Although it stands in the shadow of the Citadel, Sultan Hassan’s Madrassa-Mosque still manages to make a strong impression. The building is a massive example of Mamluk architecture, constructed during the 14th century reign of a sultan who was famous for his extravagant spending. The massive size of the building made it a spectacle in its day, but even modern visitors are certain to be impressed by its beautiful and imposing architecture.
Sultan Hassan is not only famous for its size though. The mosque is noted as the most stylistically coherent of any of Cairo’s monumental mosques—a huge and prototypical example of architectural style of its day. The interior is beautifully decorated and the effect of its huge central court and imposing verticality is impressive.
The mosque was designed in the madrassa style, rather than as a congregational mosque. For this reason it is laid out in a cruciform pattern with a liwan (teaching areas) on each of the four walls of the inner courtyard for each of the 4 main schools of Sunni Islamic theology—Hanafi, Malaki, Hanbali, and Shafi’i. The building also included housing for up to 500 students, as well as the teachers and staff required to run a school on this size.
In addition to the main courtyard, Sultan Hassan also constructed a mausoleum for himself behind the largest of the liwan, which is situated in the direction of prayer, or qibla. The mausoleum features an impressive dome and is beautifully decorated. Placing the mausoleum in the direction of prayer was unusual and controversial configuration since the worshippers were then forced to pray in the direction of the sultan’s body, as well as Mecca; however, the mausoleum remains empty because Sultan Hassan was assassinated before it could be complete.
Next to Sultan Hassan stands another monumental looking mosque that seems similar in style although it was not completed until 1912. Al-Rafa’i Mosque was built as an imitation of Mamluk style by the mother of Khedive Ismail as a tomb for the royal family. The remains of Ismail, Farouk (the last King of Egypt), and the last Shah of Iran, who was married to one of Farouk’s sisters, can be found here. The Shah was buried in Cairo after claiming asylum here following his exile from Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.