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Facades of Buildings During the Mamluk Period


‘Mamluk’ is an Arabic word for slave and refers to soldiers who were captured from non Muslim origins, converted to Islam, and trained to fight for their captors. Mongol or Turkic is believed to be the Mamluk sultan’s foundation. While there, they acted as guards on behalf of Ayyubid sultans and princes. With time, the Mamluks population grew and by 1250, they became strong enough to appoint their own sultans. In 1260, one of the Mamluks soldiers became the first sultan to introduce a unique tradition that endured for over 250 years (Hebeishy 98). During the period of Mamluks, mosques and madrasas had primary schools for boys attached to them for educating orphans (Doris 288). In the era of Bahri Mamluk, the architectural designs that were developed included exclusive structures meant for madrasas. Facades had a loggia occupying one of the corners with two arches on each side which had a sabil or water house. This was another attachment to the mosque structures that provided a place where thirsty passersby could be served water. Behind the large sabil window, someone was employed purposely to serve water. Since the construction of the Amir al Yusufi madrasa, combining sabil with a kuttab became a common feature of facades designed at one of the corners of the mosques’ foundations (Tignor 17). This paper seeks to describe the Mamluk architecture, look into facades of building during Bahri and Burji Mamluk periods, and provide details of components used, architectural styles and models applied, as well as variations between the two periods.

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Back ground of the Mamluks

The term Mamluk was applied to the architecture of Syria and Egypt from 1250 to 1516, a period when the area was under the rule of Mamluk sultans based in Cairo. Mamluk sultanates had Turkic and Mongol origins and were captives from battles across Syria and Egypt (Nathos 2). Ayyubid sultans and princes used them as guards as most of them were made to join Islam and trained to fight for them in battles. The Mamluks gradually grew in population, and by 1250, they had gained strength and appointed their own sultans. Their armies became strong and were able to defeat many battles. It is in 1260 when one of the Mamuluk sultans, Baybars, became initiated. This was a tradition that lasted for over two centuries. The Mamluk sultanate was divided into two groups. The first was known as the Bahri (Sea based) Mamluk which lasted from 1250 to1383. This is because they were based on Roda Island in the Nile delta. The second group that succeeded Bahri was known as Burji Mumluk and was in power from 1382 to1517. The period is also referred to as the Circassian period since those in power at that time were from Citadel in Cairo. These Burji Mamluk sultans originated from Circassia (Rabbat 14).

The Bahri Mamluk is the most prolific period in Cairo in terms of architectural work. The period had a wide range of building projects being carried out. During this period, many models of Cairene architecture were developed including the erection of the Sabils on street corners mostly linked to primary schools (Meyers 23). This period of construction in Cairo involved a mix of styles in architectural designs from Sicily, North Africa regions, Spain, Italy and Iran. The structures of Mamluk were not designed magnificently and demonstrated the kind of discipline that was exhibited by the military. They were also demonstrated the unique styles of Islamic culture. Mamluk architectural designs were developments of the Ayyubids buildings, and were influenced by foreign styles such as Italian and Andulisian (Nathos 4).

There is a slight difference between Syrian and Egyptian Mamluk architectural designs. The difference is based on the availability of materials used and their differing traditions. Egyptians mainly used bricks as an important material of construction. Other major differences are seen on decorative patterns, such as the arch used in muqarnas mouldings. Egyptians adopted angular points while Syrians maintained rounded profiles in all their patterns. In Syria, buildings were less decorated as compared to Egypt. This is because Cairo was a capital City and preferably could be more decorated. To describe the features of the architectural designs in the Mamluk period, it is essential to look into three major areas which include surface decoration, layout and planning, and the structural elements of the buildings (Vermeulen 231).

Facades designs Bahri Mamluk Period (1250-1382)


Facades were built on a stone that was curved in some mosques. The facades were decorated with marbles which were arranged in symmetrical patterns to form decorations. The facades were carefully designed using wood, precious metals and colored glass. The facades were stylized with foliage motifs and Arabic inscriptions on glazed tiles. Glazed ceramic tile was mostly used in Islamic arts, a technique sourced from ancient Iran where building materials that are dull colored are backed to form bricks (Petersen 21).


The architecture of the main façade provides a dramatic visual play of forms arranged in a way that puts emphasis on the contrasting lines used. The design used shows strength and relative self confidence in its design. The mosque of Ilgay Al-Yusufi is the most outstanding Islamic monument in Egypt and portrays a unique architectural work with its complex façade design built by stone. The façade in El-Aqmar mosque has a unique design as it follows the alignment of the entry street while the qilba wall is inclined to face Mecca. The facades plan has been adjusted to fit to the existing urban street plan. The plots shapes are irregular and needs architecture to apply creative techniques in order to come up with structures that are rectangular on the un-proportional pieces of land provided in the cities (Mols 35).

Bahri Mamluk facades designs for standardized panel and recess patterns were first used in the mosque of al-Salih Tala. Stalactites with large rectangular lower windows were used to crown the recesses. The windows had iron grills and higher arched or double arched windows. Colored glass and reinforced window panes with stucco grills were used. In normal houses, the frontal side of the houses that faced the street had only a single entry gate (Meyers 23). The gates are placed much lower than the average person’s height and less than 1 meter in width (Howayda 25). The entrance door constituted of a wooden door or a mixture of metallic components with wood. Most of the houses had only the first and second floors, and the third floor was deliberately left unfinished. Cairo houses were strictly limited to two storeys while Mumluks houses in Syria could go up to third floor. This is because the third floor was more exposed to eroding (Bozdogan 23).

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Facades in mihrab were rectangular and had an opening at the center that was crowned by a sharp arch. The mihrab facades were decorated with hexagonal panels producing a six pointed start pattern. This was the starting point of the star shaped medallion, which eventually was widely used in many wood work decorations during the Mamluk period. The basic designs of facades in madrasas were built from stones to form a tripartite structure (Mols 43). The middle section which also has the entrance together with the sides measured (18m X 31m X 26m) and a height of 12 m. In the middle section at the entrance, an inscription bearing the name of the builder was curved. In the middle of this section, a lintel was surmounted and composed of interlocking voussoirs. The entrance was crowned with an arched niche ornament made of five rows of mugamas. In most mosques, such as the mosque of Ilgay Al-Yusufi, the main façade is divided into four uniform bays. Two of them are wide and toped with stalactite cornices while the other two are narrow with arches similar to fluted keels (Howayda 76).

The mausoleum that supported the facades, located in the Madrasas and mosques of Sultan Hasan, had some decorations right at the middle, which was done by a medallion at the middle to form a bull’s eye. It is flamed by interlaced brands mixed in two colors. There are two rows of windows along the facades. The upper windows are indented in recesses which are crowned with stalactites surmounted to the portals by a shallow conch. The window that was positioned at the lower side was slotted in the recesses with pyramids portraying strides (Howayda 16).

Surface Decoration

Most of the mosques built during the time of Mamluk have been decorated using heraldic blazons. Round discs that had about three slates and several emblems were used to design these surface structures. Usually, the three images are set at the center of the circles. No Sultan of the Mamluk could fail to possess blazons. The blazons were used in a range of objects that was owned by the group, such as domestic mosques and buildings. The blazons provided dating evidence clearly showing how the Mamluks operated (Mols 33). At the façade entrance section, the encryptions written described the name of the constructors and the date of foundations. The facades built of stone had carvings and inlaid marble for decorations at the joggled lintels and inscriptions on the entry ways above the portals. It was customized to panel walls with polychrome marble during the Mamluk period (Levy 332). The use of marbles was mostly preferred than the stucco used in prayer niches. Bahri Mamluk decorations could clearly be characterized by panels decorated with marble and stones and intermixed with pearls in attractive patterns. Window patterns were designed in floral patterns which became more appealing than the regular geometric patterns. They also included colored glasses. Attractive wooden grills could also be used. Stalactites decorated the recesses of facades similar to the transitions made in domes (Necipoglu 65).

The Mamluk used heraldic blazons in their decorations and monumental calligraphy. The scripts were presented in Nasskhi script containing the name and rank of the founder of that specific building. Ashlar masonry provides the surface for the decorations (Meyers 23). However, at times, plastered walls and wooden surfaces were used. Geometric and floral patterns are among other decorations that the bahri Mamluk used. Ceramic decorations were not much preferred but use of colored glass to create mosaics and inlaid marble was normally used for Mihrabs and other places that were considered special. The use of ablaq was one of the decorative features that were adopted from Syria. Tuned wood was also common in creating interior designs (Mohamed 102).


The El-Aqmar mosque is the first mosque in Cairo that has a decorated stone façade. The façade is built by stone and it is brick faced. The design forms a wing to the right entrance that is outstandingly balancing out on the left side. In the mosques and madrasa of Sultan Hassan, the facades are decorated with a medallion, with interlaced bands decorating the conch (Tignor 21). Patterns of mosaics have been enhanced and can be seen, though faintly as the terraces are still evident. The terraces show that the craftsmen were imported from Tabriz. The southern façade has eight rows of windows arranged horizontally. Every two windows correspond to one story. This gives the façade a modern pattern that had not been seen anywhere else in the medieval building in Cairo (Levy 335).

Circassia Mamluk Period (1382-1517)


During this era, as architectural structures were acquiring complex designs, there was need for more base metals. The Mamluk preferred alloys of brass and bronze as well as iron for reinforcement, doors and window pains. Other precious metals were used for different decoration works in their various architectural works. The use of marble inlay on facades in the Circassian period was replaced by stone and conchs were left plain. The medallions are made up of bold calligraphic bands of thult, inlaid with silver and gold (Levy 25).


Façades in the Circassia era were densely pierced with windows since the mosques had no open courtyards to supply light to the interior. This was because of the new designs where architectural plans had to be designed to suit the available space in urban places (Meyers 23). The new qa a plans had no ablution fountain at the center of the mosque, and the space for the dikkal al maballig bench in the qibla iwan was removed. The late Mamluk mosques had reduced facades, offering no space for the large inscription band at the upper part of the wall at the entrance, as it was put in earlier designs in the bahri Mamluk period. It is instead put in the covered courtyard above the arches of the iwans (Mols 35).

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Considering that the urban areas were growing, especially in Cairo, the Mamluk were forced to build structures on irregular shaped piece of lands due to shortage of space. The buildings were made proportional with the aid of a horizontal line which ensured that the architects maintained high level of accuracy. As streets become much narrower, architects introduced recessed entrances, domes and projecting corners to overcome this challenge (Meyers 104).

Surface Decoration

The pillars and wall of the facades were decorated through primarily curving stones. Marble inlays were also used in facades decoration especially at the mosque of Aijmas and the sabil of Sultan Qaytbay. Stucco wall decorations have aware also enhanced to bring out asymmetric patterns to show continuity. Decorations used in window grill along the facades changed from being repetitive geometry into inscriptions, horizontal bands and use of medallions consisting of various patterns as well as colored glass. The facades built on stone had decorations (Doris 243).


The mouldings and keel arches that were put on the exterior or at the courtyard façades were now put in the roofed central space at the mosque. Since the combinations of madrasa and jamii had been announced by Sultan Hassan, various institutions were drawn together to form multi purpose religious complex structures. According to Vermeulen, the functions of the madrasa and khanqah and jamii were reduced making the need to have large mosques not considerable any more (58). Smaller mosques were built as the large complexes were integrated for commercial use. Small covered mosques replaced the hypostyle of complex mosque structure that included living units around the courtyard. The size of prayer hall was reduced as dwelling units increased in size. The reduced cruciform plan was covered and the interior was paved with marvel and were not like the large mosques where large open courtyards could be paved with curved stone and painted with irees (Mohamed 98).


Lack of space in the cities made building to be laid on irregular land. This was a challenge mainly experienced by the Circassia Mamlulks. The sizes of mosques were reduced in size and the designs of the facades also had to change for both mosques and domestic households (Doris 243). The most notable part that changed is the size of the central courtyard which became a small square area which was covered by wooden lantern to allow light in. Similarly, in the entrance, the facades were redesigned since the space available from the street corridors could not allow protruding structures. The sidewall had to be pierced with many windows to allow enough light in changing the design of the facades (Levy 334).


The Mamluk period in Egypt, had a significant influence in Islam architectural designs. Mamluks unique way of designing mosques and even dwelling structures was mostly influenced by the Ayyubid sultan’s houses. Mamluks advanced these features and intermixed with designs adopted from foreign lands such as Italy and Iranian lands to produce fine designs. Facades were uniquely constructed and special decorations put in every mosque that was built by the Mamluks. Both the main entrance and mausoleum facades were well decorated and a large calligraphic inscription that had the name of the initiator of the building and his praises had directly faced the main street. However, most of the first designs used by Bahri Mamluk were never applied by the Circassia Mamluk due to the nature of crowded cities which only provided limited space that at most times were irregular. Styles and decorations used in both eras are similar, apart from the Circassia period where mosques were reduced in size and changed the designs of the facades. This period construction in Cairo involved a mix of styles in architectural designs from Sicily, North Africa regions, Spain, Italy and Iran. The Mamluk architecture demonstrates how organized its military was and produced one of the most distinctive Islamic styles of architectural works. Since there lacked enough lighting, facades were designed to have many window openings to allow enough lighting to reach the interior part of the building.

Works Cited

Bozdogan, Sibel. “History and Ideology.” Journal of Architecture Heritage 24.1(2010): 1- 58. Print.

Doris, Behrens. Islamic Architecture in Cairo. London: Cengage, 2010. Print.

Hebeishy, Mohamed. Frommer’s Egypt. New Jersey: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2010. Print.

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Howayda, Al-Harithy(a). “Reframing World Heritage: Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review.” Journal of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments 17.1(2007): 7-17. Print.

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Necipoglu, Gulru. An Annual on the visual Culture. New York: BRILL, 2004. Print.

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Vermeulen, Urbain. Egypt and Syria in the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamlulk eras. Bondgenotenlaan: Peeters Publishers, 2001. Print.

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