You’re going to have to use your imagination for this, as I didn’t want to take too many pictures in a sacred place and my hands were too shaky from climbing up to the top of the minaret. But to see pictures of the mosque, check out the Sacred Spaces page.
In the heart of medieval Cairo, there lies a mosque built in 879. It is the oldest unmodified, constantly used mosque in the city. The man who commissioned it – Ibn Tulun – was a son of Mongol slaves who rose to great power, establishing a dynasty in Egypt. The site of the mosque was originally a Christian/Jewish area, which he cleared to establish his city and mosque for his troops. The site is believed by some to be where Noah’s ark landed after the flood (Wikipedia) and near the site where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac (sacredspaces.com).
The space is open and, like much of Cairo, beige with dust and age. It’s like viewing a city through sepia tint glasses – it is a city bordering a desert. While some of the prayer area is covered by a roof, and the minbar, mihrab and qibla are all under it, the majority of the prayer area is in the open. The only real walls are the four foundations of the structure, the roof itself is help up by columns. I was totally enthralled by this, daydreaming about service in the open, which would definitely make me feel something spiritual more– until I realized that Cairo was much more amenable to this experience than say the Northeast coast of the US in February. The mosque offers “helical outer staircase similar to that of the famous minaret in Samarra.”(wikipedia) From here, you can see across Cairo, and realize why the city has the nickname ‘The City of Minarets.’
The mosque is built of mudbrick, and is the third oldest mosque in the world (according to the Tour Egypt site). Because of its openess, the colors and are faded and the importance of the site takes a while to sink in. Luckily, while I was there, a group of either Indian or Pakistani tourists came in. They were lead on a guided tour around the structure, in their own language. The men wore traditional white kaftans and pants, and the women dressed in an array of colorful saris with little embellishment. Watching them tour the site reminded me of just how vast the reach of Islam is. The colors of the tourists made the interior of the mosque pop and highlighted how old and important this space was.