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Creswell Photographs Re-examinedNew Perspectives on Islamic Architecture$

Bernard O'Kane

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9789774162442

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774162442.001.0001

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The Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza: Reasserting Egypt's Mamluk Roots

The Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza: Reasserting Egypt's Mamluk Roots

(p.71) 3 The Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza: Reasserting Egypt's Mamluk Roots
Creswell Photographs Re-examined

Conchita Añorve-Tschirgi

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

Egypt's architectural production changed from the onset of Ottoman rule in 1517. Economic and political changes and their immediate consequences affected general society in Egypt as well, causing a decline in the quality and quantity of the means for building. Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza had titles, namely; amir and mustahfizan which were given in his waqfiyya. This outstanding dignitary was evidently part of the well-established group of Janissaries in Cairo, or at least a descendant of one of those families, who during his own generation or the previous one, consolidated the two positions of “soldier-trader,” and then blended in with the local populations of Cairo and Bulaq. The fact that can be discerned in the construction of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's mosque is that it served as a tool of protest against foreigners, whom locals regarded with disdain.

Keywords:   Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza, amir, mustahfizan, waqfiyya, Janissaries, Cairo


From the onset of Ottoman rule in 1517, Egypt's architectural production changed, partly in response to the new economic impositions on the country.1 From that point on, Egypt was reduced to the status of being only one of thirty-two provinces subject to the capital of the empire, Istanbul. Nonetheless, the country's Mamluk roots were always an underlying reality. This was a phenomenon that was probably due to the Ottoman administrative approach to Egypt, which differed strikingly from their methods in Syria. In Egypt they spared the ‘old’ Mamluk lords, whereas in Syria they massacred them all.2

Several factors affected the internal affairs of Egypt. Among these was the architectural production within the capital, which declined in quality and inventiveness if not in quantity. Mamluk architectural creativity rose to the challenge of very irregular sites with ingenious solutions. The Ottomans, however, preferred to have large-sized plots in order to have more control when designing the layout of their buildings. Their love of majesty and visual impact explains some of the differences between the architectural landscapes of Istanbul and Cairo.3

Four main factors affected Ottoman construction in Cairo. In the first place, patronage of architecture and the arts in Egypt was not (p.72) exercised by the sultan himself, but, initially at least, by a wali, who was only the representative of the Ottoman ruler.4 Second, the walis were usually assigned to Egypt for short periods; their usual term was for two years.5 Third, restrictions on the urban setting and the scarcity of land did not meet the Ottomans' inclination to build on a large scale. And fourth, the imposition of the irsaliyye khazinesi (the annual tribute to the sultan) was a heavy burden inflicted on the economy of Egypt,6 one that reduced patrons' ability to engage in major construction activity.

In the early days of Ottoman rule in Egypt, the walis, formerly educated under the devşirme system,7 were the major patrons of architecture in Egypt, and some examples of the large structures erected during that period are still standing in Cairo—clearly signaling the economic and political power exerted by the walis in the first part of their ruling period.8 Later, the walis, as patrons, were supplanted by different groups such as merchants, civilian officials, and lesser Janissary officers who came to fulfill the role left vacant by the walis.

Economic and political changes and their immediate consequences affected general society in Egypt as well, causing a decline in the quality and quantity of the means for building. Then, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, major historical events occurred in Egypt that led to struggles among various factions for control of the country's political and economic affairs. A sort of nostalgia for the Mamluks' past glory began slowly fermenting. These events reshaped Egypt's relationship with Istanbul, which, in consequence, caused tendencies in architectural expression to change in favor of the Mamluk style. For example, at the end of the seventeenth century, which coincides with the construction of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's mosque, the Mamluk beys prevented the irsaliyye from being sent to the imperial treasury.9

The Founder and His Family

Who was Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza? According to his titles—amir and mustahfizan10—given in his waqfiyya, this outstanding dignitary wasevidently part of the well-established group of Janissaries in Cairo, or at least a descendant of one of those families, who during his own generation or the previous one, consolidated the two positions of ‘soldier-trader,’ and then blended in with the local populations of Cairo (p.73) and Bulaq. These families had, either during or just before Shurbagi Mirza's lifetime, become part of the local aristocracy. One has to recall that as early as the sixteenth century, all over the provinces of the empire, there was a shift in the way the members of the militia were recruited. The earlier devşirme system stopped being the mechanism for such purposes, and Cairo was no exception. It became a well-established practice to recruit freeborn young Muslims from the popular classes among the Egyptian masses.11 As a consequence, a new group of patrons became increasingly active in construction, both in Cairo and Bulaq. Merchants, civilian officials, and lesser Janissary officers formed the bulk of this newly emerging group.12 Therefore, a different social stratum from the military emerged as patron of architecture.

How did these Janissaries obtain the means to rise to the level of the aristocracy and consequently serve as patrons of architecture? In the particular case of Amir Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza, we know that he was part of the Janissary corps, which by that time was heavily involved in trade. We have to keep in mind that about the time of the construction of his mosque the amount from the muqata‘at (farm taxes) allotted to the Janissaries corps was 32 percent, totaling 10,726,448 paras.13 This was a very significant sum, which, according to Mantran, was distributed by ranks in a pyramidal fashion. We must also remember that, among the military corps, Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza was regarded as an amir and as a mustahfizan. Another crucial factor was the sudden increase of the coffee trade at the end of the seventeenth century, which triggered interest in construction in Bulaq, where Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza was very active. As a result, he built two wakalas, among other structures, which were, according to Hanna, a normal part of the urban scenery of Bulaq. If we count all of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's buildings, we can surmise that his high rank within the Janissary corps enabled him to accumulate the considerable fortune that allowed him to build such a large number of structures.

By the time Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza built his congregational mosque in 1698, soldiers and merchants were quite active in the patronage of architecture. It was precisely around this period that the culmination of their involvement in commercial activities can be established. It is worth noting that the types of buildings constructed around this period (p.74) were usually lesser structures such as sabil-kuttabs. Thus, we should stress the importance of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's mosque, which is unique in style and unusually large, especially for this period when small structures were typical.

In approximately the same year the beys intermittently stopped sending the irsaliyye khazinesi to Istanbul.14 This helped give Egypt's economy a boost. It is understandable that the patron we are studying here would have received a considerable increase in his resources at that time.

I would suggest that Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's father was most probably one of those Janissary officers who became involved in trade, acquired property in Bulaq, and ended up as a part of the select group of A‘yan Bulaq (Bulaq's local aristocracy). Obviously, his son would have followed the same occupation or career. According to Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's waqfiyya, he and his father were accorded the title of amir, and both were mentioned as such in this legal document:

We testify that in front of us is al-Amir Mustafa ibn al-Marhum al-Amir Yusuf Shurbagi from the Ta’ifa Mustahfizan known as Mirza,15 who is witnessing. Upon himself, we declare that this document is legal and follows the law of the shari‘a and whatever is in it is straight and honest. Also, we declare that the waqf here in front of us, includes all his possessions detailed one by one. In this document [his waqf], which he himself has supervised to make sure that all the information contained in it [the waqf] is correct, all his properties are described and it is clarified that everything he has built or founded is his own construction as is already publicly known.16

There is no doubt that he was part of a prominent wealthy family established in Bulaq, and that his heirs were important as well. This is substantiated by al-Jabarti, who indirectly mentions a personage who seems to be Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's son, as part of the political milieu of his time (1711–12). The incident concerned one of his retainers, Musa Çorbaci, who was pleading to be transferred to a different military corp.17 In addition, according to Hanna, his daughter Stita is mentioned in the waqfiyya of al-Gamri, as being the owner of (p.75) a tahun located on the eastern side of Bulaq, not far from her father's conglomerate of properties.18

It is important to expand our explanation of how the Janissaries became part of the Egyptian social fabric. Contrary to the original rules established by the devşirme system, individuals entering the Janissary corps were allowed to live outside the barracks and have families. Inevitably, this explains the creation of strong bonds between Janissaries and elements of the civilian urban population, whom individual Janissaries came both to exploit and protect. In consequence, around 1660 the center of power moved toward these newer Janissaries, who developed alliances with merchants, and, as a result, became extremely powerful. Their involvement with civilian society also led them to enter the world of trade.19

As a patron of architecture, Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's contribution was considerable.20 He mainly patronized income-bearing commercial structures. These investments in turn increased his real estate holdings, thus providing a model for any businessman today.

His Estate

According to his waqfiyya, Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza owned a large number of buildings, most of them dedicated to commercial enterprises (table3.1). However, the most important of them all, the highlight of his architectural patronage, was definitely his Friday mosque (fig.3.1). It still stands today, although it is not in the best of condition.21

As presented in his waqfiyya, Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's real estate holdings were quite extensive. For instance, when describing the settings of the mosque, the waqfiyya mentions a hawd, along with the mida’a, and it reveals that there was a door to the east side of this area, through which one could reach a saqiyya that provided water for the users.22

The document goes on to describe the surroundings of the mosque, clarifying that there was a tahun and a considerable amount of land adjacent to the mosque that also belonged to Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza.23

As for the empty plot, I am almost sure that the waqfiyya is referring, within this specific block, to that portion of land where his mosque was erected, and also to the immediately adjacent area surrounding (p.76) the building to the north and east, where only an insignificant portion remains empty at present. I am inclined to consider the possibility that the above-mentioned saqiyya was perhaps located in this part of his estate at the back of the wall containing the mida'a, providing water for the ablution area and latrines (fig.3.1).

It is worth noting that his waqfiyya, as a legal document, described the situation during Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's time, identifying four different groups of buildings. The first is the one just mentioned in the preceding paragraph, which we recognize as the modern block where the still-standing mosque is located, along with the saqiyya and a tahun, both of which have now disappeared.

The second plot is where his sabil-kuttab was located, opposite the mosque on Mirza Street. This was probably part of the plot Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza acquired from the waqf of Ramadan Çelebi ibn Yusuf, known as al-Khashshab, as recorded in his waqfiyya and as also corroborated by al-Jabarti.24 In this plot Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza had a furn, a ziriba, a maktab, and a hawd. According to the waqfiyya, whenhe purchased the waqf of al-Khashshab, the aforementioned hawd was part of the newly acquired property.25 This would make sense, since the cistern would have supplied water for the sabil.

The waqfiyya does not provide information about the person from whom Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza acquired the third group of buildings. We do not know the original owners of this piece of land or the buildings it contained prior to it being acquired by Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza. On the other hand, the document describes a group of structures that we believe he erected as part of his estate. This group was composed of a madashsh, a sabil, two wakalas, a rab‘ known as al-Disuqi, a furn, atahun, and a fasaha. The waqfiyya also mentions that he built one of his wakalas on top of the furn and the tahun.26

In the fourth and last group, among other buildings, was his bayt. The waqfiyya relates that in order to build these structures, Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza destroyed several ‘old’ buildings that had previously belonged to Zayn al-Din al-Ustadar (Qadi Yahya). Here he also had a qahwa that was mentioned in the waqfiyya as being connected to the bab sirr of the mosque of Qadi Yahya,27 and a hammam, known during the fifteenth century as Hammam al-Ustadar, which according (p.77) to Hanna, was probably destroyed by Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza when he razed the area to the ground and built his bayt and a new hammam on top of it.28

In an attempt to clarify and enumerate all his buildings, a comprehensive list (table3.1) has been compiled that is complemented by the Location Map (fig.3.1). It is difficult to define their precise location because most of these structures no longer exist. However, following the description found in the waqfiyya, an attempt at identifying their tentative location on the map of Bulaq (fig.3.1) can be made.

We can divide Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's buildings into two major groups, one related to social or religious services, and the other to commercial enterprises. The first group includes the mosque (Index No. 343, 1110–11/1698; Waqf No. 535) and sabils,29 the only monuments that can be labeled as being erected for social or religious purposes. In contrast, the rest of the buildings consist of a large number of commercial structures.

It is worth noting that Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's mosque also reflected a commercial vision. The mosque was elevated; under the main floor there were fifteen shops that were intended either to be leased or used by the owner for his own commercial purposes. It should be mentioned, however, that the mosque was legally stipulated in Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's waqfiyya as being erected for the purpose of being a congregational (Friday) mosque. This means that its purpose was to fulfill the different religious requirements of the Muslim community—such as the Friday prayer, for celebration of festival prayers, the performance of the five daily prayers—as well as serving the purpose of a place for religious instruction.30

Location of the Mosque

The mosque is located in Cairo's Bulaq district at the corner of Mirza Street (running north-south) and Ἁysh al-Nakhla Street (running east-west).31 It is located in the upper southeast part of Bulaq, not far from the mosques of Qadi Yahya and Sinan Pasha where the real hub of the business district was located (fig.3.1). Here was where the full commercial activity of Bulaq's everyday life took place. (p.78)

Table 3.1.Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza Real Estate in Bulaq and Cairo (Explanatory list forFigure3.1Location Map)

Building Type

Number in Map

Historic Reference or Listing Document


Index1 No.

DE2 No.



I. First Group Described in the Waqfiyya



Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535








Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535




Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535






Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535






Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535




II. Second Group Described in the Waqfiyya



Waqf MustafaMirza No. 535

1698/ 1111 347






Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535






Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535






Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535






Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535




III. Third Group Described in the Waqfiyya



Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535




Only the Façade

Sabil (Attached to Madashsh Mirza)


Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535

1698/ 1111





Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535



Some Walls



Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535






Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535






Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535






Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535




IV. Fourth Group Described in the Waqfiyya



Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535






Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535






Waqf Mustafa Mirza No. 535




Buildings in Cairo

Street Roofing and Sabil-Kuttab6


Known as: Mustafa Shurbagi Muztahfizan




Only the Sabil-Kuttab

Landmarks of Bulaq (Not Part of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's Real Estate)

Qadi Yahya Mosque





Sinan Pasha Mosque






(1) Index to Mohammedan Monuments in Cairo (Cairo, 1980).

(2) La Description de lľEgypte.

(3) Only the façde is listed.

(4) Comité de Conservation des Monuments de lľArt Arabe Exercices 1882–1961 (Cairo, 1890-92). The Comité mistakenly took an early date that was in the inscription over the fountain, which was partially effaced and read as 1020. On the other hand, according to Nelly Hanna in “Bulaq: An Endangered Historic Area of Cairo,” Art and Archaeology Research Papers (June 1980) p. 28, there was a second inscription over the doorway (which has since then disappeared) and was clearly 1120, which will make more sense stylistically speaking.

(5) According to the Waqfiyya of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza no. 535, 5, this Rab‘ was known as al-Disuqi.

(6) Nicholas Warner,The Monuments of Historic Cairo, 166. He mentions only the sabil-kuttab; on the other hand, the Index to Mohammedan Monuments lists: Street Roofing and Sabil Mustafa Shurbagi Mustahfizan (1683/1094). This structure is out of the scope of our Location Map (Fig.3.1).

(p.79) (p.80)
The Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza: Reasserting Egypt's Mamluk Roots

Fig. 3.1. Location Map. By Conchita Añorve-Tschirgi, based on Nelly Hanna,An Urban History of Bulaq in the Mamluk and Ottoman Periods (Cairo, 1983), 73.

(p.81) One source makes it possible to know a little more about the surroundings of the mosque. Al-Jabarti refers to Mirza Street and to his account of his own father and his attachment to Bulaq, though years after Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's time. He mentions that his father was married to a woman whose father had a house just opposite the mosque of Mirza Çorbaci. The woman inherited this house and years later when she died, al-Jabarti's father inherited the property.32 Al-Jabarti may well have visited his father's house and the mosque opposite on several occasions.

In al-Jabarti we discover, even when he is referring to a later period, that the mosque played an important role in Bulaq during the time of ‘Ali Bey al-Kabir and Muhammad Bey Abưl-Dhahab (1775–76). He mentions several important shaykhs, like al-Sa‘idi; who “was appointed to hold the office [of teaching] after Friday prayers in the mosque of Mirza in Bulaq. … ”33 Another shaykh of the same rank and importance, Hasan ibn Ghalib al-Jaddawi al-Maliki al-Azhari, also officiated as a preacher at the Mirza Mosque at Bulaq.34 We also know that Shaykh Ahmad ibn Musa ibn Dawud Abưl-Salah al-‘Arusi al-Shafi‘i al-Azhari, who died in 1794, was instructed in highly important subjects by Shaykh ‘Ali al-Sa‘idi in the Mirza Mosque in Bulaq.35 As in many important mosques, the practice of giving religious instruction may have been a common one since the building's establishment, and its continuation would therefore have reinforced the mosque's importance.

Description of the Mosque According to the Waqfiyya

Before examining the explanations and descriptions given in Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's waqfiyya, it is important to mention that the mosque is almost totally built in the Mamluk style, except for the minaret, the tiles on the walls, and the painted woodwork in Ottoman motifs.

It is described as a jami‘ (congregational or Friday mosque), built on top of fifteen shops that were located in three of its façades.36 These shops were accessed independently, directly from the street. As mentioned before, this component defines the mosque as an elevated one. Recently the ground level of the street had risen to such an extent that it almost covered the access to the shops. As a result, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) began clearing the accumulated debris to enable entry (p.82) to the shops.37 This explains why the mosque is currently reached by a flight of only two semicircular steps: although the waqfiyya mentions four steps of considerable height, half of them have been buried.38

Portal and Façades

Approaching the mosque, one faces a structure in a “Mamluk revival” style. The building clearly faced restrictions imposed by the shape and size of the plot. Under these conditions, it is difficult to appreciate the main façade in its totality due to the buildings surrounding it and the narrowness of the street. The portal is a trilobed recess with a shallow conch, decorated with an inlaid stone sunrise motif above rows of skillfully carved muqarnas (fig.3.3). These were very much in the fashion of the late Mamluk period—almost two centuries prior to the construction of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's mosque. Below the hood, we find a rectangular window flanked by two marble colonettes and an upper muqarnas lintel, just as mentioned in Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's waqfiyya.39 This feature is one of several that recalls the portal of the mosque of Qadi Yahya Zayn al-Din at Bur Sa‘id Street (848/1444) (pl.3.1). Although the elevation of the Shurbagi Mirza portal is mostly Mamluk in style, some Ottoman details can be found, such as the ubiquitous hexagonal interlace. This was already used in the Bahri Mamluk period, for example, at the entrance of the mosque of Sultan Hasan (757–64/1356–62).40 However, the extensive use of this type of interlace is characteristic of the Ottoman period, as seen, for example in the façade of the sabil-kuttab of ‘Ali Bey Dumyati (1122/1710) (pl.3.2).

The façades still contain the fifteen above-mentioned shops under the structure, all of them being mentioned in the waqfiyya.41 The main elevation is plain, except for three recesses bearing two windows each. These recesses are crowned with tiers of muqarnas, and have prototypes in several Mamluk buildings, for example, the mausoleum of Tarabay al-Sharifi (909/1503–1504).42 The northwest corner is chamfered with a very simple muqarnas at the top. This treatment of the corner can be traced back to Fatimid architecture, and was later repeated during the Mamluk period. The southwest corner is treated with an engaged stone column (fig.3.3). This is an Anatolian feature that was adapted in Mamluk architecture in the mosque of Sultan Hasan (757–64/1356–62), (p.83) and repeated afterward in several mosques, for example, on the north façade of the mosque of Jamal al-Din al-Ustadar (811/1408) (pl.3.3).


By the same token, we are inclined to believe, after a close physical examination, that the crenelation used originally was the Ottoman development of the typical Mamluk trilobed type (fig.3.10). During this period this element developed a protruding element below the trefoil, as well as a more elaborate and elongated form. We are almost sure that the stepped crenelation found on the south side of the mosque is a later addition. No reference to the crenelation was found in the waqfiyya.

Bent Entrance

As we enter the building, we find several Mamluk elements (fig.3.2). The waqfiyya mentions two mastabas flanking the portal (fig.3.3).43 After this point there is a bent entrance leading to the sahn (interior central court), a typical Mamluk feature.


From the main entrance it is possible to continue straight to the mida’a, which is of considerable size—almost 40 percent of the total area on which the mosque was built. Its description in the waqfiyya corresponds closely to its present state. This area can also be entered directly from an independent entrance that is found next to the main portal on Mirza Street, just as it is described in the waqfiyya.44


The bent entrance to the left leads to the sunken sahn through the narrow southwest riwaq. At present, the Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza Mosque is completely covered with a wooden roof and has a simple, undecorated central square lantern. This echoes the baldachin plan type that became very popular during this period in Cairo, examples of which can be found in the mosques of Nur al-Din (Masih Pasha) (983/1575) and Mahmud Pasha (the Mahmudiyya) (975/1568), but according to the waqfiyya this mosque was intended to be open. It reads, “In the middle (p.84) of the sahn on the floor, there is a drain to evacuate the water coming from the rain” (fig.3.4).45

The uncovered sahn also has prototypes in several Mamluk congregational mosques such as the mosques of al-Nasir Muhammad at the Citadel (735/1318–35),46 and Qadi Yahya Zayn al-Din at al-Habbaniyya (856/1452).47 Unfortunately, the Comité does not make reference to any restoration related to the covering of the sahn.48 This three-dimensional

The Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza: Reasserting Egypt's Mamluk Roots

Fig. 3.2. Plan of mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza (drawing by Conchita Añorve-Tschirgi, based on an unclear rendering from the archives of the Supreme Council of Antiquities).

The Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza: Reasserting Egypt's Mamluk Roots

Fig. 3.3. Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza, main portal on west façade (photograph by Conchita Añorve-Tschirgi).

rendering helps one to visualize the mosque the way it would have looked with an open sahn (fig.3.5).


The waqfiyya also mentions two iwans;49 these are probably the raised irregular areas located at the north and west sides of the sahn that (p.86) resulted from the difference between the orientation of the mosque and the rest of the plot. Unfortunately the waqfiyya does not provide more details, and only gives the number of iwans. We assume that this legal document is clear in not mistaking iwans with riwaqs, because later on it also mentions the fact that the mosque has riwaqs.50

Marble Work

The extensive marble polychrome decoration displayed on walls and floors is almost unique in this period, and is the highlight of all the ornamentation found in the mosque. From this period only the mosques of al-Burdayni (1025–38/1616–29) and Sulayman Pasha at the Citadel (935/1528) can compete in this respect with the Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza Mosque (Fig.3.6).51 The founder evidently did not restrain himself with regard to the expenditures that this type of decoration imposed on his budget. The waqfiyya specifically says, “the floor of the vestibule and the sahn are all covered with colored marble, as well as the walls of the qibla.”52 It does not give a detailed description of the type of design that was used to execute this decoration. The present description is therefore based purely on observation and comparison.

The Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza: Reasserting Egypt's Mamluk Roots

Fig. 3.4. Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza, drain on sahn's marbled floor (photograph by Conchita Añrve-Tschirgi).

The Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza: Reasserting Egypt's Mamluk Roots

Fig. 3.5. Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza, 3-D aerial view of the mosque with proposed open sahn (rendering by Conchita Añorve-Tschirgi).

The floor is covered with polychrome marble in various geometric patterns divided into compartments similar to those of Mamluk carpets. These patterns consist of a variety of forms and shapes: square diapers, roundels forming rosettes, teardrop motifs on the spandrels, and cartouches framed with hexagonal entrelac motifs (figs. 3.4,3.7). This type of marble work continues a tradition that goes back to the beginning of the Mamluk period. Floors with circular and geometric patterns were used extensively, especially during the Circassian period. The continuation of the Mamluk style is remarkable in Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's mosque. Examples include the mosque of al-Ashraf Barsbay in the city (the heart of Fatimid Cairo) (829/1425) (pl.3.4), the mosque and fort of Qaytbay in Alexandria (884/1479), and the entrance vestibule of the complex of Sultan al-Ghuri (909–10/1504–505).53

A marble dado decorates the qibla wall and parts of those walls contiguous to the qibla on the north and south sides. The lower part of the dado consists of rectangular polychrome marble panels. The upper part has roundels with entrelacs, the spandrels of which are in intarsia, some with strapwork. The intarsia can be traced back even earlier, to the Bahri Mamluk period (fig.3.6). Between the two parts is a narrow (p.88)

The Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza: Reasserting Egypt's Mamluk Roots

Fig. 3.6. Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza, marble work on south wall next to the qibla (photograph by Conchita Añrve-Tschirgi).

band with carved marble filled with red and black paste in an arabesque pattern. The same technique is used in two panels found on the qibla wall, having a mihrab-like carving surrounded by stylized floral design. This type of work is made of marble inlaid with a paste colored red and black forming very delicate arabesques. This technique is also a Mamluk revival; it was used in several mosques of the fifteenth century, such as that of Qijmas al-Ishaqi (885/1480),54 and later at the beginning of the Ottoman period it is found in the mosque of Sulayman Pasha at the Citadel (935/1528). In the Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza Mosque it appears in two small niches, which according to Behrens-Abouseif, “seem to have been intended for lamps.”55 However, the waqfiyya mentions only the hanging lamps for the mosque when it describes the wooden beams “that were intended to be for hanging the thirty-six lamps to provide light to the mosque. … ”56 We assume that those lamps were the typical glass-type. The small side-mihrab niches located on the qibla wall are too small and low to have been used to house hanging glass lamps. They do, however, have narrow shelves just below the conches, which might have been used to hold lamps. In this case, the lamps would have been smaller ones, not necessarily of glass, that could have provided extra light for readers or reciters sitting on the floor. (p.89)
The Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza: Reasserting Egypt's Mamluk Roots

Fig. 3.7. Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza, detail of the sahn's marbled floor (photograph by Conchita Añorve-Tschirgi).


Another Mamluk feature is the mihrab, which in this particular case, is not placed in the central part of the qibla wall, as was the norm at the time. Here, the mihrab and the minbar together play the role of mosque focal point (fig.3.8). The waqfiyya comments that the mihrab is completely covered with colored marble work.57 This mihrab is entirely in the Mamluk tradition. For instance, the teardrop motif on the spandrels can be found on several Mamluk examples, such as the mihrab of the mausoleum of Sultan Barsbay in the Northern Cemetery (786–88/1384–86).58 The chevron motif on the hood, as well as the colonettes and the intarsia work, also has Mamluk prototypes, such as the mosque of Abu Bakr Ibn Muzhir (892/1487).59 But overall, this mihrab most closely resembles that of the mosque of al-Ghuri (904/1504).60


The walls above the dados are entirely covered with Iznik-type tiles. The waqfiyya simply mentions the walls as being covered with tiles.61 This ornamentation was used extensively in Ottoman restorations of Mamluk mosques, such as Aqsunqur's (747/1347),62 however, the quality of the tiles used in that mosque is superior to those used here. The (p.90) tiles used here were probably locally executed, given their poor quality and the prohibitive cost of importing such a great number. Williams suggests that they probably came from the second-rate ateliers of the last part of the seventeenth century.63 They bear the typical features of Iznik prototypes: a repetitive bouquet pattern of carnations, cypresses,saz leaves, and the use of a variety of colors other than blue. On theother hand, Crecelius identified at least two panels in the qibla wall that have the typical characteristics of zillig, Moroccan influenced tiles, which were thicker and made with red clay. He was almost certain that these tiles were replaced during the eighteenth century, as was the case in Muhammad Abu Dahab's mosque (1774).64

Wooden Ceilings

Wooden ceilings are found throughout the mosque using three different types of decoration and technique. In addition, undecorated wood was used on the ceiling of the sahn, which, as we saw above, was constructed later. The waqfiyya states: “The ceilings are made out of wood and they are all painted in Rumiyan local style decoration.”65 The waqfiyya does not go into more detail, but the three types of ceiling can be described as follows:

  1. 1 After entering the mosque, in the vestibule we find a flat painted ceiling with a star-pattern decoration in relief based on an octagonal form. As a central element of decoration, there is a rectangle encompassing a twelve-sided star. The range of hues, though monochromatic, is extensive.

  2. 2) On the ceilings of the two so-called iwans, in the northern and western triangular areas, we find that the technique and pattern is similar to the style previously described, except that the decoration is based on hexagonal stars, and the quality is inferior.

  3. 3) The dominant style is found in the qibla hall, as well as the south, east, and north riwaqs (fig.3.9). This style is based on an arrangement of exposed wooden beams painted in various floral and geometric patterns in a wide range of colors. Although the quality is not the finest it is much more imaginative than the two preceding styles. Based only on observation, probably very few original traces still survive, although the repainting has followed the original patterns. (p.91)

    The Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza: Reasserting Egypt's Mamluk Roots

    Fig. 3.8. Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza, view of the qibla from the sahn (photograph by Conchita Añorve-Tschirgi).


The waqfiyya does not describe the minaret in detail, which in this case is the typical minaret that was very popular during the Ottoman period. Although the entirely circular-shaft minaret had appeared in Egypt before the Ottoman conquest—for example, in the mosques of al-Nasir Muhammad at the Citadel (735/1335), Aqsunqur (748/1347), and Mahmud al-Kurdi (797/1395)66—it was only after the conquest that the real pencil-shaped minaret had a major architectural impact. It was possibly a response to the economic restrictions imposed on the country. It was much cheaper to build an almost undecorated minaret than a lavishly decorated one, as had been the practice during the Mamluk period (fig.3.10).


After the Ottoman conquest of Egypt, politics, social relations, and the economy went in new directions. Evidence of this is clear, especially (p.92) when we analyze the architectural production of the period. New groups assumed the role of patrons for construction, which did not necessarily mean that production decreased, but it changed in taste. Small-scale structures sprouted all over Cairo, especially sabil-kuttabs. Our mosque stands out in its period from these trends, both in terms of its size and for the fact that most of its decorative elements were in Mamluk style.

The construction of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's mosque was shaped by both local and foreign influences, and the amount of money invested in its construction reflects the decision of powerful dignitaries determined to challenge the impositions dictated from Istanbul. Thus, this mosque visibly reflects much of Egypt's history during the period when the structure was erected. It also clearly shows who held the reins of economic and political power in Egypt; on those grounds we may well consider this mosque a historical turning point. The results of the major changes that were developing during the years when this large building was erected came later, when the beys took total control of the country during the eighteenth century.

The Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza: Reasserting Egypt's Mamluk Roots

Fig. 3.9. Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza, detail of decorated wooden ceiling from south riwaq (photograph by Conchita Añorve-Tschirgi).

(p.93) Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's family was among those that produced Bulaq's local aristocracy and its members probably began their rise to prominence as small-scale merchants. There came a point at which they excelled as traders and became major patrons of architecture. Proof of this lies in the extent of their architectural legacy (table3.1). Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza probably acquired his property gradually. A glance at the Location Map (Fig.3.1) will show how extensively his real estate

The Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza: Reasserting Egypt's Mamluk Roots

Fig. 3.10. Mosque of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza, minaret and detail of crenelation from south (photograph by Conchita Añorve-Tschirgi).

(p.94) was distributed. The conclusion appears to be that Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's economic power grew apace with his importance within the A‘yan Bulaq. His piety and religious inclinations should not be underestimated, but it is notable that his mosque was strategically built next to his commercial structures and would have inevitably attracted people to areas where he had such commercial investments.

This congregational mosque could never compare to the standards of a royal Mamluk structure. Nonetheless, it still incorporates as many Mamluk features as possible to define Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's connection to Egypt and his attachment to Bulaq. The most prominent of these features are the mosque's size, its once-open sahn, and its main portal.

Was Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza acutely aware of the differences between the Mamluk and Ottoman styles? Probably not, or at least not to the same degree that would mark the awareness of an art historian today. But in the political context it is likely that he was indeed quite aware. As an investor, however, he was an observer of the buildings surrounding him all over Cairo. The physical evidence of the Mamluk buildings that passed daily before his eyes could hardly be ignored. Thus his preferences in taste and style were clearly inclined toward what he considered to be the Egypt's golden age.

This could perhaps be related to the evidence in al-Jabarti's account of inflamed political feelings against the Ottomans. Al-Jabarti notes that when ‘Ali Bey was in complete control of the country:

He used to read historical books and the lives of Egyptian kings (Sultans), and used to say … “The kings of Egypt—Sultan Baybars and Sultan Qalawun—were Mamluks like us in the service of the Kurds; likewise, the Circassian kings … were Mamluks to the descendants of Qalawun. As for these Ottomans, they seized the country by force, taking advantage of the duplicity of the local people.”67

What can be discerned in the construction of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's mosque is that it served as a tool of protest against foreigners, whom locals regarded with disdain.

(p.95) Notes





(1) This paper is based on research undertaken for my MA thesis in Islamic Art and Architecture, Department of Arabic Studies, American University in Cairo, 2001. I would like to thank my colleagues Heba el-Toudy and Mamdouh Sakr for their helpful comments on earlier drafts, and Amro Fayez, who helped a great deal in rendering the 3D images of the Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza Mosque; my final appreciation goes to Mona Hamid for her technical support.

(2) David Ayalon, “The End of the Mamluk Sultanate (Why Did The Ottomans Spare the Mamluks of Egypt and Wipe Out the Mamluks of Syria?),”Studia Islamica 65 (1987), 126–36. He gives a thorough account of the events (in 922/1517) that changed the fate of the Mamluks in Egypt.

(3) Edmund Pauty, “L’architecture au Caire depuis la conquête ottomane (vue dďensemble),”Bulletin de lľInstitut Française dďArchéologie Orientale 36 (1936): 1. Here he cites Lamartine describing the Ottomans' love for nature, gardens, and open spaces. Perhaps Cairo's crowded setting discouraged the Ottomans from becoming engaged in large-scale projects.

(4) André Raymond, “LĽactivité architecturale au Caire à lľépoque ottomane (1517–1798),”Annales Islamologiques 25 (1991): 343.

(5) Although some walis lasted only a few months, there were some exceptions such as Dawud Pasha, who managed to keep the post of wali of Egypt for eleven years (1548–59).

(6) This was the annual tribute remitted from Egypt to the sultan's personal treasury in Istanbul. There were unlucky situations when some walis returned to the capital already facing a heavy debt to the sultan's treasury.

(7) In the devşirme system Christian children were recruited to be educated as Muslims and later to serve in the sultan's palace and personal guard. Several of them became grand viziers or governors of some of the provinces.

(8) Jane Hathaway,The Politics of Households in Ottoman Egypt (Cambridge, 1997), 6. She mentions that during the first part of Ottoman rule, the walis posted to Egypt were military officers trained as part of the Janissary corps (ta‘ifa mustahfizan). This was an essential condition, given that this was the period when Egypt served as a major base from which various Ottoman military campaigns were launched.

(9) Stanford J. Shaw,The Financial and Administrative Organization of Ottoman Egypt 1517–1798 (Princeton, 1962), 184ff. He gives a detailedaccount of all these expenses and how they were covered. Only a fraction of the irsaliyye was dispatched to Istanbul. The bulk remained in Egypt for the special requirements of the sultan, such as to cover part of the expenses for military campaigns, pilgrimage expenses of the Ottomans, and so on.

(10) Amir literally means prince.Mustahfizan, among the local Egyptians, means a Mamluk member of the Janissaries.

(11) André Raymond, “Soldiers in Trade: The Case of Ottoman Cairo,”British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 18, no. 1 (1991): 16. Accordingto Raymond, these officers were allowed to live in town, marry Egyptian women, start a family, and began to integrate into local society. This situation escalated to such an extent that they began to regard the Ottomans as a foreign element.

(12) Nelly Hanna,An Urban History of Bulaq in the Mamluk and Ottoman Periods (Cairo, 1983), 38. This emerging military group, of which MustafaShurbagi Mirza was part, was the mustahfizan or Janissaries, who were the ojaks' most powerful corps. When the Ottomans came to Egypt, they brought only four groups of the ojaks; later they were increased to seven, among them being the mustahfizan.

(13) Robert Mantran, “Les relations entre le Caire et Istanbul durant la Période Ottomane,”Colloque international sur lľhistoire du Caire (Cairo, 1969), 307. Forty-five percent was allocated to the imperial treasury, and twenty-three percent to the wali of Egypt.

(14) By that time the irsaliyye khazinesi amounted to thirty million paras, which can be explained in 1698 as follows (based on calculations fromhttp://www.cyberussr.com): 1 piaster = 1 silver dollar = 40 paras1 para = 1/40 = 0.025 of a silver dollar, then: so the result is that: 30,000,000 paras x 0.025 = 750,000 silver dollars.

(15) Waqfiyya of Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza No. 535, 1 (hereafter referred to as Waqfiyya No. 535); Ἁbd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (Ἁbd al-Rahman al-Jabarti's History of Egypt, ed. Thoman Philipp and Moshe Perlmann[Stuttgart, 1994)], 1:38) mentions Amir Mirza as one of the prominent officers of the Janissary corps.

(16) Waqfiyya No. 535, 1–2.

(17) al-Jabarti,History of Egypt, 1:38. Even when the hypothetical Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's son was not directly involved in this affair, he used his name to identify the retainer. Further and more extensive research related to the Mirza family will be necessary to clarify all doubts.

(18) Hanna,Urban History, 40, 70.

(19) Raymond, “Soldiers in Trade,” 23–24.

(20) Hanna,Urban History, 57. In addition, Hanna also mentions (p. 39) at least four members of the al-Ἁsi family who were also part of the group of Janissary-businessmen with a large investment in Bulaq.

(21) For several years the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the institution in charge of registering monuments has expressed the intention of restoring the damaged structure, but apart from an unchanging display of scaffolding inside the mosque, nothing has come of such plans.

(22) Waqfiyya No. 535, 4. As a matter of fact, this saqiyya no longer exists, and as for the hawd, an empty space is all that remains. We will return to this point later.

(23) Waqfiyya No. 535, 6.

(24) Waqfiyya No. 535, 5; al-Jabarti,History of Egypt, 1:391. The author mentions this incident on the grounds of the location of a house that his father inherited when his wife died. This lady happened to be the daughter of Ramadan Çelebi ibn Yusuf al-Khashshab, the same person mentioned in Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's waqfiyya as being the previous owner of this plot.

(25) Waqfiyya No. 535, 5.

(26) Waqfiyya No. 535, 5

(27) Waqfiyya No. 535, 14.

(28) Waqfiyya No. 535, 8; Hanna,Urban History, 60. She points out the fact that installations for hydraulics are quite expensive, which leads her strongly to believe that the hammam of Qadi Yahya ended up under the new structure owned by Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza.

(29) Waqfiyya No. 535, 1.

(30) Waqfiyya No. 535, 2 and 20. Al-Jabarti,History of Egypt, 1:416, 2:165, and 2:252 points out that several well-known shaykhs were receiving instruction from famous religious scholars specifically in Mustafa Shurbagi Mirza's mosque.

(31) In the course of several visits to the mosque, we noticed that there are several days during the week when this corner is one of the busiest in Bulaq.

(32) al-Jabarti,History of Egypt, 1:391 and 1:396. He places these events around 1768–69, mentioning that he was fourteen years old, so he (the historian) was probably born around 1754.

(33) al-Jabarti,History of Egypt, 1:416.

(34) al-Jabarti,History of Egypt, 2:165.

(35) al-Jabarti,History of Egypt, 2:252.

(36) Waqfiyya No. 535, 1.

(37) This event happened in 2000, when the author was doing research for her thesis.

(38) Waqfiyya No. 535, 2.

(39) Waqfiyya No. 535, 1.

(40) Doris Behrens-Abouseif,Cairo of the Mamluks: A History of the Architecture and Its Culture (Cairo, 2007), 209.

(41) Waqfiyya No. 535, 10.

(42) Behrens-Abouseif,Cairo of the Mamluks, 99.

(43) Waqfiyya No. 535, 1.

(44) Waqfiyya No. 535, 4.

(45) Waqfiyya No. 535, 2.

(46) Behrens-Abouseif,Islamic Architecture in Cairo: An Introduction (Cairo, 1989), 110.

(47) Behrens-Abouseif,Cairo of the Mamluks, 264–65

(48) We will return to this point later in the section dedicated to the wooden ceilings.

(49) Waqfiyya No. 535, 2.

(50) Waqfiyya No. 535, 10.

(51) Behrens-Abouseif,Egypt's Adjustment to Ottoman Rule: Institutions, Waqf and Architecture in Cairo (Leiden, 1994), 344.

(52) Waqfiyya No. 535, 2 and 3.

(53) Muhammad Abdel Wahab,Marble Paving in Mamluk Cairo (MA thesis, American University in Cairo, 1998), 81–83.

(54) Behrens-Abouseif,Cairo of the Mamluks, 288–89.

(55) Behrens-Abouseif,Egypt's Adjustment, 244.

(56) Waqfiyya No. 535, 2.

(57) Waqfiyya No. 535, 3.

(58) Behrens-Abouseif,Cairo of the Mamluks, 256.

(59) Behrens-Abouseif,Cairo of the Mamluks, 285.

(60) Behrens-Abouseif,Cairo of the Mamluks, 300.

(61) Waqfiyya No. 535, 2.

(62) Hasan Ἁbd al-Wahhab,Tarikh al-masajid al-athariyya allati salla fiha faridat al-jum‘a hadrat sahib al-jalalat al-malik al-salih Faruq al-awwal (Cairo, 1946), 155.

(63) John Alden Williams, “The Monuments of Ottoman Cairo,”Colloque international sur l’histoire du Caire (Cairo, 1969), 457.

(64) Daniel Crecelius,Dirasat fi ta'rikh Misr al-iqtasadi wa'l-iqtima‘i fi’l-asr al-‘uthmani (Cairo, 1993), 304.

(65) Waqfiyya No. 535, 2.

(66) Behrens-Abouseif,The Minarets of Cairo (Cairo, 1985), 110.

(67) al-Jabarti,History of Egypt, 1:381. By ‘duplicity,’ Ἁli Bey was probably referring to Khayrbak, who was not regarded as a loyal Mamluk.