of Castelvetrano one can find — if one looks patiently — a little known and rarely visited Norman church, which has retained its pure Arabic appearance: SS Trinitá di Delia. The building is on private grounds, and one has to beg for permission to visit and get the key in a large manor house nearby (now a restaurant catering to weddings etc.). The building shows how close North Africa was in the 12th century.... (Photo Rolf Gross) 

Ghaznavid-Ghurid- Khorasan 10-15th cent

Khorasan since the Greek Diadochens was a Parthian kingdom, spanning the border between today's Iran and Afghanistan. Buddhist since the 1 cent BC it was slowly converted to Islam beginning in the 10th cent BC. Several Sufi saints are buried there.
During the 12th - 14th century Herat and Mashhad were influenced by the Timurid style. In the following period Mashhad became a center of the Shiite sect of Islam.

Sang Bast, Afghanistan
Arslan Jadhib Gunbad


East of Lake Van in Turkey the number of mausolea (gunbad) increases. In Islamic times the tomb of a "saint" - in Turk speaking areas often a charismatic Sufi - becomes the center of a religious shrine or mosque. In East Persia, Khorasan, Afghanistan and Pakistan there exist numerous lonely mausolea, the communities having been wiped out by the ravages of the Mongol and Timurid invasions

The burial site of Arslan Jadhib, an official of the Ghaznavid Sultan Mahmud, was originally incorporated into a larger complex along with the nearby freestanding minaret. (Photo

Chisht-e Sharif, Khorasan, Afghanistan
Gumbad of Chesht

Two Mausolea

The two free-standing domed structures are located on a plateau outside of Chisht-e-Sharif, a twelfth-century religious center that gave its name to the Chishtiyya order of Sufism. Inscriptions on both structures name Ghurid sultan Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad ibn Sam (1163-1203) as their patron. Their original function is uncertain, the attribution of mausolea is an assumption. Architecturally the two gumbats are excellent examples how Khorasan masters handled the problem of a circular dome on a square base with ease.

Herat - Chorasan, Afghanistan
Herat Masjid-i Jamii - Great Mosque

1200, 1498

The present mosque was begun by Ghurid ruler Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad b. Sam (1162-1202) in 1200. In the thirteenth century, Chingiz Khan pillaged the province and the building fell into ruin. After 1397, the Timurid rulers redirected Herat's growth towards the North. the mosque was then rebuilt by Mir Ali Shir Navai -- a prominent poet and minister of Sultan Husain Baiqara (1469-1506) -- in two years beginning in 1498. By the mid-twentieth century, little remained of the Timurid mosque besides pieces of the tile decoration of the two ivans. The actual structure was completely reconstructed. The new, present (1970) mosque corrects the irregularities of the original layout and reconstructs elements (like the mausoleum), which were entirely lost by the 1940s. The tiling has been heavily repaired. Text and photo

Khorasan, Iran
Imam Ali Reza Shrine

14-20th cent

Arguably Iran's most sacred (Shiite) shrine. It developed around the grave of Ali Riza (Ali ibn-Musa) the 8th Imam (765-817) who was poisoned in Tus and buried here.  Although the earliest present structures date from the the early 15th cent, historical references indicate buildings on the site prior to the Seljuk period, and a dome by the early thirteenth century.
Following periods of alternating destruction and reconstruction, including the sporadic interest of Seljuk and Il-Khan Sultans, the largest period of construction took place under the Timurids and Safavids. The site received substantial royal patronage from the son of Timur, Shah Rukh, and his wife Gawhar Shad and the Safavid Shahs Tahmasp, Abbas and Nader Shah.
(Text and photos

The martyred saint is buried under a heavily gilded dome

Street view from the south, with the blue dome of the Gawhar Shad Mosque and the gold sanctuary dome way in back.
As can be seen from outer space the complex is large.

Herat - Chorasan, Afghanistan
Ghazni, Afghanistan
Ulugh Beg and 'Abd al-Razzaq Mausoleum


The Mausoleum of Ulugh Beg bin Abu Sa'id, son of Timurid Sultan Abu Sa'id (1459-1469), was erected to the south of old Ghazna, on a hill overlooking the ruined palace of Mas'ud III. Ulugh Beg governed Ghazna and Kabul from 1460 until his death in 1501, while his son and successor 'Abd al-Razzaq was dethroned within a year. The mausoleum was probably built by Ulugh Beg for himself and also houses the remains of 'Abd al-Razzaq who died in 1513/1514

The mausolum has an unusual floor plan. (Text, photo and plan

Balkh, Afghanistan
Khvaja Abu Nasr Parsa Mosque and Tomb

1460 to 1598

Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa (d. 1460) was a spiritual leader of the Naqshbandi order and a theological lecturer in Herat. Golombek and Wilber have identified an unmarked tombstone in front of the portal as the khwaja's grave marker.  Badly damaged (partly restored 1975) the front ivan must have once rivaled the Timurid madresas in Samarkand. Two tiled spiral columns flank the entry ivan.

(Text and Photos

After the last restoration in 1975


Il-khanid Persia 13th-14th cent

Between 1219 and 1221 Moslem Central Asia was devasted by Genghis Khan's (1167-1227) military expeditions with disasterous effects. Genghis was a Nestorian-Christian baptized animist. The population of the cities was Moslem, the nomads Buddhist, Nestorian and animists. Genghis' mother and wife were Nestorian (Syrian) Christians. A brilliant nomad warlord he had no interest in or understanding of how to keep and rule the sedentary cultures he conquered. What to do with metropoles of 1 000 000 inhabitants? He sacked and destroyed the cities and simply massacred their inhabitants. - The story is well enough known. Less know but even more cruel were the forays of Hülegü, his grandson and the founder of the Il-Khan Empire. Geghis Khan left us no architectural monuments. After his death the "empire" was split among his sons and grandsons. Persia became the dominion of Hülegü, a Nestorian with Tibetan Buddhist aspirations. His wife was Nestorian Christian. He was decidely anti-Islam. However in due time his successors converted and became fanatical Moslems. Their capital at first was Tabriz, later Sultaniyya. The Ilkhanid rulers, now Moslems, adopted Persian culture and were enthusiastic patrons of architecture, instituting large-scale building campaigns to found mosques and charitable institutions throughout their territories. - Until the next Turko-Mongol warlord, Timur Tamerlane, destroyed Bagdhad a third time....

Shiraz, Iran
Çifte Minareli Medrese


All that remains of the Çifte (double) Minaret Madrasa in Sivas is the front façade, with its monumental portal in limestone and marble topped by the twin polychrome brick minarets that give it its name. Built in 1271 by Ilkhanid Vizier Semseddin Cuveyni (Shams al-din Juwayni), it was once a madrasa with four iwans centered around a two-storey courtyard.

View of Çifte Minaret Madrasa (left) and Izzeddin Keykavus Hospital (right), with Kale Mosque in the background, looking north.
(Text and photo

Na'in, Isfahan, Iran
Masjid-i Baba 'Abd Allah

1300, restored 1336

A domed square chamber built in 1300 and restored in 1336.

Fine examples of painting on plaster over the mihrab,
painted decorations and inscription. (Text and photos

Sultaniyya, Iran
Mausoleum of Sultan Muhammad Öljeitü Khudabanda

1307- 1313

The attraction among Sultaniyya’s ruins is the dome of the Mausoleum of Il-khan Öljeitü.

The structure, erected between 1307 and 1313, boasts the ratliest double-shell dome in the world. Its importance in Islamic architecture may be compared to that of Brunelleschi's cupola orf the Duomo in Florence  (1368, 1445). This mausoleum paved the way for more daring cupola constructions, such as the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasavi and Taj Mahal. Much of the exterior decoration has been lost, but the interior retains superb mosaics, faience, and murals.
(Text and photos

The mausoleum in restoration in 1999.

Polychrome plaster in the vault

Shiraz, Iran
Shah Cheragh Shrine

Sayed Amir Ahmad (also called Ahmad ibn Musa)
14th cent

As a city Shiraz was founded in 684 AD, after the Arab armies conquered the Sassanians. The Buyids (945-1055 AD) made Shiraz their capital, building mosques, palaces and a great city wall. The 13th and 14th centuries saw Shiraz as a literary center especially famous for its poets Sa'adi and Hafez, both of whom are buried in the city. There are many splendid Islamic monuments in Shiraz, especially its enormous Safavid mosque, but the most notable religious site is the shrine of Syed Amir Ahmad (also called Ahmad ibn Musa).
(Text and photos

Kerman, Iran
Masjid-i-Pa Minar, Pa Pinar Mosque

Il Khanid


Yadz, Iran
Masjid-e Jame

1324, 1364-1470
Muzzafarid, Timurid

Founded in the twelfth century, the current structure dates to several building phases during the 14th century with significant addition during the 15th, and 18th or 19th centuries. The mosque is significant for the early and substantial use of transverse vaulting in the rectangular winter prayer halls, a system that also has precedents in Sasanian structures.

The tile decoration is also noteworthy, although much is restoration. The dome is articulated with geometric decorative brickwork in turquoise and white on an unglazed buff field. Decorative brickwork laid in epigrams cover most wall surfaces within the sanctuary, above a turquoise tile dado with mosaic medallions that continues into the iwan. The mihrab is sheathed with naturalistic vegetal designs rendered in remarkable faience mosaic. (Text and photos

Vaulting in the eastern gallery

Abarqu, Iran
Masjid-e Jame

Il-Khanid, Timurid

Interior (Photos