While there are hundreds of old mosques to visit in Cairo, there is none that can compete with Al-Azhar Mosque in standing and importance to the history of Islam. Founded by the Fatimids in 970 AD as a mosque dedicated to both worship and learning, it developed over the centuries into the most important center of Islamic theology and learning in the world. Over a thousand years since its founding, Al-Azhar Mosque and the university that bears its name draw students from all over the world to learn about the history of Islam and the different schools of thought that govern interpretation of the Koran.
From its founding, Al-Azhar University was an institution that reveled in pluralism. Founded by the Ismaili Shi’i Fatimid Dynasty, it became a Sunni university under subsequent dynasties in Egypt, but, in spite tension between these different theologies, Sunni and Shi’i scholars have worked, taught, and debated alongside one another at Al-Azhar for most of its history. Today it is regarded with respect throughout the world as an influential moderating and regulating authority for Islamic theology.
The mosque itself has been renovated and expanded many times over, surviving more than a thousand years of shifting politics and changes in government. The different architectural styles of its five minarets bear witness to the different dynasties that controlled Al-Azhar. In addition to the beautiful, white marble central court, which dates back to the mosque original construction, the building includes a large covered prayer area, and two madrassas, or religious schools. Before Azhar University expanded and moved primarily to a second campus in the north part of the city, students used to meet with instructors in the main courtyard and lessons in Arabic and Koranic interpretation are still taught here today. From the courtyard you can also see its three largest minarets—built in 1340, 1469, and 1510 respectively (from right to left if viewed from the courtyard). Sultan Al-Ghuri, who also built the Wikala Al-Ghuri and Al-Ghouriyya Complex nearby, is responsible for the 1510 minaret, identifiable by its twin spires.