Under the leadership of A'mr Ibn Al-Aas, the first Muslims reached Egypt on 6th April 641AD. They camped in a location near to today's Cairo before entering Alexandria.
Despite its fame as a Greek and Roman capital city of Egypt, they discarded Alexandria in favour of their camping site which they later transformed into a new capital known as Al-Fustat. Historians argued that such decision was undertaken for safety reasons. Floods from river Nile were renown to regularly hit the city, often cutting it off from the main land for a number of months.
These risks made A'mr choose a new capital for Muslim Egypt. Nevertheless, one cannot dismiss the desire of the Muslims to set up the new capital to signal the divergence of the new (Muslim) Egypt from the old pagan one. Thus the town was founded in similar manner to other cities such as Kairawan (Tunisia), Basra and Kufa (Iraq), all of which were military camps transformed into cities for the teaching of new Muslims.
In relation to the naming of the new city Al-Fustat some orientalists (eg. Creswell, 1958) linked it to a Byzantine palace called Fassatum they claimed to have existed then on the site which the Arabs transformed it into Al-Fustat. The real story as told by Muslim chroniclers is related to A'mr's tent, in Arabic Al- Fustat , which he had set in the centre of the camp.
The Mosque Plan
After deciding on the site, A'mr had it subdivided into plots of land, which he distributed to various tribes of the community. In year 642, he laid, on the site of his tent, the foundations of his mosque which was 25 meters long and 15 meters wide . It is thus considered to be the first and oldest Mosque in Egypt and the whole Africa. It was a simple structure imitating the Prophet's mosque in Medina, built and covered mainly with mud mixed with grass and had palm tree trunks as supporting columns. The mosque was a single building without a courtyard and had four doors. The first two were opened in the northern wall for public use. The second set of doors were made on the western wall connecting with Dar Al-Imara, the Governor's headquarters.
A'mr Mosque underwent several modifications and changes introduced by subsequent leaders of Egypt to become one of the magnificent mosques of Islam. The succession of these changes, some of which started so early, completely destroyed the historic building that it became difficult for historians to build an accurate picture of the original structure. The worst modification to take place was made in 1796 following the collapse of many walls of the mosque while repair works were being carried out on the roof. The person in charge of the repair works, then Emir Murad Beck, decided to wholly demolish and rebuild it. His work disordered much of the original design by reducing the number of rows of columns from 7 to 6. He also transferred the position of the arcades (aisles) from originally parallel to the Qibla wall, to intersecting with it. This restoration is also considered to be a disaster for the mosque losing it much of its historic heritage (Creswell (1958), p.181).
Main Changes Introduced
- In 672 the mosque was extended by Maslama Ibn Makhled Al-Ansari who was then the governor (Wali) of Egypt. This extension was made principally in the northern side adding more space for the prayer hall as well as the courtyard. Maslama also erected four minarets, one on each corner of the mosque.
- In 698 the Caliph Abdelaziz Ibn Marwan extended the mosque west and northwards doubling the original size by four times.
- In 707 Abdallah Ibn Abd Al-Malik raised the ceiling and roof of the mosque.
- In 710 the Wali Qurra Ibn Shareek demolished the mosque and rebuilt it. Yahia Ibn Handhala and Mawla Bani Amer Ibn Luay were the two masons who supervised the reconstruction.
- In 750 Salah Ibn Ali added a further four aisles to the mosque.
- In 791 the Wali Musa Ibn Aissa extended the back of the mosque and added to its plaza outside.
- In 827 Abdallah Ibn Tahar, (Wali) of Egypt at the time of Al-Mamun, made substantial extensions doubling the total area of the mosque. Sources indicate that this was the final expansion stage giving the mosque its current boundaries .
- In 888 a fire consumed much of the Mosque, but was restored to its glory by the Wali Khmar Waih, the son and successor of the famous Ahmed Ibn Tulun.
- In 1167 the Mosque was completely burnt down with the city of Fustat under the orders of the Visier Shawer to defend against the Crusaders.
- In 1171 Salah Al-Din Restored it.
- In 1228 the Sultan Dhahir Bebers restored parts of the prayer hall.
- In 1302 an Earthquake badly damaged the building, but later was restored by Al-Malik Al-Nassir Mohammed Ibn Kalawuun.
- In 1401 another earthquake hit the mosque. This time repairs were made by the chief of merchants.
Historic and Religious Significance
The mosque is famously known as Taj al-Jawamie (Crown of Mosques) which shows its significance in the land of Islam and in Africa in particular. It is also named as Masjid Ahl ar-Rayeh (Mosque of the (Islam's) Banner Bearers), a reference to the many Prophet's emissaries who brought the Banner of Islam to Egypt and Africa. S.M. Mohammed , cited six companions including Abu Thar Al-Ghaffari, Al-Zubeir Ibn Al-Awam, Al-Mukdad, Obada Ibn Al-Samit, Abu-Dardaa, and Abu Bassirah in addition to A'mr himself. All of these are also known to have helped in the building of this mosque. A'mr Mosque is known by a third name, the Jamie' al-Ateeq (the old Mosque) which depicts its historicity as the first mosque in Africa and the fourth major mosque after the Prophet's mosque in Medina and the mosques of Kufa and Basrah.
The Mosque also encompasses many religious schools (Zawiya) which offered teaching circles on Islamic jurisprudence. Such schools included that of al-Imam al-Shafie, Magd al-Din Abu Ashbal, Taj al-Din Mohammed Ibn Bah'a al-Din and others.
The original architectural elements that remained from the ancient mosque include a few arched windows, and a few transversal wooden support that lay above the columns. These wooden support often with delightful decorations based on the use of floral motifs in the form of wine leaves. The pattern is composed of vine branches, which are interlaced together producing circles filled with leaves of five points. A partially enclosed column is believed to have been miraculously transported from Makkah and some remains of the old minaret.
by: FSTC Limited, Mon 17 February, 2003