Before the name Cairo settled in, the capital of Egypt changed names and sites multiple times over the course of five millenia - Thinis, Herakleopolis Magna, Xois, Avaris, Memphis, Sais, Mendes and Sebennytos to name a few. All changed adhering to the wishes of rulers, conquerors and dynasties of their respective eras.
Nearly 2400 years ago in the year 331 BC the capital of Egypt was Alexandria, named after the great ruler of Macedonia, Alexander The Great.
1000 years later in 641 AD, a Muslim general by the name of Amru conquered Egypt, and moved the capital of Egypt from the fallen Alexandria to the camping site of his troops. He named the new place Fustat aptly meaning "The City of Tents". It marks the beginning of an Egypt ruled by Muslims - one that still goes on to this day.
Later on in the year, a mosque was erected on the site of Amru's tent, thus becoming the first mosque being built in Egypt. Since geographically Egypt is in the continent of Africa, the mosque became the first one in Africa as well.
The mosque, bearing the name Amir Ibnu al-As, is the mosque I'm standing here right now. Long ago, this mosque was also used as a school of learning, predating even the famed Al-Azhar mosque which was built 300 years later by the Shia aligned Fatimid Dynasty.
Since the mosque is nearly 1400 years old structural collapse, demolishment, restorations and expansions are inevitable. The current design of the mosque is based on a large scale restoration project in 1905 by Abbas Helmi II, the last Khedive of Egypt.
Here's a brief chronology of major restorations and additions done to the mosque:
641 - The mosque was built from palm tree trunks, stones and mud bricks with floors covered with stone gravels.
673 - Maslama Ibnu Mukhallad Al-Ansari, the governor during that time ordered the mosque to be completely rebuilt. He added 4 minarets and doubled the mosque's size.
698 - Governor Abdul Aziz Ibnu Marwan of the Umayyid Caliphate ordered extension of the mosque by again doubling its size.
711 - A concave mihrab also known as a qibla wall was added.
827 - Abdullah Ibnu Tahir, the most famous ruler of the Tahirid Dynasty ordered the mosque to be expanded even more. The Tahirids are allies of the Abbasid Caliphate will rules this era.
969 - The Fatimid general Jawhar invaded Egypt and the capital was moved from Fustat to Cairo. Five minarets were added to the mosque, one at each corner and one at the mosque's entrance.
1169 - As a defensive measure to prevent capture form the invading Crusaders, Fustat was burned to the ground in a great fire lasting 54 days.
1179 - The legendary Saladin came into power and rebuilt the mosque. He later founded the Sunni based Ayyubid Dynasty, freeing Egypt from the Shia based Fatimid Dynasty.
1303 - An earthquake damaged the mosque, and restorations and additions were done.
1796 - Due to decay of old age, Murad Bay, an Ottoman Dynasty leader of Mamluk origin ordered the mosque to be destroyed and rebuilt again.
1906 - Khedive Abbas Helmi II ordered a large scale restoration project of the mosque.
1980 - Reconstruction of parts of the mosque's entrance.
We visited this mosque after our trip to the Pyramid of Giza for our Zuhur and Asar prayers.
The mosque has a very peculiar architectural style which is to be expected given its history of being rebuilt over and over again in many different eras.
The mosque is way bigger than it looks.
But that vastness makes for a very calm setting. In the old era, teaching circles were organised here for general religious teaching of the Quran and Hadiths.
This is a mihrab which indicates the qibla hence the direction which we should face when praying.
The ablution area is a short walk outside to another building.
I was surprised to see how large the ablution area was. It was not that clean however. The water was ice cold.
One of the keepers of the place and one who is very generous with his smiles.
A friend of mine lost his pair of shoes whilst performing his prayer here so be sure to safely guard your item.
A constant leitmotif of Mamluk eras mosque is the presence of an open court called a sahn and an ablution fountain in the middle. There are also pillars or riwaq surrounding the court which serves as an area of transition between the interior and exterior spaces.
A clear Mamluk influence can be seen on the walls and fences of the mosque. These must be added by the later rulers during its many renovations.
During the time of Amru Ibnu Al-As, the mosque was built in front of a flowing branch of the Nile. Not anymore though, but that might explain the decision to erect a mosque in this area.
Another Mamluk era influence is the clearly placed windows that allows for a dappled light effect in the interior. I did not count all the windows but it was said that there are 99 windows in total representing the 99 names of Allah.
Surprisingly there are also traces of Greek-influenced architecture with these white marbled columns and some architraves.
The mosque is a must visit but such as with other historical sites in Egypt, it should be given much more care. There are improvements that can be done in terms of cleanliness and services.
Entrance is free, but the keepers of the place will expect you to tip them a few Egyptian pounds before you leave, in particular for guarding your shoes and belongings. Tipping is called baksheesh in Arabic.
For those wanting to visit this place, it is located in Old Cairo - remnnants of old cities which were eventually absorbed into present day Cairo, Fustat being one of them. The Hanging Church, remnants of the Coptic era of Egypt is just a stone's throw away from this place.
The historical significance of this mosque is huge, and it is worth a visit for that historical reason alone.