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Amr Ibn El As Mosque Old Cairo


From a chronological point of view we should have begun with Amr Mosque which was the first mosque erected in Egypt directly after the Arab conquest. It is known as the mosque of conquest or the crown mosque. It is the oldest of the few places that carry the mind and imagination back to the first days of the Arab conquest.

Soon after Amr had conquered Alexandria, he returned to the site of his camp and there founded the city of Fustat. The city started with the house and the mosque followed. The foundation of the mosque was laid in 642 A.D., the building was very simple; it was 29 meters long by 17 meters wide, and surrounded by a rough and unplastered brick wall, when Amr built it. The floor was covered with grave and its low roof made of mud supported with palm branches lying across tree trunks. There was no minaret, no niche, and not even any decoration. The pulpit which Amr constructed was soon removed when the Caliph Omar wrote to Amr saying that it was not right to stand up while the Moslems all around sat. at that time the Nile used to wash the walls of the mosque and the gates opened directly into the water.

The mosque soon became to small for the growing population of Fustat. In 672 it was enlarged, the walls and ceiling were plastered, four small minarets were erected at the four corners to allow the muezzin to call the Moslems for prayer, and the floor was covered with mats.

In 698, the entire mosque was demolished and rebuilt on a large scale and to a better design. In 710 it was pulled down again to be rebuilt on a still larger scale with a niche and a pulpit and the walls were pierced by doors. At that time the mosque included both the sites of Amr's and Abdalla's houses which were nearby. Then in 827 Abdallah Ibn Taher ordered the mosque to be enlarged to the present dimensions of 112.5 X 120.5 meters, which is sixteen times what it was when first founded.

In 1168 Fustat was burned to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Crusaders. It is said that the fire raged for 54 days and damaged all the buildings. The mosque escaped but was much damaged. So many have been the repairs and reconstructions that there is not even a fragment of the original structure left. What we see today is the mosque practically rebuilt in 1401 and restored by Murad Bey in 1797, just before he engaged the French in the battle of the Pyramids at Embaba. The inauguration of the mosque was on the last Friday of the fasting month of Ramadan and it is still the custom to pray on that day every year in the mosque. It is moreover said in this connection that Amr himself died on the last Friday of Ramadan, and this cited as an additional reason for the special service held on that day.

The mosque of Amr consists of a court measuring 40.000 square feet surrounded by colonnades. A forest of columns supports the roof at the east cloister which is reserved for prayer. The columns are said to have been 392 in number; 154 in the southern iwan, 42 in the western, 154 in the northern and 42 in the eastern. Both the eastern and some of the western columns still stand while of the others, only the bases are left to show where they stood. The columns are all of veined marble. Some of them differ a little in the height of the shaft but this defect has generally been remedied by the addition of a plinth or an inverted capital for a base. The capitals are of many different forms, having been taken from various ancient temples and churches, as were also the columns. Wooden beams stretch from column to column and support hanging lamps of which 1800 formerly used to be lighted every night.

At the south eastern corner there is a shrine said to be for Abdallah, the son of Amr Ibn El Ass, founder of the mosque. It is said that he was killed in 648 while defending Egypt against the invasion of Marawan Ibn El Hakim and was buried inside his house. When the mosque was enlarged it took in the site which had been Abdallah's house and therefore his tomb. Historians disagree about this story, most of them maintaining that he was not buried there.

Amr Ibn El Ass died in 663 and was buried at the foot of the Mokattam hills, although all traces of the burial are lost.

The mosque has passed through periods of ruin and destruction and has been repaired and restored many times. The chief items of interest are the twin columns standing close to each other near the main entrance. It so happened in 1870 that a Turkish soldier stuck fast between them and nearly died. For that reason the space in between was filled up with bricks, but they have lately been removed. Another column with an iron railing round it, close to the Minbar, is said to have been miraculously transport from Mecca to Cairo by the Caliph Omar at the request of Amr Ibn El Ass. Legend says that the column first disobeyed, then Omar whipped it, and in proof of the story, the mark of the whip in the veining of the marble is still pointed out.

The importance of the mosque does not consist solely in the fact that, it is the oldest mosque established in Egypt. It was also the oldest venerable Moslem place which radiated its light and labored with unremitting activity during nine centuries. It housed also the public treasure of funds allocated for orphans, and served as the hall of Justice for hearing cases and settling disputes of a religious or civil nature. One day in 1808 Moslems, Christians and Jews in Egypt assembled together in the mosque to pray for the rise of the Nile which was delayed beyond the usual period, and it happened that on the following day the level of water increased.